Chattanooga airport traffic climbs as new spending plan stabilizes airline costs, parking fees

Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport passenger boardings climbed 38% last month compared to a year ago, and officials on Monday OK'd a new spending plan that keeps airline costs and customer parking fees level.

"We're in a competitive environment for [airline] seats," said Jim Hall, the Airport Authority's chairman, at a meeting of the panel. "We need to work to expand our market and keep the existing customers we have."

Through April, boardings at the airport were up more than 50% versus the same time last year as the effects of the pandemic wane.

Terry Hart, the airport's chief executive, told the panel it appears many of the air travelers are business people coming back to fly. Business travel was hit hard by the pandemic.

"It's very encouraging," Hart said. "We're on the right path."

Hart said year-end boardings should surpass the 400,000 passenger mark for 2022, which would continue the big upswing compared to the past couple of down years due to COVID-19.

Still, the airport boarded 554,050 passengers in 2019, according to figures. That had marked the airport's sixth consecutive year of record traffic.

Hart said one damper on boosting traffic in the near future is a commercial aviation pilot shortage.

"The pandemic slowed down training, hiring and drove a wave of early retirements," he said.

Airlines have responded by cutting flight schedules moving into the busy summer months to ensure there aren't a lot of canceled flights, Hart said.

The number of seats the carriers are offering moving ahead is stable, he said, adding that it's difficult to grow boardings without more capacity.

Hall said airlines will be "picking winners and losers" moving ahead when it comes to airports.

"They don't have enough seats or pilots," he said.

Board member David Littlejohn said at the meeting he believes the airport needs a bigger marketing budget.

Last month, Chattanooga airport officials said they're trying to garner a $750,000 federal grant to woo new nonstop service between Chattanooga and Denver as they seek to add connections to western cities in the United States.

Airport officials said last month that local businesses had pledged $370,000 to support the new nonstops if Chattanooga receives the federal grant, which they should learn this summer.

Earlier this month, American Airlines began offering nonstop flights between Chattanooga and Miami International Airport on Saturdays.

Chattanooga airport's new spending plan for the budget year that starts July 1, approved by the board Monday, expects revenues to rise 9% over the current-year forecast to $30.9 million, April Cameron, the airport's vice president of finance, said at the meeting.

Expenses are expected to come in at $23.4 million, up 20%, as the airport fills all its positions, she said. Maintenance and operations costs also will rise due to more customers, Cameron said.

The $7.5 million in net operating revenue will go to the airport's capital program and debt service, creating a balanced budget, she said.

Hart said a June groundbreaking is set for the biggest-ever makeover of the airport's passenger terminal. Work will go on for more than a year-and-a-half at the airport in the $28 million project that will add 26,000 square feet to the terminal and renovate 36,000 square feet, according to officials.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.