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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Rubble piles up as the expansion begins at the Chattanooga Airport on Tuesday.

Chattanooga Airport on Tuesday launched a major passenger terminal expansion that will add new gates to board planes, enlarge the security checkpoint and bolster amenities for travelers.

"People will be surprised at the lift it will have," Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly said, noting that the work also will boost the city's efforts to recruit more business.

The expansion, which will add 26,000 square feet and renovate 36,000 square feet, is the largest in over 30 years by size at Lovell Field, Terry Hart, the airport's chief executive, said at a news conference in the terminal.

But the $28 million price tag makes the project the largest expansion ever to the terminal in terms of dollars, he said.

The 22-month project will offer three more gates behind the existing baggage claim area as airport officials try to attract more nonstop flights to cities such as Denver.

Also, a restaurant, bar and added restrooms will be built past the security checkpoint, which itself will see at least one more lane to speed passengers into the concourse to catch their flights, officials said.

Hart said 90% of the expansion cost will be covered by the Federal Aviation Administration or Lovell Field's existing passenger facility charge, a fee that is placed on each ticket. The airport will pay the remaining cost, he said.

Jim Hall, Airport Authority chairman, said people who fly in and out of the airport are putting in significant dollars for the project.

"Progress is about people," he said, adding that the expansion's timing is good as more travelers are flying as the pandemic has eased. "I'm encouraged by the post-COVID rebound."

Hart said Chattanooga Airport is at about 80% of the passenger traffic it was seeing before the pandemic. He said he expects the airport will eventually surpass pre-pandemic numbers.

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

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Chattanooga Airport's $28 million expansion has lift off

State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said that expansion at the airport is part of a larger transportation strategy.

"This is a gateway into the state of Tennessee," he said. "Industry needs to have access to the airport."

City Councilwoman Carol Berz said Chattanooga is growing and changing.

"To see this addition finally come to pass ," she said. "This is an economic driver for our city."

Kelly said that when he was sworn into office in 2021, he knew as a businessman and frequent traveler that the airport had to be a huge point of focus.

"I came in here with my hair on fire about the airport," he said.

Kelly said airport officials are working on route expansions to other cities, and he is hopeful there will be announcements later this year.

The expansion comes amid mass flight cancellations across the United States during the long Father's Day and Juneteenth holiday period. More than 5,300 flights were canceled in the U.S. over the weekend, according to Yahoo News. Staffing shortages at the airlines and within the FAA were among the reasons cited.

But Hart said Chattanooga Airport hasn't seen many canceled flights over the last three or four weeks.

"We've not seen a lot here," he said, adding that he hoped the wave of cancellations nationally has peaked.

The expansion, designed by Chattanooga architectural firm DH&W and to be built by locally based J&J Contractors, will provide 2,570 square feet of post-security restaurant space with 70 seats in the dining area and 24 seats at the bar as a portion of the work, according to the airport. Engineering firm Allen & Hoshall is managing the project.

About a year ago, the airport opened a $25 million, four-level parking garage, the first at Lovell Field. The garage has 1,300 spaces.

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

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