Landing a third carrier and new flights at the Wilmington International Airport triggered unprecedented growth in passenger traffic last year.
The new additions came as the airport embarks on its $60 million expansion that will increase ILM’s ability to handle more travelers in the coming years.
Just over 934,000 passengers flew through the airport in 2018, 12 percent more than the previous year’s record. And that was despite a winter storm last January, a series of flight cancellations in the summer because of PSA Airlines’ technical issues nationwide and major disruption due to Hurricane Florence in September.
Officials are now eyeing a milestone mark this year.
“One million is an exciting number for us,” Airport Director Julie Wilsey said. “As we get closer, or break that 1 million passenger mark, it opens a lot of opportunities for ILM.”
ILM wants to grow the airport but at the same time maintain that small-town, Southern charm that it has been known for, said Gary Broughton, the airport’s deputy director.
“Our growth has been well thought out,” he said.
Pushing the airport expansion forward is the biggest focus for ILM officials in 2019, with construction underway over several contracts between now and 2022. The airport is expected to grow from 95,000 square feet to more than 173,000 square feet, based on the most recent designs, and would be able to accommodate an estimated 705,000 outbound passengers a year, when the expansion is complete.
There are times at ILM now when areas of the airport are reaching capacity, Wilsey said.
“We need to get the building expanded so we can support more services and more passengers as the airport grows,” Wilsey said.
And as ILM gains more travelers and more capacity, possibilities open up for the regional airport. That includes employing more people.
Currently, there are about 480 people working there, 50 of whom are ILM staff, Broughton said. ILM will need to hire more help in the future, but just how much help is still being determined, he said.
Airport officials continue in 2019 to market for addi tional flights and new destinations with existing carriers, including those within the airport’s top 10 destinations not served, such as Newark, Boston, Orlando and Denver.
The airport is also working this year to identify a developer for a proposed hotel and a gas station on airport property. And with ILM’s parking space filling up during peak times, ILM is set to develop a strategic plan for its parking needs.
A fourth carrier at the airport, and then maybe one day even a low-cost leisure carrier such as Spirit, Frontier or Southwest airlines, could be in ILM’s future, Wilsey said.
Airport officials said they would also like to see an international service in the future that could utilize ILM’s on-site customs facility, which currently clears corporate and charter aircraft.
“We hope maybe one day to get some true international destinations through that facility,” Wilsey said.
“We’re hoping that as we reach the million-passenger mark we will have opportunities ... even if it’s a seasonal international flight to the Caribbean. Or there was a dream several years ago about ILM to Bermuda, which would be really neat.”
But ILM and the Wilmington community had a huge task just in getting its third carrier, United Airlines, to the airport.
After several years of pitches, airport officials saw United Airlines set up shop at ILM last year, bringing in a nonstop route to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and another to Washington Dulles International Airport.
“I think it was a combination of their decision to focus on growing their domestic market [to their hub systems] … They had to have the right economic conditions,” Wilsey said. “We in Wilmington had to have the right strength of industry and demand to make it work. So conditions just had to be right on many fronts.”
That was followed by American Airlines’ addition of more flights at ILM, something airport officials believe was strategic to retain the airline’s position in the local market.
“They know if they don’t compete, they could lose that loyalty customer, the high-mileage flyer who wants to get to Chicago nonstop,” Broughton said.
Along with summer nonstops to Chicago, American added daily nonstops to Washington, D.C., in the spring and Dallas-Fort Worth in December.
The competition sparks more choices for ILM customers and leads to more competitive fares, airport officials said. And that, in turn, allows the airport to grow and keep more of its local market.
ILM retains about 64 percent of the market in its catchment area, which includes counties within a 50-mile radius of the airport, Wilsey said.
“We still have 36 percent of our current market to try to entice back to use their local airport,” she said.
Raleigh-Durham International Airport is ILM’s No. 1 competitor, she said, which gets about 24 percent of the area’s traveling residents.
According to a recent report on the state’s aviation industry, ILM’s direct and indirect economic impact was nearly $1.8 billion in 2017.
ILM’s three-carrier network – Delta Air Lines, American and United – is also important to the area’s business for its national and international connections, Wilsey said.
But for one business, Alcami Corp., ILM’s lack of flights was an issue in 2017, when the drug development firm decided to move its headquarters from Wilmington to Durham. The company’s decision was also based on the need for a presence near the Research Triangle Park.
“We still work with them very closely,” Wilsey said of Alcami, which still has a large presence in Wilmington.
ILM wanted a nonstop flight to Newark, New Jersey, when it made pitches to United, Wilsey said. But the Chicago-based carrier chose to bring the Washington Dulles connection to ILM instead.
“That [proposed connection to Newark] would have helped because Newark is one of the clinical research clusters,” Wilsey said.
ILM works with many of the area’s major employers, even bringing them to the table when marketing for new destinations, Wilsey added.
Live Oak Bank has been another major business player involved at ILM, officials said. The company opened its $6 million corporate hangar at the airport in May 2017 and has a growing flight department, Broughton said.
Conversations about air service occur regularly with Wilmington Business Development’s members, prospects and site-selection consultants, said Scott Satterfield, CEO of the economic development group, which has its office located at ILM’s business park.
“The question comes up often and it comes up early when we’re in talks with regional and divisional headquarters projects, for example,” he said.
Companies have interests in ILM’s connections to major cities such as Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago and Washington, D.C., he said.
As the airport gets ready for its next chapter, the planned updates give officials the opportunity to address changing travel trends.
“Our travelers have different expectations than they did 10 years ago,” Wilsey said. “There are all kinds of opportunities to explore as we do this expansion."