Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Construction continues on the parking garage at the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport on Monday, Feb. 15, 2021.

The Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport posted its worst year for passenger traffic in nearly four decades in 2020 as the pandemic hit air travel, but officials are eyeing bluer skies in 2021 and readying for a rebound.

Passenger boardings plunged 59.3% in 2020 over the prior year to 225,289, airport officials said. Not since 1983 in the aftermath of airline deregulation have passenger levels stalled to such a low when boardings that year were 212,955, figures show.

Also in 2020, for the first time Chattanooga officials can recall, American Airlines was the top carrier of passengers at Lovell Field, flying past perennial frontrunner Delta Air Lines.

"It's the first time that has ever happened," said Terry Hart, the airport's chief executive, during a meeting of the Airport Authority on Monday.

American recorded boardings of 97,501 passengers last year in Chattanooga, while Delta came in slightly under at 96,620, figures show. Still, American's boardings in 2020 were down 50.6% over 2019. Delta's boardings fell 63.8%, airport figures show.

A down 2020 ended six consecutive years of record boardings at the airport. In 2019, the Chattanooga airport had 554,050 passengers climb into commercial aircraft, which was up nearly 10% over 2018.

"It was a challenging year for us," Hart said about the pandemic-stricken 2020. "We'll put this behind us."


Chattanooga Airport passenger boardings through the years:

* 1971: 282,834

* 1983: 212,955

* 1985: 252,548

* 1990: 292,288

* 1995: 273,160

* 2000: 300,746

* 2005: 258,745

* 2010: 291,388>

* 2015: 392,139

* 2019: 554,050

* 2020: 225,289

Source: Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport

Officials on Monday highlighted a pair of large expansion projects as they look to the horizon and to more typical airport traffic.

"Chattanooga has an opportunity to forge ahead in expansion projects," said Dan Jacobson, chairman of the Airport Authority.

One of those projects, a $25 million, 1,300-space parking garage, has been under construction since last summer and is slated for completion this July.

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The four-level garage, the airport's first, is going up in front of the passenger terminal on former surface parking. Also, plans are to relocate the airport's rental car fleet to the ground floor of the garage when the structure is complete.

Hart has said the garage will offer 650 net new public spaces when finished. The shift of the rental cars will free up space adjacent to the terminal for a future use that's under evaluation, potentially valet service, the airport CEO has said.

As the garage goes up, the design of a big potential expansion to the passenger terminal is taking shape, officials said.

The expansion would be the largest change to the airport terminal since it was rebuilt in the 1990s, if the Airport Authority green-lights the terminal work.

Hart said the possible expansion would add a third lane for the airport's security checkpoint with capacity for a fourth. Also, two new gates for aircraft would be added in the expansion's first phase, he said, along with new restrooms.

"We've had a lot of meetings with tenants on the process," Hart said. "We've got a lot more work to do."

A price tag for the potential expansion hasn't been revealed, but he said that plans are to have construction drawings this summer.

Jacobson said that from the reports he's reading, commercial aviation is poised to rebound as the year moves on.

"This summer, as the vaccine rollout continues, analysts think we'll see a significant spike in passenger confidence and participation," he said. "I look forward to hearing more details on the expansion in coming months."

Hart said American Airlines plans to restart nonstop flights between Chattanooga and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in April after the route was suspended last year.

He said Delta hasn't filed its schedule for April yet, but he believes the carrier will boost the number of seats between Chattanooga and the airline's key Atlanta hub.

Hart said the airport is expected to receive a $3.75 million grant from the Federal Aviation Administration in coronavirus stimulus money. Last year, the airport received more than $5 million in federal money to help cover expenses as traffic had faded.

Last month, passenger traffic rebounded slightly, down 56.9% from a year ago, Hart said. He said seat capacity at Lovell Field from the four carriers serving Chattanooga was off 33% last month compared to a year earlier. He said March seat capacity is slated to be off 29%.

Contact Mike Pare at Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.