Facing Headwinds

Memphis International Airport seeks friendlier skies in 2013

MICHAEL WADDELL | Special to The Daily News

Despite struggling through a 2012 of decreased air service and sky-high airfares, officials at Memphis International Airport continue to work hard to improve the facilities and make it a more comfortable and enjoyable place for travelers.

New moving walkways at Memphis International Airport connect the nearly completed Ground Transportation Center to the main terminal, one of many improvements to an airport that has struggled with fewer flights.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

“Our facility has never looked better,” said newly elected Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority chairman Jack Sammons, who rose to that post earlier this month after long-time board chair Arnold Perl unexpectedly retired in mid-December. “From the nation’s third-tallest air traffic control tower to the beautiful landscaping to the newly renovated checkpoint at Terminal B with the skylights above to the awesome ground transportation center, this facility is a gem.”

Last year Memphis International saw the opening of the new air traffic control tower early in the year and the unveiling of the redesigned and expanded checkpoint at Terminal B in November. Heading into this year, work is in the final stages at the new ground transportation center.

“The rent-a-car companies are preparing to start their operations,” said John Greaud, MSCAA vice president of operations. “They are installing all of their signage and their premium customer booths, and we anticipate that those operations will start at the beginning of March.”

Additional signage will be installed to more clearly direct travelers to the airport’s economy and long-term parking areas.

Work is also continuing on the terminal apron repaving project that is now 21 percent complete and on target for completion in April.

Multiple projects are under way on two escalators and an elevator near Terminal A. The elevator should be operational in the next month, and the escalators will be complete by spring.

“The family restroom project is now complete,” Greaud said. “We have 18 family restrooms scattered throughout the terminal, both on the secure side and the non-secure side.”

In 2012, actual revenues at the airport exceeded actual expenses by $4.4 million, with $58.1 million in actual revenues versus $53.7 in actual expenses.

But not all was rosy inside Memphis International, which has faced growing criticism for increased airfares and diminished service from its dominant air carrier, Delta Air Lines Inc.

For the fiscal year to date, total enplanements dropped 26.5 percent from 2.1 million in FY 2011 to 1.55 million for FY 2012, thanks primarily to cutbacks from Delta – which operates one of its seven U.S. hubs here – that started in September. In December, total enplanements dropped 33.7 percent compared to December 2011, falling from 315,033 enplanements to 208,905.

U.S. Airways was one airline that increased activity at Memphis in 2012 by adding a few flights, and airport officials are eagerly looking forward to the arrival of Southwest Airlines in the second half of this year.

FedEx Corp. pays 80 percent of the overall landing fees at MEM, keeping the airport in a strong financial position.

Cargo handled increased 1.9 percent for the 2013 fiscal year to date (the last six months of last year), once again thanks to FedEx, although numbers did dip a bit at the end of the year.

A 2008 study from the University of Memphis showed that the airport is the economic engine of the region, as it is indirectly responsible for more than half of the local $29 billion economy, including one in every three jobs.

Board members want to do a better job this year of letting the public know what is going on at the airport.

Sammons wants to create a new position of public information officer to handle PR for the airport and engage the public.

“My goal is to make Memphis International Airport the airport of choice for the flying public of our region,” Sammons said. “I welcome anybody who offers advice, constructive criticism and help because in the end the future of this airport is everybody’s business.”