Coming off the heels of a record-breaking year of growth at Wilmington International Airport, officials on Thursday shared a vision plan
for the next five years, which includes $165 million in capital improvements to bring the facilities up to par with passenger numbers.
With six new nonstop routes and two new airlines announced last year, plus larger aircraft used by legacy carriers like American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, ILM surpassed 1 million total passengers in 2022
. Airport director Jeff Bourk said data indicates the airport’s departing passenger traffic will likely swell by 15% this year.
“That’s rapid growth for an airport. A lot of airports see 2 or 3% growth. We’re going to have really huge growth over and above our previous record,” Bourk said.
Amid this growth, Bourk said the airport faces some “infrastructure constraints” that the five-year plan will address. Chief among them, he said, is the terminal’s front curb.
While the terminal itself was recently expanded to meet ballooning passenger numbers — a new concourse with three additional gates was unveiled last year — the terminal’s curb has not been updated since the facility was built nearly 35 years ago.
Created to accommodate a fraction of today’s traffic, the airport’s front entrance is designed on a curve. As Airport Boulevard approaches the terminal entrance, the road expands into a four-lane rounded loop. The curve makes it difficult for vehicles to remain in the lane closest to the terminal when dropping off or picking up passengers, which can obstruct traffic.
“You get times where there’s traffic blocking all four lanes. There’s no room for drop off, or it’s not convenient for somebody that needs extra room and space. So we need to address that quickly,” Bourk said.
Both Airport Boulevard and the front curb will be reworked with a price tag hovering around $50 million. The curb will be straightened out and expanded to include designated lanes for passengers and commercial traffic like shuttles and ride-sharing services. This project is intertwined with another top priority given the airport’s high passenger numbers: insufficient parking.
The airport currently offers about 1,500 parking spots, and during the busiest hours of the busiest days, Bourk said this number falls short of demand. Airport staff has utilized creative solutions in the past to ensure passengers have parking available, but a more permanent fix is forthcoming. A temporary lot will bring 115 new spots this summer, followed by another 500 spots with a second temporary lot added in November. Within the next five years, a parking deck will bring a final boost to the airport’s available parking.
Beyond the number of spaces available, Bourk said the layout of several discrete lots can make parking frustrating, as passengers often must turn around in a full parking lot and merge back onto Airport Boulevard, sometimes driving around the congested front curb, to access another lot.
When the loop of Airport Boulevard is straightened out to provide a larger, more organized terminal entrance, the road will also be expanded across airport property to connect all parking lots, making it easier for passengers to navigate numerous parking options.
Currently nearing the midway point in design work, Bourk estimated the terminal curb and Airport Boulevard improvement projects could begin as soon as the end of this year.
'Time to spend'
Last fall, the airport applied for the first of three rounds of grants made available for terminal improvements through 2021’s federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Recently, ILM officials learned they did not receive money in the first round of funding, which Bourk said he found unsurprising.
“One of the criteria of that program is that your project is shovel-ready, and we weren’t shovel-ready. We tried to look as shovel-ready as we could, but weren’t really there,” Bourk said.
This fall, the curb front project will meet that benchmark, he added, and ILM plans to apply again for the second round of funding. It also plans to tap the fund for another project on airport property: a terminal expansion.
This will further grow the terminal’s footprint following a new concourse with three additional gates that were made operational last year. Part of a $75 million multi-phase project set to conclude this summer, the expanded terminal is currently equipped to handle more than a million total passengers each year — a figure on par with ILM’s performance in 2022, but lower than projected growth.
Other capital improvement priorities include runway maintenance, relocation of a taxiway for aircraft and investments into general aviation facilities for storage of private aircraft (including potential installation of a new fuel pump on the eastern side of the airfield).
Funded from a variety of sources including cash reserves and both federal and state grants, airport officials emphasized that the $165 million price tag for the improvements will not be assumed by county taxpayers or airport passengers. The airport has ample cash reserves, Bourk said, adding that “it’s time to spend some of that.”
The airport’s projected ability to absorb some of these costs is predicated upon a surge in business development on airport property, another priority laid out in the vision plan. About 100 acres of ground leases were signed in the past 18 months, and only about 50 acres in the ILM Business Park remain available for lease. Over the next five years, airport officials will weigh options for future business development opportunities, including the potential site of a second business park on airport grounds.
Bourk confirmed that all the recently secured leases are still in a “due diligence” period — meaning, they are exploring permitting requirements and other considerations before they fully commit to using the space and begin paying lease fees to the airport. But once the businesses begin paying lease fees, this could generate millions of dollars in revenue for ILM, money that can be used to fund capital improvements and keep costs low for airlines.
The latter is a cornerstone of the “business case,” as Bourk calls it, that airport officials present to airlines to try to persuade them to increase services at ILM. The airport is eyeing about 15-20 new destinations that data support as potential nonstop routes from Wilmington, including Denver, Colorado; Los Angeles; Nashville, Tennessee; and Tampa, Florida.
With so many changes afoot at the airport, Bourk said he hopes that locals consider ILM as an option for travel needs over other nearby airports.
“I think there’s been this perception that you can fly ILM, but it’s expensive and you can only go to a few places nonstop. I think that’s definitely changing,” Bourk said, adding that he hopes people check options at ILM before booking out of Myrtle Beach International Airport or Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
“We might have a better option for you that is relatively new,” he said.