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Austin’s airport has been failing for years to keep up with its booming population, but officials are innovating everything from baggage handling to security screening to make the next expansion work

 

interior of austin's airportThere’s only one place in Austin where you can buy coffee from a robot, wash down BBQ and tacos with a local IPA while Phoebe Bridgers performs live, then walk straight onto a plane bound for Amsterdam.

Katherine Fan

  • Austin’s airport is one of the newest and fastest-growing airports in the US.
  • Despite efforts, the airport is rapidly outgrowing an infrastructure designed for a much smaller population.
  • A 20-year expansion plan aims to build a model airport for growing cities, but forecasts predict it still won’t be enough.
  • This story is part of “Advancing Cities,” a series highlighting urban centers across the US that are committed to improving life for their residents.

The capital city of Texas has quadrupled its population since 2000, and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (ABIA) serves as a gateway for transplants and visitors alike.

In 1999, Austin closed its municipal airport to open a new international airport on the site of the former Bergstrom Air Force base, making ABIA one of the newest and fastest-growing airports in the nation.

But the airport has struggled to keep up with the city’s booming population, leading to delays and other air-travel frustrations. So the city has come up with a 20-year “master plan” to get ABIA on track.

Austin’s airport has only gotten busier over timea graph showing increasing traffic to austin's airportAustin’s daily airport traffic has more than doubled over the past decade, keeping pace with the city’s population. This graph shows ABIA’s year-on-year growth by number of yearly passengers, in millions.

City of Austin

Keeping abreast of the city’s explosive growth has been a challenge for ABIA since the airport’s earliest days. 

While ABIA is the second-fastest-growing mid-sized airport in the US, Austin averages a 3% increase in new residents each year, according to United Nations population data, and changes to the airport just aren’t enough.

The airport is way past its capacitypassengers sit at austin airportOn slower days, passengers can find seating throughout the airport. But during busy times, most gates will draw standing crowds waiting to board their next flights.

Katherine Fan

As of July 2022, ABIA is the closest airport for 2.42 million people who live in Travis, Williamson, Caldwell, Hays, and Bastrop, the five counties comprising the Austin metropolis. The next-closest major airport is 80 miles away, in San Antonio.

ABIA has processed more than 200 million travelers since 1999. The original facility featured one main terminal with 25 gates, blowing past its initial capacity goal of 11 million passengers per year within a decade and a half. 

It has quickly outgrown every previous expansiona crowd of passengers wait to board their flight at austin airportTravelers wait to board their flight at a Southwest gate on May 23, 2022.

George Rose/Contributor/Getty Images

The airport added a three-gate satellite terminal in 2017 and a nine-gate expansion of the main terminal in 2019 to serve an annual maximum of 15 million passengers. 

But even that wasn’t enough: In 2019, ABIA processed 17.3 million travelers, 15% above the peak capacity the expansion was designed to accommodate. 

As of April 2023, ABIA now operates more than 600 nonstop flights daily, headed to 90 direct destinations. The airport’s busiest day in history took place in October 2022, when 43,177 departing passengers broke the previous week’s top record by nearly 8,000 people. 

The city has a plan to expand the airport — again — by 2040maps of austin's airport before and after planned expansionTop: Austin’s current airport layout. Bottom: Proposed expansion footprint.

City of Austin

“We have outgrown and continue to outgrow our physical infrastructure and facility based on the passenger increases we’ve been experiencing,” airport spokesperson Lesly Ramirez told Insider. “We need more square footage, more passenger processing systems, all which require more staff to operate.”

The FAA requires all commercial airports to maintain master plans, which predict future volume based on current growth. Each airport’s master plan includes projects designed to meet forecasted needs. 

ABIA’s 2040 Master Plan was finalized in 2019 based on passenger traffic numbers at that time, which forecasted that the airport could expect to process more than 31 million annual travelers by 2037.

However, the city’s explosive growth during the pandemic years now suggests that ABIA will reach that volume far sooner. 

The airport is likely to exceed its planned capacity before the expansion is even completeempty baggage carousel at austin airportA rare moment of calm at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

Smith Collection/Gado/Contributor/Getty Images

“Based on the absolute explosive demand for air travel in Austin since the pandemic, we now estimate that we’ll reach 30 million annual passengers about 10 to 12 years sooner than that 2037 projection,” ABIA media spokesperson Sam Haynes told Insider. This would mean that Austin could see 30 million by as early as 2025. 

As ABIA waits to see how passenger volumes will shift, the airport is moving forward with a number of ambitious projects from its master plan to accommodate current traffic.

Updates are already underway, including new ones that aren’t a part of the master planimage of proposed expansion at austin airportThe city of Austin has an ambitious plan in place to expand the airport over the next 20 years to keep pace with expected growth.

Austin-Bergstrom International Airport

Several are already complete or underway, staggered in phases throughout the coming years. One of the first updates focused on expediting security screening measures at TSA checkpoints, with the addition of Checkpoint 2 East in the fall of 2021 as well as new scanners installed in spring 2023. 

Another initiative will expand the current baggage handling system, sending outbound luggage across 1.5 miles of conveyor belts to the tune of 4,000 pieces of luggage per hour. Under the Westside Terminal Expansion plan, ABIA also plans to add 30,000 square feet of space for passenger use within the terminal as well as three new gates for additional flights.

If ABIA’s past history is any indication, the current master plan will not be sufficient to carry the airport through the next 20 years, Haynes told Insider. But airport officials have already begun adding new projects outside of the original plan to address additional capacity — for instance, Checkpoint 3 will add four new lanes for security screening to bolster the current two lanes.

Officials say still more investment is neededimage of expansion plan at austin airportThe planned airport expansion would add 30,000 square feet of space, updated baggage handling and security screening, and three new gates.

Austin-Bergstrom International Airport

“Air travel trends are pretty volatile and can change dramatically based on all kinds of national and international situations,” Haynes said. “Right now, the industry as a whole is looking to see if the trends we are seeing across the world will continue, or if we are still feeling the pent-up demand for travel post-pandemic that will eventually stabilize.”

In July 2022, the Austin airport expansion project received a $15 million financial boost through the Airport Terminals Program, a bipartisan infrastructure law. ABIA previously received $17.3 million toward the expansion project in late 2021. 

“These infrastructure funds will help in expanding [Austin’s] airport to meet the demands of both our growing population and our growing role as an international gateway city,” Texas state representative Lloyd Doggett stated at the time of the $15 million grant. 

“Past disruptions for travelers arriving and departing have highlighted the need for greater investments,” Congressman Doggett told Insider regarding the expansion funds. “Nonstop flights to Europe and Latin America are a great addition, a real plus for our community. Now we need the same for Asia.” 

Read the original article on Business Insider
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