The Trouble With the Memphis Airport: No Crowds

The spacious terminal built for when the Tennessee city was a bustling air travel hub has become a half-deserted white elephant that the airport is spending millions to shrink.

The ticketing lobby at Memphis International Airport. The passenger count, more than 11 million in 2007, fell to about four million last year.CreditAndrea Morales for The New York Times

MEMPHIS — The view from the chief executive’s office window at Memphis International Airport is as sweeping as it is dispiriting: On a recent afternoon, he could see 10 empty jet bridges and not a single airliner. Later, at the curb in front of the terminal, there were only three cars dropping off passengers, and inside, a pair of moving walkways carried just three people between them.

An empty airport may sound heavenly to anyone who has had to cope with the crowds and chaos at La Guardia or Hartsfield-Jackson or O’Hare. But it is a humbling reality for Memphis.

To walk the airport’s deserted corridors now is to know that its glory days of just a decade ago are gone, a glaring casualty of an airline merger that transformed the American aviation industry but cost the Mid-South’s most important city its status as a hub.

So now, while many airports are desperately trying to figure out how to add more gates, more destinations, more parking, more restaurants and, for goodness’ sake, more bathrooms, Memphis is grappling with the opposite, much rarer riddle: how to shrink gracefully.

“We spend most of our careers trying to figure out how to grow passengers and grow facilities,” said Scott A. Brockman, the president and chief executive of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority. “To remove things, without a plan to rebuild them better, is really a painful thing for an airport guy.”

Memphis used to be a regular transfer stop for business and leisure travelers, when Northwest Airlines was the dominant carrier and the airport was marketed as a “hassle-free” hub. But then Delta Air Lines gobbled up Northwest, and decided it only needed one hub in the South, its own base in Atlanta. The decision cost Memphis almost two-thirds of its passengers: From more than 11 million in 2007, the last full year before the merger announcement, the count fell to about four million last year.

That has sometimes left the spacious three-concourse terminal looking staggeringly deserted, with most of its gates unused. The airport’s solution is to spend $219 million on what it is calling a modernization effort: closing and renovating Concourse B, and then consolidating operations there and essentially mothballing Concourses A and C.

The plan is as much a push toward the future as it is an admission that Memphis — the sign at the entrance still calls it “America’s Aerotropolis” — is a lesser passenger magnet these days than Omaha or Columbus, Ohio, or even the second airport serving Dallas.

“It was death by a thousand cuts,” said Mr. Brockman, who has worked at the airport long enough that he can recall when the terminal was “bustling,” “crazy” and “kind of orchestrated mayhem.”

Concourse B at the terminal is closed for renovation.CreditAndrea Morales for The New York Times

Memphis had few role models to look to. The closest analogue, industry experts said, was Pittsburgh, which had to reimagine its airport after US Airways, which is now part of American Airlines, stopped using it as a hub.

But such demoralizing plans and strategies can only do so much, especially for now. In Memphis, there are direct flights to far fewer destinations than before, and only two to help justify the “international” in the name (Toronto and Cancun, Mexico). It takes no time at all to walk through the terminal’s three ticketing areas or to zip through the security line. A gate may be crowded when a flight is about to board, but others nearby will be idle, and finding a place to sit is rarely a problem.

The airport is betting its future on Concourse B. Over the next three years or so, it will be rebuilt to feature wider corridors, more amenities, more natural light and even a stage for live entertainment. (After all, this is Memphis, where blues notes still pulse through the airport’s parking garage, and the airport’s logo is a reminder of the city’s musical heritage.)

When Concourse B reopens, A and C will close, idling about 60 gates. The airport plans to keep a minimal level of heat and ventilation in each of them, Mr. Brockman said, and will test their equipment occasionally just in case they are needed again someday. That day may be a long time coming, or may never come.

Though Concourse B is already closed, demolition work won’t start for a few months yet. There are still some signs there for Allegiant and Delta, and portraits of Elvis Presley and B.B. King still hang, reflected on the gleaming terrazzo floors. Every so often, the public address system booms out recorded announcements to no one.

Demolition work has yet to start in a $219 million modernization project.CreditAndrea Morales for The New York Times

The sprawling terminal may have become a bit of a white elephant with the falloff in passenger traffic, but not so the airport as a whole. Its runways are still busy, chiefly because Memphis is home to FedEx, whose purple, orange and white cargo jets roar morning and night through the western Tennessee sky. Among the world’s cargo airports, Memphis is second only to Hong Kong.

Airport officials tend to toggle between offering optimism and consolation. A favorite statistic is the decline in airfares to and from Memphis since the merger. They averaged $389.81 last year, down nearly $70 from 2007 when adjusted for inflation.

Even so, residents lament the lost hub, and when you mention the airport in these parts, you will often get a shrug, a grimace or a sad stare.

“So sad to watch a booming airport turn into a ghost town,” a letter to the editor of The Commercial Appeal said in January.

And the criticism used to be even harsher.

“Probably the biggest impact was the psychology on the community — ‘Oh, my God, we’re not going to be a real city any more,’” Mr. Brockman said. “I think that now, the community has pretty much come to terms. The ones who grumble the most are the business travelers who now have to spend two-and-a-half hours laying over somewhere. Instead of a two-hour trip somewhere, it’s now six or seven hours.”

