OMAHA — Next year, the Omaha Airport Authority will launch a $600 million effort to modernize Eppley Airfield’s main terminal, which has not seen major changes to its configuration since it was built in the mid-1980s.
Construction could run through 2027.
Plans call for the expansion of the 368,000-square-foot terminal building to between 650,000 and 700,000 square feet. Changes include moving ticket counters to the second floor and increasing the number of gates from 20 to 22. The concourse would be unified, with a single security entrance, unlike the split concourses the airport now has.
The project opens the possibility for additional flight routes, said Steve McCoy, the Airport Authority’s chief information and development officer.
The Airport Authority also is working to assess demand for international travel to hotspots such as Cancun, Mexico. Offering international commercial flights, a first for Omaha, would require the addition of a Federal Inspection Station, where passengers and luggage are screened by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The cost of the terminal project, which still is being designed, likely will be about $100 million more than originally envisioned, a reflection of pandemic-related cost increases in materials and labor, said Dave Roth, the Airport Authority’s executive director.
The Airport Authority intends to finance the project with bonds, airport revenue, passenger facility charges and federal money.
Last year, as part of $1 trillion federal infrastructure legislation, the Airport Authority received a grant that will provide Eppley with about $7.2 million each year for five years. Administrators recently applied for a second federal grant that would help pay for terminal construction.
If demand meets the Airport Authority’s expectations, additional work could see the terminal expanded to accommodate 28 gates.
Already underway are a pair of construction projects: the $20.3 million remodeling of the terminal’s access roadway, which moved the main airport entrance to the south, and an $8.3 million renovation of the airport’s older, south parking garage. Both projects should be finished by the end of this year.
While the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic marked a sharp decline in air travel and continued COVID flare-ups made for a fitful recovery, Omaha Airport Authority officials expect the market to rebound, justifying the continued need for expanded facilities at Eppley.
“I think the folks who like to get on an airplane are going to continue to get on it, whether it’s business or leisure,” Roth said. “We only build as we need, to support the traffic of the travelers.”
Like the rest of the nation, ridership at Eppley Airfield plummeted when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
Traffic dropped from about 5 million passengers in 2019 to 2.1 million in 2020. Conditions partially recovered in 2021, with 3.7 million passengers flying.
The recovery of business travel is crucial to the Airport Authority’s plans.
In 2020, total travel spending was down 42% from what it had been the year before, and domestic business travel was down more than 67%, according to the U.S. Travel Association. That was devastating for airports and airline companies that earn a significant share of their revenue from corporate travelers, who generally pay a premium for pricier airfare, parking and meals.
Nationally, the association expects that by next year, domestic leisure travel spending will return to levels seen before the pandemic, and by 2024, business travel spending should exceed pre-pandemic numbers.
But Roth thinks Omaha will see a full recovery by 2023.
For most of 2021, Eppley Airfield experienced less ridership loss compared to the national average. Counts of people passing through Transportation Security Administration screening checkpoints stand at about 88% of traffic for the same week in March 2019.
“Omaha’s economy, the business in Omaha, is very stable and has been for decades,” Roth said.
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