Will the Char­lotte air­port ever get as big as At­lanta’s?

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Insight - BY CASSIE COPE [email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Char­lotte’s air­port has rock­ing chairs, a NoDa Brew­ing Com­pany tap­room and soon, ren­o­vated con­courses and seats with charg­ing sta­tions.

Its dom­i­nant car­rier, Amer­i­can Air­lines, re­cently added do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional routes. And Char­lotte Dou­glas In­ter­na­tional Air­port picked up a cou­ple of ad­di­tional car­ri­ers too.

So could the air­port ever com­pete in num­ber of pas­sen­gers and flights with one of the na­tion’s busiest hubs a few hours away, Harts­field-Jack­son At­lanta In­ter­na­tional Air­port?

“It’s en­tirely fea­si­ble,” said air­lines an­a­lyst Bob Mann, who is based in Port Wash­ing­ton, N.Y.

But At­lanta, the sec­ond busiest air­port for take­offs and land- ings in the U.S., first would have to plateau in growth, he said. Mean­while, Char­lotte would need to grow in size and num- ber of pas­sen­gers to keep pace with At­lanta, avi­a­tion ex­perts say.

And be­com­ing like At­lanta, with its in­ter­nal train sys­tem, even more in­ter­na­tional op­tions and cheaper fares could come at a cost, ex­perts warn. Char­lotte could lose some of its charm and con­ve­nience. And that is what lo­cal air­port of­fi­cials hope to avoid.

Even so, here’s what can help the Char­lotte air­port grow:

ECO­NOMIC GROWTH

Air­line an­a­lysts say Char­lotte would need more busi­ness to call the city home, es­pe­cially in­dus­tries whose em­ploy­ees drive high air­fare, such as bankers and lawyers, for the air­port to of­fer the same des­ti­na­tion op­tions as At­lanta.

Just over a decade ago, Char­lotte housed the head­quar­ters of eight banks. But now, only Bank of Amer­ica is head­quar­tered here, although BB&T and SunTrust Banks re­cently an­nounced plans to merge and form a new bank with head­quar­ters in Char­lotte.

“Bank­ing seems to gen­er­ate more in­come and thus more peo­ple will­ing to pay pre­mium

BE­COM­ING LIKE AT­LANTA, WITH ITS IN­TER­NAL TRAIN SYS­TEM, EVEN MORE IN­TER­NA­TIONAL OP­TIONS AND CHEAPER FARES COULD COME AT A COST, EX­PERTS WARN. CHAR­LOTTE COULD LOSE SOME OF ITS CHARM AND CON­VE­NIENCE.

air­fares,” said Joe Bran­catelli, a New York-based ed­i­tor of busi­ness travel web­site JoeSen­tMe.

Char­lotte has 40 banks that do busi­ness in the area, ac­cord­ing to FDIC data. By com­par­i­son, At­lanta has 89.

MORE LO­CAL PAS­SEN­GERS

Hav­ing more lo­cal pas­sen­gers orig­i­nat­ing from Char­lotte would spur ad­di­tional flight op­tions and cause other car­ri­ers to join the mar­ket, said Brent Ca­gle, the Char­lotte air­port avi­a­tion di­rec­tor.

At­lanta, which saw 895,502 take­offs and land­ings last year, ac­cord­ing to FAA sta­tis­tics, is the largest hub for Delta Air­lines. Chicago O’Hare In­ter­na­tional Air­port took the top spot, with just over 900,000. On the same list, Char­lotte’s 550,013 take­offs and land­ings ranked sixth, the spot it has held for the past sev­eral years.

Char­lotte had nearly 46 mil­lion to­tal pas­sen­gers in 2017, ac­cord­ing to the air­port. That is less than half of At­lanta’s roughly 100 mil­lion.

Char­lotte has more flights than an air­port its size should have based on the num­ber of lo­cal pas­sen­gers, Ca­gle said. That’s be­cause it is such a large con­nect­ing hub for Amer­i­can Air­lines, he said.

In ad­di­tion, prices out of Char­lotte are tra­di­tion­ally more ex­pen­sive than do­mes­tic fares at other air­ports. For the sec­ond quar­ter of last year, Char­lotte prices av­er­aged $427, ac­cord­ing to the BTS. Char­lotte ranked 28th. Mean­while, At­lanta was third, with fares av­er­ag­ing $358.

