Austin airport’s explosive growth a boost for area’s business recruiters

When Bergstrom Air Force base was slated for closure in 1990s, Austin city officials wasted no time in coming up with a plan to convert the facility into what today is Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

The timing was fortunate, as ABIA’s predecessor, Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, was bursting at the seams as Austin was hitting its stride as a rising technology center.

“Austin turned lemons into lemonade,” then-Mayor Kirk Watson, now a state senator, told reporters about the new airport’s construction.

Now more than 15 years after its debut in 1999, Austin-Bergstrom has turned into a centerpiece of Austin’s transportation matrix and become a key weapon in helping lure new companies to Central Texas, local economic development and transportation experts say.

ABIA is one of the fastest-growing midsize airports in the nation, setting passenger traffic records and adding new flights and new routes at a dizzying pace even as other regional airports have seen service decline amid airline consolidation.

Since 2007, most regional U.S. airports have seen an average 20 percent loss on airport service, said said Jim Smith, executive director of ABIA. In fact, in 2014, studies found that airlines were offering 17 percent fewer flights than they did seven years earlier, Smith said.

The opposite has happened at ABIA.

This year alone, 16 new routes have been announced or launched at Austin-Bergstrom, including new nonstops to Seattle, Portland, Ore., Las Vegas, Chicago, Branson, Mo., Cincinnati, Boston, Fort Lauderdale and Toronto. Just since 2013, ABIA has added five new carriers — Allegiant Air, British Airways, Air Canada, Texas Sky/Public Charters and Branson AirExpress via Buzz Airways.

“Airports are struggling to get new air service because there aren’t as many airlines competing to put seats into those markets,” Smith said. “We are one of the fortunate ones. And we have been fortunate to attract carriers when others were struggling.”

Today, the Austin airport has 48 nonstop flights by 14 different carriers, which puts it ahead of many comparable airports, experts say.

“We have now have 48 nonstop flight which is huge growth for a market like Austin,” said Doug Driskill, chair of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce’s Air Services Task Force. “That’s an unprecedented number we want to sustain.”

Last year, the airport set a passenger record with more than 10.7 million travelers, up 7 percent or more than 700,000 passengers, than a year earlier. It also marked the fourth consecutive year the airport has set a passenger traffic record.

“We’ve seen tremendous growth at the airport. It’s been nonstop since January 2010 and it really reflects Austin’s growth and the Central Texas region’s growth,” said airport spokesman Jim Halbrook. “It shows airlines have confidence in this market. As long as our economies of the area continue to grow, we can plan on airlines adding new service.”

The airport’s growth, of course, is linked to the overall strength of Austin’s economy, along with its population growth that includes a significant percentage of young adults. Those factors have made Austin a market that’s too good for airlines to pass up, Smith said.

“There are dynamics like that that are inherent in our community that make it easier to sell Austin to the airlines,” he said.

All of ABIA’s traffic growth has led to expansion projects. This past year, the airport added a 19,000-square-foot U.S. Customs center that has doubled — and could later triple — the number of passengers it processes an hour.

This past week, ABIA opened a new six-lane security checkpoint and new concourse connection to the east ticket lobby. The project is part of a $62 million, more than 55,000-square-foot “terminal east infill” development slated to be completed by September with the addition of new baggage carousels and administrative offices.

Construction also continues on a $155.5 million parking garage, a four-story structure with two floors of short-term public parking and two floors for rental car facilities and could open as early as October.

‘Bring jobs and business’

ABIA’s growth and expanded service have been a positive for local travelers, but it’s also been a key factor in the area’s economic development, civic leaders say.

Having a vibrant airport — with a variety of routes and options — is a key bargaining chip in luring companies to Austin, Driskill said.

“Quality of air service is pretty critical on our agenda,” said Driskill, who is also a longtime Dell Inc. executive. “We see the continuing growth and expansion of ABIA is connected to the region and a supported element to bring jobs and business to Austin.”

As Austin’s reputation as an international city has grown — in part due to events like South by Southwest and Austin’s Formula One race — there has also been a jump in international service at the airport. The headline event was in March 2014, when British Airways debuted daily direct service between Austin and London.

The boost in international travel signals a new chapter for the Austin airport, experts say.

“I think the fact that British Airways moved in demonstrates that we are really growing to a true market size that could support international travel. Before, international travel was a joke,” said Michael Bomba, an Austin-based longtime transportation planning consultant and associate director and operations manager at the University of North Texas Center for Economic Development and Research. “But now it seems we have reached a threshold to support those kind of flights.”

A new Air Canada route to Toronto also marks a key destination for local companies such as Whole Foods Market, which sees Canada as a major future growth market. An estimated 40 companies have connections in between Central Texas and Toronto and other Canadian destinations, both Driskill and Halbrook said.

“As we continue to grow, we appreciate the convenience of additional direct flights in and out of our hometown,” said Whole Foods spokeswoman Kate Lowery. “Not only are they more convenient, they help foster important connections with our supplier partners and team members in other cities.”

Bomba said he doesn’t see the growth letting up anytime soon at ABIA

“I think it will continue to grow positively,” Bomba said. “It’s a factor of population growth. You tend to have a relatively affluent population and they have the means to travel.”

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