Rumble on the Runway

McGhee Tyson Airport's planned $48 million renovation will give East Tennessee a state-of-the-art air travel center. But, critics, ask, do we really need one?

John Bates is standing with his back against the brown bricks that line most of the walls at Knoxville's McGhee Tyson Airport, with the patient, somewhat distant look of a man waiting for someone.

Bates is standing because the seats in Gate 2 this afternoon are filled with others, like him, awaiting the arrival of a Delta jet bearing friends, relatives, and colleagues. But if being on his feet is an inconvenience for the trim, grey-haired Oak Ridge resident, he doesn't show it. In fact, the frequent flier finds little to complain about at McGhee Tyson.

"It's very convenient; I don't have any problems," says Bates, who estimates he flies out of Knoxville's airport 15 times a year, for business and pleasure.

He likes the easy access from the parking lot to the terminal, the typically short lines to check in and board, the short walk to McGhee Tyson's 12 gates. And the appearance of the brick and carpet building, with its tell-tale '70s earth tones? He shrugs--"I don't pay much attention to that."

Maybe not, but the Metropolitan Knoxville Airport Authority certainly does. The Authority, a quasi-independent governing body, unveiled plans last year for a massive renovation project which will change the way the terminal looks and operates. Total cost is estimated at $48 million, and officials say it will give East Tennessee a bigger, better airport to handle expected growth over the next few decades.

But the project has its skeptics, many of them officials of the airlines that are housed at McGhee Tyson. The critics are reluctant to comment publicly, but their concerns revolve around a few key points: The expansion will not add any new gates to the airport; as airport officials themselves concede, the appearance of a terminal has little impact on the amount of business it generates; and if the two-year project costs more than expected, airport fees for airlines and air passengers could rise. All of which raises a few obvious questions: Does Knoxville really need a shiny new airport? Do the potential benefits of the renovation outweigh its risks?

Defenders of the project attribute the naysaying to a combination of stick-in-the-mud grumbling and calculated politicking. But the skepticism may go beyond a few disenchanted insiders.

Bates, for one, has his doubts. Told of the impending construction, which he admits he's heard little about, he frowns.

"Usually, construction of airports is to enlarge the airport," he says, citing the recent $800 million expansion of Pittsburgh's terminal, which added dozens of docking gates. "It's hard to understand here...Do they have money to burn? Do they have a whole bunch of money they need to get rid of?"

A New Look

Of course not, says Terry Igoe. The broad-shouldered, silver-haired president of the Airport Authority is in his office on the terminal's third story, above the ticket counters and baggage check stations. He has his back to a picture window that gives a full view of the runway. Jets and commuter planes rumble down the tarmac periodically, tilting their noses slowly into the air like coyotes getting ready to howl, pulling their ungainly metal bodies into the sky.

Igoe, who has headed the Authority since 1984, admits there isn't any single pressing reason to completely overhaul McGhee Tyson. But he says there are a bunch of smaller reasons that, collectively, make the project both logical and prudent.

"I think what we are trying to plan is a facility that will meet our needs and enable us to grow through the next 20 years," he says.

The proposal calls for total renovation of the terminal and construction of a new Y-shaped concourse for airline gates (replacing the current U-shaped wings). The terminal will stay on the same site, but its height will be raised somewhat "to achieve a contemporary image with greater visibility from the Alcoa Highway," according to a summary by project architects HNTB and McCarty Holsaple McCarty (HNTB is a national airport consulting firm). The concourse will still have 12 gates, but Igoe says they'll be configured to give more flexibility, allowing more flights in and out.

The architects' report points out several infrastructure needs--a new air conditioning system, new escalators, repairs to a leaky roof, expanded restrooms to meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. It also cites space constraints, most significantly the gate areas that periodically overflow with waiting passengers and greeters like Bates. Other problems include the inefficiency of having two wings with their own security checkpoints, congestion in the curbside baggage check area, inadequate lighting, and "dark, outdated materials and colors."

The latter point gets at another implicit motivation for the project: the sense that it's simply time for a change.

From Alcoa Highway, buttressed by its thicket of parking lots and ramps, McGhee Tyson looks sizable enough, if not exactly imposing. But seen from the runways behind it, it loses much of its stature. It's a small, squat building with short arms curving around on either side like a feeble claw. Inside, the terminal has seen little modification since its construction in 1974, and it shows. The Brady Bunch would look more at home strolling its moody, muted corridors in polyester hip-huggers than would, say, Jenny McCarthy. Airport officials, along with civic boosters and economic development types, worry about the impression the airport makes on visitors.

