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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

ILM Airport receives nearly $20 million in Covid funding, some earmarked for terminal expansion plans

Wilmington International Airport. (Port City Daily photo / File)

WILMINGTON — The travel industry was hit particularly hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, at the Wilmington International Airport there has been a massive decrease in the number of passengers. Despite boasting record numbers of passengers in previous years, the downturn has come at a time when the airport is in the process of a terminal expansion.

The project actually started in 2018 but has been ongoing for several years.

“The NC General Assembly appropriated $11.8 M to jumpstart the project and get design underway. Once complete, the ILM terminal will grow by 75%, expanding to 162, 800 SF. The expansion will provide more room for more travelers and amenities. Travelers can still expect rocking chairs, a more relaxed vibe, and friendly staff,” according to the airport’s website.

Plans for the ILM Terminal Expansion are in the works. (Port City Daily/Courtesy ILM)

Funding for the expansion came not only from the General Assembly but also from federal and local funding from the county — which the airport plans to use frunding provided by the CARES Act funding to pay the county back over the next few years.

“The terminal expansion is being funded through a combination of federal, state, and local funding, as well as cash reserves. Part of the local funding is a $14.35 million loan from New Hanover County. In addition to covering payroll expenses, the plan is to use CARES Act funding to cover the debt service payments to the County over the next few years,” Finance Director Robert Campbell said.

As previously mentioned, the expansion started when business was booming at the airport, but due to Covid-19, travel has seen a sharp dropoff.

“Enplanements and deplanements were both down approximately 95% from the prior year. This large decrease impacted Aviation, Parking Lot, and Commission revenue, all of which are dependent upon passenger travel,” according to the Airport Authority meeting agenda from June.

However, it’s not just ILM that is struggling, air travel as a whole is facing a similar problem.

“The aviation industry is going through a rough period and it is difficult to predict when passenger traffic will return to pre-COVID 19 levels. At ILM, we have seen a slow, but steady increase in passengers since March,” Campbell said.

When asked if the airport should continue to expand the terminal during this unprecedented slowdown in the business, Campbell said there were multiple factors to consider.

“Several factors went into the decision of continuing the terminal expansion project. First, the Terminal Expansion project was designed to add capacity for the next 10 years. It was started in 2019 and a substantial amount of work has already been completed. The overall cost of the project would increase if construction was halted and started at a later date. Additionally, funding for the project was already in place. Given these facts, the only real reason to stop the project was safety, Campbell said.

“Once it was determined that the construction teams were willing and able to continue working under the safety guidelines related to COVID 19, the decision was made to continue the Terminal Expansion project. The project will not be completed for another two years. ILM is hopeful that by the time the new gate area opens, passenger levels will be back to pre-COVID 19 levels, if not higher,” he continued.

It is also worth noting that while there has been a dropoff in air travel from ILM, Campbell said that no airport employee has been laid off due to the virus, and that some of the CARES funding will be used to maintain a full staff.

The terminal expansion is a three-phase project and while the virus has slowed things down as far as air travel goes, the expansion itself can speed up.

“One benefit to the light passenger traffic is that we have accelerated some work for the Terminal Expansion,” Airport Director Julie Wilsey wrote in April of this year.

Improvements are well underway as new floors have been installed and as well as a third lane for TSA to aid in the security checkpoint.

Phases one and two were relatively small in comparison to phase three, which is underway now, and will add four new gates.

“The third phase is the largest and most dynamic portion of the expansion project and encompasses the gate area, the TSA checkpoint, and baggage claim. The expanded gate area will add 4 new gates, each with new passenger loading bridges and seating areas.  The gate area will include expanded concessions space and a new restaurant and bar; providing passengers with additional food and beverage choices. 

The centerpiece of the gate area will include a welcoming gathering space which will open to natural light and offer wide views of the airfield.  This phase will also expand the TSA checkpoint; containing 3 lanes (2 standard and 1 precheck). There will also be enhancements to the baggage claim area.  Further updates will include a service animal relief area and family restrooms.  During this third phase travelers will see the changes as approximately 60,000 SF of new terminal space is added, the TSA checkpoint is expanded, a new concourse and gate seating is added as well as new restaurant/retail space.  It is anticipated this phase will begin in the late fall/early winter of 2020 and conclude in the winter of 2022,” according to the airport’s website.

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