Chattanooga Airport boardings climbed in the first three months of 2023 compared to a year ago as airlines start to open up more seats nationally, and officials said Monday they plan to make another run at wooing nonstop flights to Denver.
"We think Delta Air Lines has interest in that market in the future," Airport Chief Executive Terry Hart said about possible Chattanooga-to-Denver flights.
Hart told the Airport Authority in a meeting that boardings jumped 17.3% in the first quarter of the year, with March figures surpassing 40,000 passengers. He said he's hopeful airlines will offer bigger aircraft into Chattanooga and provide even more service as Lovell Field still has a way to go before boardings reach prepandemic levels.
While the airport's final 2022 boardings came in at 432,312 passengers, up sharply over 2021, the level was still 21.9% behind the all-time annual mark of 554,050 boardings in 2019.
But Hart said the airport will seek a U.S. Department of Transportation grant to help it attract the nonstops to Denver, which is an airport hub where travelers can find plenty of flights to the West.
"We think we have a good story," he said, adding the city wasn't successful in landing $750,000 in federal funds for Denver nonstops last year.
Hart said the airport has commitments from business entities of $370,000 to help match federal grant money. He said the federal grant application is due in May, and it will take several months before airport officials learn if they've received the grant.
Jim Hall, the Airport Authority chairman, said at the meeting that it's very good that shortages of airline pilots and seats are easing in the industry.
"Air space is the issue of the future," he said. "We're trying to make sure the airport can take advantage of that."
The airport is undertaking a $28 million expansion that will add 26,000 square feet and renovate 36,000 square feet.
Authority member Paul Conn asked why there's an airline equipment problem coming out of the pandemic. Hart said many airlines took the time during the pandemic to cut their fleets.
"But now they're getting back," he said.
Hart added securing more service into Miami or South Florida in general is a priority for the airport. In June, nonstop flights between Chattanooga and Miami will restart for Saturday-only service for the summer.
Also, Hart said Delta officials continue to maintain that nonstop flights between Chattanooga and New York will return after the service was suspended during the pandemic.
Ellis Smith, a spokesman for Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly, said the Chattanooga Chamber Foundation will hold the money from the business community in a bank account in connection with the Denver grant application. He said the mayor made a case to business leaders recently to support the application.