Richard Krieg, a Knoxville attorney and vice chairman of the Airport Authority, says McGhee Tyson's well-worn ambiance hit him especially hard after a fact-finding trip to impressive new airports in New Hampshire and Providence, R.I.

"I can tell you that having gone through that experience, when I stepped off the plane in Knoxville, the statement I was greeted by [at McGhee Tyson] was completely different than the statement we received in Providence," he says.

Darrell Akins--Knoxville PR maven, former Chamber of Commerce president, head of the amorphous economic development group Tennessee's Resource Valley, and until recently an Airport Authority board member--plays up the project's symbolic value in tying together the Knox-Anderson-Blount-Sevier region. The airport, he argues, will increasingly serve as a hub for visitors to everything from Oak Ridge National Laboratory to the University of Tennessee to Dollywood.

"I draw a big comparison between this project and building Pellissippi Parkway," Akins says. "Back in the mid-'80s, when I was at the Chamber, we talked about the need for the region to latch onto some big ideas. And my idea of a big idea is something that the symbolism of it is greater than the project itself."

Beyond the symbolism and the "Bridge to the 21st Century" rhetoric in much of the airport boosterism, however, nobody claims having a nice airport is in itself enough to attract new residents, industries, or investors to East Tennessee. Or to encourage airlines to add new routes at McGhee Tyson, which Igoe acknowledges is the number one concern of most airport users.

"The reason airlines add flights is because of passenger demand, not because of terminal facilities," he says flatly.

Officials also admit the project could be done for less money by simply retrofitting the existing structure--but, they say, not much less money.

"All of our consultants have told us from day one that it would cost about 10 percent more to do what we're doing than to renovate the existing space," Krieg says. "And for that 10 percent more, you will be getting a state-of-the-art facility that will carry us 20 years into the next century."

Dollars and Doubters

Skeptics question both the project's financing and its rationale.

To understand what's potentially at stake in the construction project, you first have to understand how the airport works.

McGhee Tyson opened on Alcoa Highway in 1937. Old photos show it as a small building with two wings, looking more like a junior high school than a transportation hub. It was named after Lt. Charles McGhee Tyson, a US Navy pilot killed during a submarine bombing run over the North Sea during World War I. His portrait, a young, unworried face framed by dark rippling hair, presides over an East Tennessee Historical Society display in the terminal lobby that traces the airport's history from its stint as a Navy plane service yard during World War II to a major 1952 expansion to the planned renovation.

In 1978, shortly after the new terminal opened, state law mandated the formation of the Airport Authority, removing McGhee Tyson from direct oversight of the mayor and, theoretically, from the attendant political pressures. The authority is governed by a nine-member Board of Commissioners, who are nominated by the mayor and approved by City Council. The commissioners set policy and hire the president and his staff to actually run the airport.

The authority leases space in the terminal to airlines, who pay for the privilege of flying in and out of Knoxville in two ways: through rent for ticket counter and office space, and through landing fees for each flight (based on the weight of each aircraft). Those fees make up about 20 percent of the airport's $10.3 million annual budget.

The rest of the budget comes from a combination of parking fees (about $3.6 million this year), commissions from the car rental firms that operate on the terminal's ground floor ($1.9 million), air cargo business ($832,000), and related services like the gift shop and taxis.

Since the Authority has to deliver a balanced budget each year, any time expenses rise, the airport's fees rise accordingly, within limits laid out in its lease agreements. It's those fees that worry the airlines when it comes to the construction project.

Igoe acknowledges airline officials have been lukewarm about the renovation. They like some of the planned improvements, especially the expansion of the gate areas, but fear their rents and landing fees could rise sharply if the project runs over budget. Although airport fees make up a small portion of airlines' operating costs, the industry is highly competitive and attuned to even tiny shifts in profit margins. Some airline officials hint ominously, albeit anonymously, that a spike in their costs could drive some airlines out of McGhee Tyson altogether. (Repeated efforts to get official comment on the renovation from several airlines' corporate PR departments resulted only in unreturned voice mail messages and prolonged on-hold exposure to the companies' theme songs, soaring synthesizer anthems that are all apparently based on the soundtrack to Chariots of Fire.)

