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Thursday, May 30, 2024

Waves of change: ILM focuses on expanded parking, terminal to meet growing demand 

The Wilmington International Airport has designs for a new curb front and parking, to be complete by fall 2026. (Courtesy ILM)

WILMINGTON — At Wednesday’s annual joint meeting between the New Hanover Airport Authority and county commissioners, parking bogarted a great deal of conversation, as did ILM’s expedient growth and what infrastructure is needed to keep pace.

Last year, the airport had a 21% increase in passengers (1.3 million), a 70% increase in nonstops (now totaling seven), and 15% increase in operating revenue ($16.4 million). It brought ILM airport to the fourth-fastest growing airport in the country.

“So far this year, we’re on track to also have another record,” Jeff Bourk, ILM executive director, told commissioners. “I think we’re gonna finish this year at 1.5 million [passengers] — that’s 50% growth in about three years.”

In 2022 the Federal Aviation Administration’s annual enplanement forecast determined ILM could see an annual 1.25 million passengers in the next 23 years. ILM has already exceeded this forecast prediction. 

The significant growth would be hard for any business to properly manage, Bourk indicated, but the airport is already looking ahead to ensure it can handle its customers’ needs. Part of the airport’s five-year capital plan is another terminal expansion. 

The airport wrapped its last one in February of 2022 to accommodate 1 million passengers total. Designs are slated for completion on the next expansion later this year, with construction beginning in late 2026. It will bring terminal capacity to 1.6 million passengers, with the addition of three more bays and three more gates. 

The front of the airport will also be redesigned to fit a coastal theme, made of sandstone with seashell imprints, blue panels and maritime-style lighting. LED lighting will be carried throughout canopies and change colors as well to fit special events — “like when UNCW wins the national championship,” Bourk stated to hopeful laughter.

All construction will take place while the airport continues to operate. This includes parking.

There are plans for a new garage — which will be designed with a “wavy theme” —  premium spaces, long-term options, a designated “cell phone” lot, and enhancements to the curb front. Right now, the airport is short 200 spaces for an average of 338 enplanements per space.

“If we don’t do anything by 2027, we’re going to be short 500 spaces,” Bourk told commissioners.

Right now, there are 1,750 total parking spaces at the airport; it needs roughly 2,300 by 2027. The airport started correcting parking shortages last June; construction of a new lot wrapped within five months. On Nov. 17, ILM opened more parking to accommodate travelers during the busiest days of the year — Thanksgiving and Christmas. Bourk reported it was “a necessary quick fix,” with the lot often full. Without it, the airport would be short 100 spaces daily. 

By 2026, the goal is to add 908 parking spaces to the airport’s infrastructure. Of these, 600 will be from an additional parking garage, slated to break ground in the summer of 2025. It will be complete by fall 2026. The entire first floor of the garage will be designated for rental car services.

More parking, including a garage, is scheduled to be complete by fall 2026. (Courtesy ILM)

Bourk said rental car services are the primary reason the garage is planned. Currently, ILM has 133 rental car spaces available but needs 217. Bourk attributes this increase to the rising number of travelers coming to Wilmington.

“80% of the traffic was outbound business; there were very few inbound leisure coming to this airport,” he said.

Half of the funding for the parking garage will come from the rental car companies that will occupy it. 

Another 308 spaces will come from the combined premium, long-term, and economy lots. The lots are projected to be complete in the fall of 2026.

“No airport really gets to rebuild all of their parking,” Bourk said. “I mean, no small hub airport or airport our size, but because of the nature of this project, we have to do that.” 

A shuttle will run continuously, 5 a.m. to midnight, to take passengers to the furthest lots for vehicle access and bus stops with canopies are in planning stages.

Bourk said he expects the airport to support 20,650 parking spaces by 2032.

“As we grow further out, towards even 2047, we can build out the surface lots or even add an additional parking garage,” he said.

Bourk also addressed new plans for the airport’s curb front — an additional car lane, new canopy covers, and elongated road design. It’s under the same construction timeline as the parking.

The curb front was designed in 1989 to include roughly 250,000 enplanements. Bourk noted that traffic frequently gets jammed at the entrance because of the curved road and people often stall there to load and unload baggage and passengers. He said congestion is one of the biggest complaints received. 

“We’re on a really rapid construction schedule and rapid design pace,” he said.

Part of the curb congestion comes from the lack of a cell phone lot — a short-term parking lot where drivers can wait for passengers to alert them of their arrivals. It will be built off of Airport Boulevard.

Arrivals and departures will be located at the airport’s entrance in a much longer curved front. There will be a commercial area for Lyft, Uber, taxis and rideshares at the curb front as well. 

Total costs for the parking changes, terminal expansion and curb construction are estimated currently at $185 million. Of that, roughly $166 million has been covered by funding from the 2023 state budget, aviation trust fund, and the FAA’s Airport Terminal grant award. 

“I should say we wouldn’t be able to accomplish that at all if it weren’t for Michael Lee,” Bourk told commissioners about the New Hanover County Senator. “He helped us get $22 million to advance the early phases of the project.” 

The state’s 2023 state budget allocated nearly $300 million dollars to the Cape Fear region for various projects. Of that, $22 million was given to ILM to fund a portion of the airport’s five-year-plan. 

“And the airport has a very healthy cash reserve, we got about $60 million in cash reserves today,” Bourk explained. “It gives us some room in case some of these things come in a little higher, or there’s some escalation that we haven’t accounted for.”

Essentially, the airport will not need to borrow money for the projects underway. 

Renderings of the new entry to iLM. (Courtesy iLM)

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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