Chattanooga airport grapples with soaring passenger traffic

Ines Palacios, right, Bethany Smisson, center, and Emily Mauermann step off an escalator while traveling through the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport. Planners are looking at ways to keep up with the airport's growing passenger traffic.
Ines Palacios, right, Bethany Smisson, center, and Emily Mauermann step off an escalator while traveling through the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport. Planners are looking at ways to keep up with the airport's growing passenger traffic.

As Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport passenger boardings in 2017 near the half-million mark for the first year ever - up 67 percent since the start of the decade - officials are eyeing the future.

Building more gates for arriving and departing aircraft, raising a parking garage for airport users and adding another security checkpoint line are among ideas that could take off.

The airport is spending $1.1 million on a new plan looking ahead by a decade or so. The aim is to meet unprecedented passenger growth that has fueled four consecutive years of record high traffic at Lovell Field.

A better Chattanooga area business climate, more competitive air fares and added nonstop flights to markets such as New York City and Chicago are among reasons for the soaring traffic numbers, airport officials said.

"We're already where we were predicted to be in 2027," said Terry Hart, the airport's chief executive.

A first phase of potential airport work will be drawn up that Lovell Field officials could put into place to meet needs, said Brian Mohr, of aviation planning firm InterVistas.

Airport traffic

Growth in Lovell Field passenger boardings:› 1980: 257,362› 1990: 292,288› 2000: 300,746› 2010: 291,388› 2017: 485,000**EstimatedSource: Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport

photo Staff file photo by Doug Strickland / Johanna Bryant, center, and daughters Rhianna, left, and Ellianna check in before traveling to visit family from the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport.

The company will craft differing possibilities for moving ahead at the airport, though there's "not a silver bullet alternative here - there rarely is," he said.

Still, the rapid climb in passengers is pushing officials to look at possible expansions of the airport's concourse to add more gates for aircraft. The airport now has five gates that can handle about nine planes.

Hart said all the spots are taken at peak times at the airport.

"We'll look at growing gate capacity," he said.

Along with that could come added concessions in the concourse such as restaurants, more restrooms and space to hold greater numbers of passengers, officials said.

Parking also is an issue under study by planners.

While the airport has added hundreds of new spaces in the past couple of years, there are times when the closest lots to the terminal are full. That requires people to park in a newly built overflow lot and take a shuttle to the terminal.

Planners are looking at options for at least one potential parking garage at the airport.

"We're not saying you have to have a parking garage, but where would the garage be and how would it work?" Mohr asked.

Airport Authority member Jim Hall said it would be a mistake to put a parking garage in front of the terminal and block the airport's signature copper-domed rotunda.

"To me, that is important," he said. "I think we make a mistake if we stick a parking garage out in front of the building, which is sort of the symbol of the airport."

According to InterVista, rental car parking could be moved into the ground floor of a garage.

Adding another line to the security checkpoint in the terminal also is under study to speed fliers into the concourse to board their planes.

Mohr said planners don't envision more than one checkpoint location at the airport. Alternatives continue to call for the checkpoint to be located in the terminal's rotunda area, planners said.

No cost figures have been attached to any possible airport expansions. Planners expect the new master blueprint to be ready about mid-2018.

Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said he's also concerned about the ability of roads and overpasses off airport property to support Lovell Field's growth.

"It seems to me we've got to try to do that together rather than separately," he said.

Earlier in December, airport officials announced a new annual record for passenger boardings after just 11 months.

With December's boardings still to be counted, the airport already has flown past last year's mark of 419,059 passengers, Hart said. Through November, the airport had boardings of 446,203 passengers, figures show. That's up 16.7 percent over the same period in 2016.

Hart said that when December figures are included, officials expect boardings to come in at about 485,000 passengers for all of 2017.

Officials said the boardings boost will bolster their case for wooing even more airline service from the carriers.

"In time, that will translate into new service opportunities," said Dan Jacobson, the Airport Authority chairman.

Hart said that airport officials in recent meetings with airline route planners expressed interest in new nonstop service between Chattanooga and Houston and the Scenic City and Washington Dulles International Airport.

Federal Aviation Administration funds will pay 90 percent of the cost of developing the new master plan, with the airport picking up the remainder.

Contact staff writer Mike Pare at or 423-757-6318.

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