More than a year ago with air traffic stalled because of to the pandemic, Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport officials gathered to decide if they should keep building a 1,300-space parking garage.
"We were spending $25 million, and we've got 50 cars in the parking lot," recalled airport Chief Executive Terry Hart.
But officials on Monday marked completion of the four-level parking deck in front of the airport terminal, saying that with air traffic returning, the garage will spur even more future boardings.
"We knew we'd made the right decision to get it done during a slow time," said Hart as officials cut the ribbon on the garage that is expected to open to the public later this week.
Dan Jacobson, Airport Authority chairman, said the garage is another amenity to improve customer service.
"It's a need," he said. "It's a grand amenity. It's close to the terminal. It will make the experience more pleasant."
Jacobson said the airport has had plenty of surface parking and spaces that are close to the terminal. But the airport has never offered covered parking in such proximity to the terminal. The garage entrance is just across the service road from the domed airport lobby.
Mike Mallen, an Airport Authority member, said the garage offers lots of convenience and will bring "the best possible experience" to travelers.
Mallen also said the garage's top level can serve as an observation deck for people, particularly youth, who are interested in flying.
Hart said the garage will offer 650 net new public spaces. The deck is going up on existing parking spaces, and its ground floor is earmarked for the relocation of rental cars.
Shifting the rental car space will free up one end of the terminal for taxis, Uber and other similar short-term vehicle uses, he said.
Public parking in the garage will cost $14 for 24 hours, according to the airport.
The Airport Authority had agreed to borrow $25 million over the next 20 years from Pinnacle Bank to finance its first multi-story parking garage. Hart said the project was done on time and on budget by Hoar Construction.
Before 2020, the airport had experienced six consecutive years of record boardings. But the pandemic hammered air travel worldwide, including Chattanooga.
While travel is returning, Hart expects boardings will take until well into 2022 to come back to pre-pandemic levels.
Still, airlines are offering more seats on aircraft into the summer, he said. On Monday, Hart said boardings are up 30% from April.
"We're adding more departures," he said.
Also on Monday, airport officials continued to sound upbeat about expanding the terminal to meet future demand.
"We hope at the end of fall, first of winter, plans will be ready for construction bids," Hart said. "We'll be able to meet customer needs."
Jacobson said he's looking forward to "the next chapter" in the development of the airport.
He hopes construction could begin on the terminal in early 2022, which would be the biggest expansion of that facility in three decades at about $28 million.
Ray Boaz of DH&W Architects said earlier this year the planned expansion's first phase would add 26,000 square feet and renovate up to 14,000 square feet. Boaz said three new gates for passenger loading onto aircraft would be added in phase one to the five existing gates.
He said plans call for adding a third security checkpoint for passengers entering the concourse as well as a separate lane for pre-check flyers. In the concourse past the checkpoint, a new restaurant, updated restrooms, a cafe and gift shop are eyed, Boaz said.
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.