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story.lead_photo.caption This April photo shows construction underway at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Airports across the country are spending record amounts on expansion and improvement projects. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

U.S. airports are breaking records on construction spending to cash in on a surge in travel while the industry is flush from years of low fuel prices.

Airports spent a seasonally adjusted $5.42 billion on construction in May, according to a preliminary estimate released by the U.S. Census Bureau on Monday, a 75 percent increase from a revised estimate of $3.1 billion a year earlier.

"We're at record airline traffic right now," said George Ferguson, an airline industry analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence. "In every market I look at, airlines are adding a lot of capacity."

Airlines have booked healthy profits in recent years, but those margins are beginning to narrow as oil prices rise, and both airlines and airports are fighting for market share, Ferguson said. For airlines, that could mean buying more planes. For airports, it may mean updating terminals, he said.

New York's oft-maligned LaGuardia Airport, which former Vice President Joe Biden once called a "third world" facility, is in the middle of an estimated $8 billion renovation. Los Angeles International Airport is trying to woo fliers with a $14 billion update that includes a $118 million "curbside appeal" project.

Officials at Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport/Adams Field in Little Rock are contemplating $450 million in capital improvements over the next 20 years, including a reconfigured passenger terminal and arrival hall.

The arrival hall would include space for a Transportation Security Administration inspection station and two additional gates to accommodate U.S. Customs and Border Protection and international passenger arrival services. Construction is anticipated in 2027 or 2028.

Passenger boardings at the Little Rock airport are expected to climb 1.4 percent annually to more than 1.3 million by 2036.

And in Highfill, the 20-year-old terminal building at Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport will be getting a makeover in the next couple of years.

Airport officials expect more than 1.3 million travelers a year will pass through their gates by 2035, and they've been developing long-range improvement plans to accommodate those visitors when the time comes.

Between 2017 and 2021, U.S. airports could need nearly $100 billion in infrastructure upgrades and maintenance, according to a report from the Airports Council International-North America. Of that spending, 63 percent is intended to accommodate growth in passengers and freight. Airports in Denver, San Francisco and Nashville, Tenn., are among the long list of those working on expensive terminal renovations or expansions.

"Airports have been delaying projects for years because of not-so-great economic conditions," said Annie Russo, vice president of governmental and political affairs at the Airports Council. A humming economy and interest rates that are still low have set off the burst of building to meet the demands of passenger growth, she said.

Airports pay for construction mainly by issuing debt, which they repay with fees from airlines and passengers, Russo said. Airlines sometimes contribute directly to projects, usually at airports where they have a major hub, she said.

Information for this article was contributed by Noel Oman of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and by Ron Wood of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Business on 07/03/2018

Print Headline: U.S. airport updates soar to record as travel business takes off

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