Monday, April 22, 2024

ILM incorporates $7M in baggage claim upgrades into multi-year expansion project

Wilmington International Airport added a $7 million project to its three-phase terminal expansion. (Port City Daily/Alexandria Sands Williams)

WILMINGTON — With extra capital at its disposal, Wilmington International Airport (ILM) has added another element to its terminal expansion project, raising the total cost to $68 million. Once complete in 2022, the entire undertaking will grow the ILM terminal by 75%. 

Last month, the Airport Authority board unanimously approved to tack on almost $7 million to renovate and extend ILM’s baggage claim area. When the project was bid out three years ago, this portion — originally estimated at $5.4 million, according to the Wilmington Business Journal — was cut due to financial constraints. Following recent Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) awards, the airport now has the capital to support it. 

Local Monteith Construction Company, which has overseen the entirety of the terminal expansion, will tackle the baggage claim undertaking as well. Construction is set to start this month and will be phased into completion over the next 18 months.

“The existing bag claim devices are undersized for the current level of travelers and the equipment is at the end of its useful life,” ILM Facilities Director Granseur Dick said. “The new devices will provide capacity to meet projected growth and increased redundancy.”

This includes adding approximately 8,000 square feet of the ramp-level bag-receiving area and replacement of two existing claim devices with larger modernized equipment. 

Crews broke ground on the airport’s master expansion plan in 2018 after the N.C. General Assembly jump started the project with $11.8 million. The first two phases were complete by summer 2020. Phase three began in fall 2020 and is set to wrap by December 2022. 

Currently, construction crews are building a new 78,000-square-foot concourse, adding two gates, including 10,300 square feet of airline seating areas and restrooms, and expanding the TSA checkpoint.

Adding more gates will allow space for potential new airlines to come in and will give existing airlines an opportunity to grow, according to Erin McNally, spokesperson for ILM.

This final phase of work was awarded in two separate contracts. Contract one is 96% complete and includes the new entry to the new concourse, improved seating areas, two new passenger boarding bridges and concession space. Set originally to debut this month, the opening has moved to February 2022 instead.

“Airlines nationally have a moratorium to not make any moves in any situations during peak holiday travel so there is an all-hands-on experience for the customers,” ILM Facilities Director Granseur Dick said.

However, holiday travelers will encounter some upgraded amenities. ILM’s ticket lobby added 15,000 square feet of space for airline operations and passengers. Renovated restrooms and a temporary corridor walkway opened the week of Thanksgiving, “allowing travelers to walk and see a glimpse of the soon-to-be open concourse and gate area,” McNally said.

This new passenger access route will direct travelers from TSA post-screening to the concourse.

Demolition on the existing connector will begin in a couple weeks, and more improvements in phase three are slated to continue in the coming year. This includes modernizing the existing concourse to match the overall look of new construction, as well as building another new gate and incorporating more concessions. A fourth gate, currently owned by American Airlines, will be replaced with an airport-owned passenger bridge.

The total cost for phase three is roughly $56 million, including the recently approved $7-million baggage claim portion.

In total, ILM has received $35.5 million through the federal Airport Improvement Program and $10 million in state aviation funding. It was allocated $10 million in local funds, which includes passenger facility charges, a New Hanover County loan and airport capital reserves.

Part of the federal funds were awarded to ILM in August with a $16-million Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grant. This was part of $766 million the FAA invested to build safer, more sustainable airports nationwide.

FAA grant stipulations included ensuring ADA compliance throughout the airport, but ILM does not currently have any out-of-compliance facilities. Dick said when complete, the airport will actually exceed ADA minimums.

To support infrastructure needed to access the new gates, construction on the air carrier apron — where airplanes park for passenger boarding and fueling — will add 16,000 square yards, with a proposed completion of June 2022. The FAA awarded ILM in September an additional $349,000 for this project. It also received $500,000 through the NCDOT’s State Transportation Improvement Program toward its funding. Estimated at more than $5 million, the last time apron space was added to ILM was in 1989.

Despite ongoing renovations, airport traffic hasn’t slowed in 2021. As of Oct. 31, ILM is at 82% of pre-Covid passenger numbers. July and October surpassed the number of passengers served in 2019, which was a record-breaking year for the airport.

“We attribute the positive passenger numbers to the availability of vaccines and individuals feeling an increased comfort to travel coupled with pent up travel demand,” McNally said.

In fact, July 2021 traffic at ILM was the second highest amongst comparable markets, trailing only the San Juan Airport. The nationwide average passenger throughput for the top 30 U.S. airports in July was 80% and ILM was at 110%.

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