But Char­lotte’s bud­get op­tions are ex­pand­ing. On Tues­day, low-cost, Florida-based Spirit Air­lines an­nounced it would launch flights to four U.S. air­ports, start­ing in June. And late last year, low-cost Mex­i­can car­rier Vo­laris be­gan fly­ing to Guadalara from Char­lotte.

MORE LONG-HAUL FLIGHTS

Air­port an­a­lysts say of­fer­ing more non­stop, long-haul des­ti­na­tions will help Char­lotte’s air­port grow.

The in­ter­na­tional des­ti­na­tions that Char­lotte pas­sen­gers want to fly to, but cur­rently re­quire a lay­over, in­clude the Van­cou­ver and On­tario ar­eas of Canada, Ca­gle said.

Other top des­ti­na­tions are in the United States, in­clud­ing Al­bu­querque, N.M., Honolulu and Or­ange County, Calif., he said.

Roughly 12 mil­lion At­lanta pas­sen­gers, or about 12 per­cent, were trav­el­ing to and from in­ter­na­tional des­ti­na­tions in 2017. In Char­lotte, roughly 3.3 mil­lion pas­sen­gers, or about 7 per­cent were trav­el­ing in­ter­na­tion­ally.

Last sum­mer, Amer­i­can Air­lines an­nounced plans to add a non­stop to Mu­nich in March. At the time, the Char­lotte Cham­ber said that more than 200 Ger­man com­pa­nies in the city em­ploy about 17,000 peo­ple.

A PLANE TRAIN?

Some Char­lotte growth plans call for a train to help trans­port pas­sen­gers to a fu­ture ter­mi­nal. Cur­rently, Char­lotte has 106 gates and five con­courses over 50 acres, ac­cord­ing to the air­port.

By com­par­i­son, At­lanta has 192 gates and seven con­courses on about 150 acres, ac­cord­ing to that air­port.

“Char­lotte is much more com­pact an air­port than At­lanta,” an­a­lyst Bran­catelli said.

In At­lanta, 11 trains op­er­ate dur­ing peak hours, ac­cord­ing to the air­port.

A train in the ex­ist­ing Char­lotte ter­mi­nal is un­likely, said avi­a­tion di­rec­tor Ca­gle. But long-term plans call for a satel­lite ter­mi­nal at the air­port. That ter­mi­nal could re­quire a train or an­other “au­to­mated peo­ple mover,” Ca­gle said.

That ter­mi­nal could come to fruition in the next 15 to 20 years, or sooner if growth ac­cel­er­ates, he said.

Trains are not al­ways more ef­fi­cient be­cause pas­sen­gers have to walk to the train, wait for it, then walk to their next gate, an­a­lyst Mann said. “You’re of­ten bet­ter just hoof­ing it.”

FRONT-PORCH FEEL

While Char­lotte’s air­port is grow­ing, it’s im­por­tant to re­tain its South­ern charm and front­porch feel, Ca­gle said.

He said the Con­course A ex­pan­sion shows that bal­ance, with im­prove­ments like more charg­ing sta­tions and a clean de­sign.

The At­lanta air­port is big and im­per­sonal, said Bran­catelli.

“I’m bat­tling At­lanta to get to where I want to go,” he said. Char­lotte is not just any air­port, Bran­catelli said. It’s more re­laxed and less chaotic than At­lanta’s, he said.

And it has those fa­mous rock­ing chairs.

“Char­lotte feels like some­place,” Bran­catelli said. “That’s what you’ll lose al­most by def­i­ni­tion as you get big­ger.”

‘‘ CHAR­LOTTE FEELS LIKE SOME­PLACE. THAT’S WHAT YOU’LL LOSE AL­MOST BY DEF­I­NI­TION AS YOU GET BIG­GER. Joe Bran­catelli, a New York-based ed­i­tor of busi­ness travel web­site JoeSen­tMe

DAVID T. FOS­TER III dt­fos­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Char­lotte has more flights than an air­port its size should have based on the num­ber of lo­cal pas­sen­gers be­cause it is such a large con­nect­ing hub for Amer­i­can Air­lines, air­port avi­a­tion Di­rec­tor Brent Ca­gle said.

ELY PORTILLO es­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

The new Con­course A North, with nine gates, opened in July at Char­lotte Dou­glas In­ter­na­tional Air­port.

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