This year saw Wilmington International Airport take off, as evidenced by a steady stream of announcements: the first low-cost carrier bringing four new nonstop routes, month after month of record-level passenger numbers and more than 100 acres of ground leases signed for the airport’s business park, to name a few.
Airport officials expect to continue this trajectory in the coming years as they work to improve airport facilities, increase air service for passengers and expand development of hundreds of acres of airport property.
This is the kind of work airport director Jeff Bourk, who started at ILM in January, likes to do. In planning for the airport’s future, Bourk said is he emboldened by rising passenger numbers, a crucial component in bringing these plans to life.
“This is what excites me,” Bourk said. “We think it can happen."
Across the country, many airports inched closer to pre-pandemic levels in 2022. A different story unfolded in Wilmington with May, August, September and October logging some of the best numbers in the airport’s history for those months. The trend shows no signs of stopping in 2023. Projected seat counts for January, February and March – typically slower months at ILM – are higher than this year’s strong summer months.
Airport officials are working to expand air service at ILM to fuel continued passenger growth, Bourk said, and in the meantime, they’re shoring up the airport’s facilities to ensure it can meet the need.
This was the goal of a yearslong expansion project initiated nearly a decade ago that’s now nearing completion at ILM. One of the biggest components of this project was a new concourse, which opened earlier this year. With three new gates and more than 77,000 square feet of extra space in the concourse, the airport is now equipped to serve about 550,000 outbound passengers per year compared to the original facility, designed for closer to 200,000 travelers when it was built more than 30 years ago.
The remaining smaller components within that $76 million expansion project are expected to wrap up by summer of 2023. The next task for airport staff is improving the facility’s curb front and parking capacity. The curb front, like the terminal itself, was designed for far fewer travelers than the airport currently sees.
“It’s outdated. It’s not adequate,” Bourk said.
Airport officials hope the estimated $25 million cost of the project will be funded through pending federal grant applications. If funding comes through, construction could start in July.
Increased parking at ILM will generally have to wait until after curb improvements are complete, but Bourk said a new lot compatible with curb expansion plans will bring 260 additional parking spaces next summer.
Other upcoming projects include runway maintenance, taxiway improvements and construction of additional hangars to be used for storing private aircraft.
THE ‘WHOLE SCIENCE’ OF DEVELOPING AIR SERVICE
2022 brought four new nonstop routes to ILM with the addition of Avelo Airlines: New Haven, Connecticut, and Orlando, Florida, as well as seasonal service to Baltimore and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In November, airport officials announced a second low-cost carrier, Sun Country Airlines, coming to ILM in June with seasonal nonstop service to Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport. Bourk said airport officials are working every day to bring more nonstop routes to ILM by sharing the most persuasive case possible for airlines to expand service from Wilmington.
“The main thing that we have to do as an airport is present the business case the best we can to the carrier, and they’re going to make a decision on which markets they’re going to serve,” Bourk said.
With limited numbers of crew and carriers, airlines must make strategic decisions about which routes to offer and from where. Because of this, Bourk said he sees ILM as in competition with every other commercial airport in the country.
Keeping rates low for airlines to operate at ILM is one way to stay competitive for airlines, and Bourk said the airport cut rates this year to a level slightly lower than peer airports. Another factor is the price of the average fare, with high prices indicating constrained demand for routes that could overflow to new nonstop options. Cell phone data about area travel patterns also bolster ILM’s case by revealing untapped markets for nonstop routes to locations that people travel to via Raleigh-Durham International Airport or Myrtle Beach International Airport. According to Bourk, the data shows roughly 250,000 people a year who live closest to ILM fly out of Raleigh or Myrtle Beach instead.
These are some of the factors that airport officials weave into their pitch to airlines, Bourk noted.
“It’s a whole science that goes into it, and the airlines understand it very well. As an airport, we try to understand it as best we can and try to make the business points strong for them compared to any other airport in the nation that might win service over us,” Bourk said.
Even with the strongest case, airlines might walk away due to internal factors that are incompatible with ILM’s pitch. Because of that, Bourk said airport officials must play the long game.
The top contenders for new nonstop routes out of ILM, according to the data, include Denver; Nashville, Tennessee; and Tampa, Florida. The data also indicates significant demand for service to Los Angeles, which is trickier to pitch due to its distance from Wilmington and the associated costs of servicing it with a nonstop route.
'MOMENTUM LEADS TO MOMENTUM': BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT ON ILM PROPERTY
An improved and expanded airport campus isn’t the only change coming to airport grounds. Another transformation of airport property is underway as businesses move to develop the airport’s empty land.
More than 100 acres of ground leases for airport property were secured this year, filling most of the remaining space in the airport’s 140-acre business park adjacent to the airport’s terminal off Airport Boulevard between N. 23rd Street and Blue Clay Road.
Some businesses were drawn to amenities unique to an airport, such as foreign trade zones and U.S. Customs and Border Protection access.
It was these perks, coupled with the potential for direct runway access and proximity to transportation hubs such as the Port of Wilmington and railways, that led CIL Capital to initially sign on with ILM Business Park in November 2021, according to Donna Girardot, chief strategy officer for the company.
“We all realized the ILM location just made sense,” said Girardot, who served on the airport authority board at the time the CIL deal was inked. She joined CIL Capital after stepping down from that role.
This year, CIL has expanded its plans at ILM from 500,000 square feet of cold storage for pharmaceutical products on one parcel to three parcels housing close to 1 million square feet of warehouse space. Like CIL, 84 Lumber snagged additional property adjacent to its current location in a move to double its footprint at ILM.
Bourk credited the publicity generated by each announcement as a factor that fueled the rapid progression of development.
“Momentum leads to momentum,” Bourk said.
The airport’s quick accumulation of deals, coupled with its potential to keep growing, is one of the things that helped ILM land a deal for a hotel earlier this year, according to Chip Weiss, managing member of ILM Hotel Partners.
“We hope to see the commercial park fill up,” Weiss said. “Long term, that’s part of our calculus.”
ILM Hotel Partners is planning a six-story Crowne Plaza Hotel near the airport. Weiss expects construction to begin next year on the property, which he said will incorporate “a level of detail and interior design” that will set it apart from other local offerings.
The Crowne Plaza brand is typically associated with business travel, and while Weiss said they expect the hotel to serve business travelers, they are also taking steps to make it appealing for leisure as well. For example, the hotel will feature a large restaurant and rooftop bar as a nod to Wilmington’s culinary scene.
If all of the new ground leases proceed past the current development and feasibility stage, which Bourk compared to the due diligence period when buying a house, the airport will eventually rake in about $2 million in additional yearly revenue. As those funds start to trickle in over the next year or two, the airport can further slash the rates charged to airlines, which Bourk hopes will lead to lower fares and increased routes for passengers flying out of ILM.
“We not making money. We’re a government entity. But if we make more money from other sources, and we can translate those savings back to the airlines and have them pay less, then they can grow their service at ILM,” Bourk said. “That’s good for everybody.”
Although the business park is nearing capacity, Bourk said airport officials are already in the early stages of planning for a second business park on airport grounds.
“Even though the business park is down to 25 acres, there’s hundreds of acres of undeveloped land that the airport owns and controls,” Bourk said, “and we’re in the process of inventorying that property to identify types of uses for some of it.”
Emma Dill - Nov 27, 2023
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