Proceed carefully at airport

Proceed carefully at airport

June 27th, 2011 in Opinion Times

The Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport is in growth mode. Passenger arrivals and departures are rising. Consumer surveys indicate growing satisfaction with the facility and its services. That understandably has prompted discussion of upgrades and expansion. Planning now for the future makes sense - but only if the task is undertaken in a way that carefully balances the region's projected air transportation needs with fiscal prudence.

There's growing evidence that improvements might be in order. Passenger boardings and arrivals rose to 56,814 in May, an increase of 16 percent over the same month a year ago. Passenger traffic has increased every month this year and did so in almost every month last year. There's little - at the moment - to suggest the trend will change.

Economic growth in the region is strong, as evidenced by the presence of Volkswagen, Alstom, Wacker and a host of other new businesses and industries in the airport's service area. That growth and an improving overall economy have increased airport usage. Competitive fares help, too.

One Department of Transportation report indicated that the average drop in the cost of fares in Chattanooga was greater than that at regional competitors like Nashville, Atlanta, Knoxville, Birmingham and Huntsville. The resultant increase in customers already has sparked some changes. More are on the horizon.

Work to make the ticketing area more efficient and user-friendly is under way. In an industry where first impressions are important, the cost of the upgrade should provide a positive, long-term return.

Such projects are not cheap. The facility's proposed budget this year is $12.9 million with an additional $1 million in planned expenses. To pay for the expenditures, the authority will increase parking fees in both short and long-term lots by $1. Airlines will pay their share, too. Landing fees will increase by a dime per 1,000 pounds to $2 per 1,000 pounds. While any increase is likely to bring some complaints, these are minimal and unlikely to affect airport use.

Officials also hired a consultant to help create a long-term master plan for airport improvements. Those include a parking structure to complement existing surface lots, expanding the airport entrance, updating the security checkpoint and adding restaurant and retail space. An initial plan is due by fall. When it arrives, officials should not rush to judgment. They should study the proposal carefully, mindful of the plan's utility and its bottom line.

Continued growth at the airport is welcome, but officials should remember that air travel has not always been a growth industry. Shifting fare structures and alterations in schedules can change consumer satisfaction with Chattanooga's airport into discontent in a moment. It's happened in the past; it could happen again. Airport officials would be wise to remember that as they plan what could be a costly investment in airport upgrades and expansion.