Alan Blinder covers the South. He has been assigned to The Times’s Atlanta bureau since he joined the newspaper in 2013.


Square Feet: Stewart Airport Adopts a New Identity: New York Area’s Budget Flight Hub

Some of the optimism about the airport’s future is attributable to Norwegian Air International, a low-cost carrier based in Ireland that offers flights to the United States with one-way fares that often dip below $100. The domestic budget airline Allegiant Air offers four daily flights to Florida and South Carolina.

Allegiant and Norwegian Air are seen as trailblazers to officials at the Port Authority, because if their service succeeds, it will encourage other airlines to offer flights at Stewart.

“Stewart has enormous potential to be a real gateway airport to the New York area,” said Rick Cotton, the authority’s executive director. The agency has spent $200 million over the past decade to improve the airport, and an additional $30 million has been set aside for the construction of a 20,000-square-foot hall for international arrivals. When complete in 2019, the hall will be able to process 400 passengers an hour.

By focusing on a low-cost carrier identity, Stewart is part of a growing trend among airports in the United States. It is following a pattern established in Europe and Asia, where budget airlines have reinvigorated smaller airports on the outskirts of major cities, said Matthew J. Cornelius, vice president of air policy at Airport Council International, an industry group.

“They’ve had the ability to strengthen their power, and now the Europeans are coming across the Atlantic,” Mr. Cornelius said, adding that the international airlines were seeking smaller airports like Stewart, as well as those in Hartford and Providence, R.I. “They’re used to operating at secondary airports, so it’s a natural.”

This attracts passengers like Gavin Bamford of Northern Ireland, who arranged to visit family in Pennsylvania after finding a $364 round-trip ticket to Stewart Airport on Norwegian Air’s website. Before he returned to Belfast, he said that if fares remained low, he would come back to Stewart, rent a car and drive 400 miles to see relatives in Toronto.

“Stewart was not just about New York City for us,” said Anders Lindstrom, Norwegian Air’s director of communications for North America. “We see a lot of customers from upstate New York who will drive for hours to get there, as well as from northern New Jersey and Connecticut.”

Several former military airports on the periphery of large metropolitan areas in the United States have been repurposed. Their prime location, along with assets like long runways and underlying infrastructure, can help communities keep up with increasing demand for air travel.

Traffic jams are frequent on the sole highway leading to Seattle Tacoma International Airport, which has grown over the past few years to become one of the nation’s busiest airports. Sea-Tac, as it is known, served nearly 47 million travelers in 2017, a 25 percent increase over five years.

But 12 miles north in Snohomish County, away from the congestion on Interstate 5, a former military airfield called Paine Field was being used by Boeing for test flights and general aviation. It was ripe for commercial flights, said Brett Smith, chief executive of Propeller Airports in New York, which is developing a passenger terminal at the airport with county officials.

The Alaska Airlines subsidiary Horizon Air, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines have announced that they will offer multiple daily flights at Paine Field while continuing service at Sea-Tac.

“The fact they’re splitting their operation shows how much Seattle needs this,” Mr. Smith said. The airlines are not shifting business, but they “are adding capacity to the market in Seattle,” he said.

Like Seattle, Phoenix had an opportunity to alleviate congestion at Sky Harbor International Airport, Arizona’s busiest airport. In 2007, a former Air Force base 30 miles southeast of the city was renamed Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, and Canada’s WestJet and Allegiant began offering flights.

Gateway’s master plan calls for an investment of $722 million to accommodate growth. The plan relies in part on federal money set aside for the repurposing of joint-use or no-longer-in-use military airfields.


A shuttle bus is available to take travelers to Manhattan for $20.

Meredith Heuer for The New York Times


Geraldine Wright runs the currency exchange booth at the airport.

Meredith Heuer for The New York Times

“Twenty, 30 years ago, we were a military base on the outskirts of civilization, but the growth has continued to move east,” said J. Brian O’Neill the airport’s executive director and chief executive. “We anticipate this market will continue to grow and will require service from two full-service airports.”

This is not the first time municipalities have pegged commercial and economic development plans to the business decisions of airlines. In the 1990s, Texas-based Southwest Airlines favored smaller airports, choosing to fly into Providence over Boston and Baltimore over Washington. Customers traveled to these secondary airports to take advantage of Southwest’s lower fares. The term “Southwest effect” is still used in the airline industry, but now it could also be called the Norwegian or Allegiant effect.

Still, in his job monitoring airports around the world, Mr. Cornelius of the Airport Council said communities needed to be cautious that capital and time-intensive airport development did not hinge too heavily on airlines.

Not only can airlines be fickle in their route planning, but bad publicity can have an impact on travelers’ confidence. Allegiant was the subject of a “60 Minutes” report this month that showed the airline had a higher rate of safety events than other American carriers. Now, three senators are calling for an investigation into the airline, which could affect passenger numbers at the airports where Allegiant operates.

“If you build it, they won’t necessarily come,” Mr. Cornelius said. There has to be a need.

“You have to have the traffic to sustain all those elements at the airport, to fund the concessions, to create a parking lot,” he said. “You have to have the demand.”

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