Memphis Airport Changes Reflect New Reality

By Amos Maki

Memphis International Airport, gutted by the downsizing of Delta Air Lines, is pursuing a $114 million “concourse modernization” plan that will eliminate a large number of gates and result in upgrades to what is left.

Around one-fourth of the overall gates will be torn down and the remaining facilities will be upgraded, according to a plan outlined at the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority board meeting Thursday, Feb. 20.

Many airport functions, including gate operations, baggage claims, retail, food and beverage, will be consolidated into Concourse B, which will undergo a massive renovation. Ticketing operations will remain in Concourses A, B and C.

Concourse B improvement plan (Courtesy Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority)

Concourse B improvement plan (Courtesy Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority)

Concourse B improvement plan (Courtesy Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority)

Concourse B improvement plan (Courtesy Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority)

Improvements to Concourse B, now a cramped space with low ceilings, include doubling the width, installing moving sidewalks and adding skylights to allow for more natural light.

“The B concourse is Main Street,” said airport CEO Scott Brockman. “We want everybody on Main Street.”

The end result will provide more room for passengers and increased access to retailers and restaurants.

“There is dynamic change here but we are offering an enriched experience for our customers,” said Airport Authority chairman Jack Sammons.

Currently, airport operations and amenities are spread out through Concourses A, B and C, leaving large swaths of empty space.

“It’s not a very effective or efficient operation,” said Brockman.

Around 20 gates at the southern ends of Concourses A and C will be demolished and the remaining portions of both concourses will be mothballed for future use. After the project, which will begin this year and be done in multiple phases over six or seven years, the airport will have around 60 gates, more than enough to handle the 2.2 million passengers who use the facility annually and accommodate possible future expansions.

Sammons said airlines expressed enthusiasm about the project.

“Southwest and all the other airlines have advocated for this plan,” Sammons said. “They want us to ‘prune the trees’ as the saying goes.”

The project will be paid for over a period of years, mainly through federal and state grants that are funded by taxes passengers pay on tickets and airlines pay on jet fuel, and will not increase the airport’s overall debt.

“What we’re essentially doing is asking state and federal governments to rebate taxes that our customers and airlines fund,” Sammons said.

The Delta downsizing means Memphis International is transitioning from an airport dominated by connecting flights to one focused on generating more origin and destination traffic.

The Delta de-hubbing meant fewer flights – less than 100 a day now, down from a high of more than 300 a day at the peak of Delta’s hub operations – but it also opened the door for low-cost carriers to enter the market, something flyers had been requesting for years but wasn’t possible because of the hub.

Sammons said the upgrades will help make Memphis International a destination airport for area travelers, which could attract more airlines.

“Passengers today have a choice,” he said. “We want them to decide that Memphis International Airport is their airport of choice, the destination they want to leave from and come back to. If we do that, it will create more activity, which is better for our concessionaires and will help us to recruit more airlines and flights. To do that, you have to provide a modern facility.”

Airport Authority board members were treated to a video, which included a soundtrack featuring Booker T & the M.G.s, detailing the airport’s new look and said the plan reflected the airport’s current reality while allowing for future growth.

“When something doesn’t work it necessitates change and I love it,” said board member Ruby Wharton.