Airport officials don't completely dismiss the concerns, but they argue they're largely unfounded because the airlines are going to pay little of the construction cost. Most of the money will come from something called Passenger Facility Charges (PFCs), a $3-per-ticket surcharge instituted in 1994 for every passenger flying out of McGhee Tyson.

PFCs are a relatively new thing, created by the Federal Aviation Administration in 1991 to help make up for federal cuts in funding for airport improvements. PFCs are optional--FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen says 277 of the nation's 671 commercial airports collect them--and the FAA regulates how airports can spend the money they collect. In general, it's supposed to go toward airport infrastructure, which can be anything from parking lots to runways. Igoe says McGhee Tyson, with about 700,000 passengers flying out annually, collects about $1.7 million a year in PFCs (passengers using frequent flier miles and other incentive programs don't pay the charge).

With the PFC money, airport officials are confident they can keep rent and landing fee increases in line with the small annual rises--3 to 5 percent--airlines have seen for years.

"We're very, very inexpensive, the total cost [to airlines] here," says Arthur Seymour Jr., another Knoxville attorney and chairman of the Authority's Board of Commissioners. "And with our new terminal, we will still be very, very inexpensive."

A Trip to 'Redneckville'?

But that's dependent on passenger traffic continuing to grow. There are about 1.4 million arrivals and departures a year now, compared to 684,000 30 years ago. Growth estimates have that zooming to 2 million by 2005, based on today's booming local and national economy. Economic slowdowns would almost certainly cut into that number, reducing the amount of PFC money collected. Seymour says the growth projections are conservative, but airlines still fear they'll have to make up any shortfall.

And what about the passengers, the 700,000 who depart (or "enplane," to use airport lingo) from McGhee Tyson each year, who will shoulder the burden of paying for the project? A handful of interviews with airport users turns up opinions on the subject ranging from incredulity to indifference. They also suggest that concerns about what kind of "statement" the airport makes are not universal.

Knoxville singer-songwriter Nancy Brennan Strange, waiting for her daughter to fly in on a Delta jet, is happy with McGhee Tyson. Like Bates, she praises its convenience and accessibility--"It always seems that everything runs real smoothly"--but she also likes its low-key sensibility.

"It's just nice," she says. "I like the pictures on the wall. It just seems kind of homey. It suits the town."

Over in the corner of the Gate 10 lounge, four Army privates are waiting to ship out to basic training. They're bored--the highlight of the day was getting a waitress at the Airport Hilton to give them her address, although they concede she also said she has a boyfriend--and they haven't given much thought to their surroundings. But as they ponder them, they decide they like them just fine.

"It's an airport," shrugs Pfc. David Asbury, a Knoxvillian headed for Fort Sill in Oklahoma. "It's a lot better than Atlanta. Atlanta gets you lost."

"Overall, it's a really nice airport," agrees Georgia native Pfc. Tim Walker. "Even this brick," he adds, patting the wall behind him, "it's got a more old-time [feel], you know what I'm saying? It makes you feel at home."

"It says, 'Welcome to Tennessee,'" Asbury says. "But it's not bad enough to make you say, 'I'm in Redneckville.'"

"It's bigger than Chattanooga," muses Private Tyron Gentry. "You can spit across that airport."

The Chattanooga Factor

Chattanooga, in fact, looms large in the minds of some airport critics. One airline official follows up his doubting Thomas assessment of the Knoxville project with the suggestion, "You could try looking at Chattanooga."

The experience of that city's airport is instructive, although not in exactly the way the Knoxville critics say. Chattanooga's airport--unlike its much-discussed revitalized downtown--has seen hard times in the past 20 years. It has a renovated terminal and concourse, in the shape of a three-armed airplane propeller, built for about $20 million five years ago. But it is struggling to do as much business as it did two decades ago, when it had a leaky building with few amenities. The biggest blow came when Delta, which had been a tenant at the airport for decades (as it has at McGhee Tyson), left town a few years ago.

The McGhee Tyson skeptics attribute this at least in part to the fact that airline costs at Chattanooga went up in the wake of the renovation, making it harder for already marginal operations to make money.

But local observers say there's more to it. Ralph Sellers, deputy director of the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport Authority, says the airlines, including Delta, all bought into the renovation plan. Their overall costs did go up, he says, but only because they got a range of new services at the overhauled terminal. Other charges--landing fees, for example--have actually dropped since the renovation.

