Travelers booking flights 20 years ago at the Wilmington International Airport had to choose from a small selection of nonstop destinations on the East Coast.
In the decades since, ILM’s route map has opened up as passenger levels increased and additional airlines came, but airport officials say there’s potential for even more in the years ahead.
The type of aircraft that serviced the airport has also changed.
“Twenty years ago, you were looking at twin-engine prop aircraft from ILM. We’re pure jet now,” said Gary Broughton, ILM’s deputy director.
Broughton and airport director Julie Wilsey, both of whom have been with the airport for decades (Wilsey came in early 1999 and Broughton since 2004), have seen nonstop destinations and carriers at ILM come and go over the years.
Travelers today, however, have more options to choose from with nine nonstop routes to major cities along the East Coast as well as in the Midwest and Southwest.
With more flights, a 1 million-passengers milestone and additional space coming from the airport’s $60 million terminal expansion, ILM is at a pivotal moment in its history.
Airport leaders see challenges in the coming decades, as they aim to keep ILM on an upward growth trajectory by recruiting additional airlines and air services, drawing more passengers and managing the expansion while keeping a hometown airport feel.
American Airlines will soon start ILM’s most-recently added nonstop flight, a Saturday nonstop service to Boston Logan International Airport that will run May 9 through Aug. 15.
Boston is one of ILM’s top underserved markets, along with Newark, New Jersey, and South Florida, Wilsey said.
“Boston is a very popular destination for both business and leisure travel,” she said.
The seasonal flight is the airline’s way of testing out the Wilmington market, Wilsey said. The flight is being supported by a dual-class, 76- seat regional jet rather than a smaller aircraft, a testament to the potential demand the airline sees for the flight, Wilsey said.
ILM is serviced today by three carriers: American, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines.
Interest from the airline industry could get a boost now that the airport reached its 1 million passenger- level goal in 2019, Wilsey said.
ILM wasn’t the only airport in North Carolina to reach new heights in traffic last year.
Piedmont Triad International Airport also saw more than 1 million passengers. Asheville Regional Airport served more than 1.6 million, and Raleigh-Durham International Airport reported an annual record of 14.2 million passengers in 2019.
All 10 commercial airports in the state have experienced growth over the years, said Daniel Findley, senior research associate at N.C. State’s Institute for Transportation Research and Education in the Highway Systems Group.
Findley is also a researcher for the state’s aviation economic impact study, which was released in January 2019 and showed that ILM contributed a $1.8 billion economic output.
“It’s sometimes difficult to tell which direction is driving the [growth]. Is the investment in the airports … really driving things, or is it responsive to the population growth and business growth in a community? What is clear from the work we’ve done … is that these airports are a robust part of these local communities,” Findley said, “and so accessing those destinations, whether they’re for work purposes or leisure purposes, is very popular. And I think in Wilmington you probably see examples of both of the people coming for leisure and business purposes into the community.”
For the fifth-largest regional airport in the state, ILM’s recent passenger- level milestone gives it more weight to back business prospects, such as landing more flights, service providers and concessionaires, as well as adding to its 140-acre business park.
“It really does give us an opportunity both in the terminal and in the business park to join the ranks of the bigger airports,” Wilsey said.
The airport is also bringing in more revenue. Last year, ILM reported nearly $12.9 million in revenue, an increase of 13% from the $11.4 million in 2018.
On top of going after the destinations on its underserved markets list, ILM officials plan to grow the airport’s incoming leisure travel market and try to add a low-cost carrier.
Leisure travel would help fill the airport throughout the day, a complement to the peak morning business travel times, which is a big part of the congestion during the airlines’ morning flights, Wilsey said.
Cargo is another avenue that airport officials aim to expand.
“I think that we are underutilized for air cargo currently, and there are great opportunities with the growth at the port, with our mid-point position on the East Coast and with us having the ability to clear customs … at the port and airport,” Wilsey said.
FedEx has a feeder aircraft that serves ILM daily, Broughton said. And the airport’s three commercial carriers also carry small amounts of cargo.
“There’s a lot of revenue to be made in cargo, but the airlines can only handle so much,” Broughton said. “Beyond that is when we start talking to the pure cargo carriers like FedEx and UPS and so forth.”
“I look at Amazon Prime,” Wilsey added. “If you had an Amazon Prime fleet or warehouse at ILM, that would be a very large ground lease for us and … landing fees for the weight of the cargo. But it would be a bigger gain for the community in general because of the jobs that it would bring and the activity that it would bring to this community.”
There is space to have a cargo operator at ILM’s aviation services district, a part of the airport’s property that is being marketed through the airport, Wilmington Business Development and North Carolina’s Southeast, Wilsey said.
Another recent goal has been to attract a gas station and a 100-room hotel. Officials started pushing for the hotel project in early 2019.
“That’s what happens around the bigger airports,” Wilsey said. “They start to have hotels cluster around them for business travelers who are maybe staying a night or for those people who want to [fly] out really early in the morning.”
Hundreds of airports across the U.S., however, are vying for some of the same services, flights and opportunities as ILM.
“Air service is still a marathon and not a sprint. But everything we can do to be on [the airlines’] radar can certainly help shorten that path to new service,” Wilsey said.
Wilsey and Broughton are overseeing changes with ILM’s terminal expansion that will set the stage for its businesses and travelers for the future. By 2022, when the construction is expected to be finished, ILM’s terminal footprint will have expanded by 103,000 square feet, with the capacity to handle 1.4 million passengers a year, more flights and carriers.
ILM is planning on creating more parking for that growth. It’s already seeing parking lots full during peak flight times. A feasibility study to determine the airport’s current and future parking needs is nearly complete, Wilsey said.
Drawing the population to support the new services is also key, Wilsey said, adding that its passenger market continues to grow as it brings in more options for travelers.
It’s especially important when competing with larger airports just hours away. Being a coastal city – ILM has no market to draw from to the east – is one of the airport’s big constraints, Wilsey said.
The overall growth coming also poses its own difficulties for ILM.
“While we want to still be the hometown airport,” Broughton said, “we’re not the little Wilmington airport that we used to be. So, I think that’s the challenge, is finding that balance.”
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