Chattanooga's loss of business, Sellers says, has been a function of the deregulated air travel market more than anything else. With low-cost airlines operating out of Atlanta, Nashville, and Birmingham--all within easy driving distance of Chattanooga--up to half of all Chattanooga air passengers are now flying out of other cities. That drop in volume, not any increase in costs, is what drove Delta out, Sellers says. He recalls that when Delta's local manager came to tell him the airline was leaving, Sellers asked if there was anything the airport could do to keep them.

"He said, 'No, this is one of the cheapest places we operate out of. We just can't fill our planes to the capacity we need to be profitable here.'"

Knoxville airport officials say McGhee Tyson doesn't have the same problem. Although they would like to bring in more low-cost carriers--talks are underway with Valujet and Southwest--they haven't seen many travelers making the three-to-four-hour treks to Nashville and Atlanta to catch flights. McGhee Tyson actually draws passengers from as far away as London, Ky., and Asheville, N.C.

On the other hand, Chattanooga amply illustrates the limits of how much a nice-looking, efficient terminal can do to generate business. As one Chattanooga observer notes, "You can have a better airport, and that doesn't mean any more passengers."

Airport officials aren't surprised by doubts about the project. For one thing, they note, the airport's 25-year lease agreement with its airlines expires next year, and negotiations on a new one are underway.

"I think a lot of this is expected posturing" by the airlines, Krieg says. "They're going to try to get the best deal they can get, and that's exactly what they should be doing."

Moreover, officials say bottom-line focused airlines are rarely enthusiastic about big airport projects unless they see some immediate benefits. Chattanooga's Sellers just laughs when told about the Knoxville concerns.

"[Airlines] say, 'No, you don't need to do this and you don't need to do that.' And then at the end of it, they sign off on it," he says. "It's just the modus operandi of the bean counters in the airlines."

On the other hand, Knoxville officials don't deny that even small increases in airport fees could have some effect on McGhee Tyson's attractiveness to airlines. They hope to protect against that by continuing to recruit new carriers.

But Akins, for one, thinks the risks are minimal and worth taking.

"In 1974, when the current airport opened up, I was the 24-year-old personnel director for the city under [Mayor] Kyle Testerman," he says. "I have literally grown up with this airport, and it has served us well, and it has been a tremendous asset. But I think...anybody who would say, 'Just do a little patching here and there and that's good enough,' isn't looking toward the future.

"Once it's done, I think the airlines will approve [of] it, they'll see the benefits...But you don't freeze yourself into inaction because of what might happen. I think a lot of times, that's Knoxville's problem--we don't do things because we're afraid we'll mess up."

Fair fares?

You've probably seen the ads on TV or the billboards along I-40: "45 cities under $130 each way," they proclaim, making a weekend jaunt to beaches or big cities sound like something even a modest bank account could withstand.

But Terry Igoe, president of the Metropolitan Knoxville Airport Authority, admits those bargain basement fares aren't exactly the norm at McGhee Tyson Airport.

"The comments that I receive mostly with regards to the airport and air service is that there are too many high fares at McGhee Tyson," he says.

The Authority, which runs McGhee Tyson, is acutely aware that ticket prices--like the Southwest Airlines fares that have given some Knoxvillians incentive to drive to Nashville for flights--need to be competitive.

"We constantly work with the airlines that are here, in visiting their corporate offices and asking them to reduce the fares," Igoe says. "And frankly, we haven't had much success with that. So we have gone to other, low-fare airlines and asked them to add services to Knoxville."

Among those being courted are Southwest and Valujet.

For what it's worth, a survey of weekday fares to four major cities--San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C.--shows McGhee Tyson prices are pretty much in line with the industry.

It's no surprise that it's generally cheaper to leave from Knoxville than the smaller Chattanooga airport ($508 for a trip to L.A. from McGhee Tyson, versus $809 for Chattanooga). But Knoxville is also generally competitive with Nashville fares, within $50 or $60. And it's actually cheaper to fly from here to New York than it is from Nashville.

On the other hand, none of the above can compete with fares available from Atlanta, the country's busiest airport. Atlanta offers one-way flights to New York for $84, and to San Francisco and L.A. for $109.

Igoe adds that most of the budget fares currently available in Knoxville--the ones being touted in the ad campaigns--come with various strings attached, often including a Saturday night stay.

"The thing we're interested in is everyday low fares," he says.

© 1997 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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