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Springfield airport Aviation Director Brian Weiler says robust activity on a weekday afternoon is par for the course this year.
TAWNIE WILSON | SBJ
Springfield airport Aviation Director Brian Weiler says robust activity on a weekday afternoon is par for the course this year.

Airport on course for record year

Master plan to be unveiled this month

Posted online

At the Springfield-Branson National Airport, the passenger terminal is where the action is, as the number of travelers is sharply on the rise.

In August, the airport recorded 117,682 travelers, bumping the passenger activity through August to 840,016, 14.2% higher than the 735,575 passengers recorded in the first eight months of 2022.

Notably, passenger activity is also ahead of the airport’s 2019 record year by 7%.

Aviation Director Brian Weiler is betting the record will be broken.

When he took the job in 2011, he said, the annual passenger count was around 700,000 with a little less than 100 employees.

Last year, the airport, which is owned by the city of Springfield, had 1.2 million passengers, he said – and a little more than 100 employees.

“So, we’ve had pretty big growth, and I think there’s a realization that this is going to continue,” he said.

Springfield City Council is considering a measure to add seven full-time equivalent positions at the airport and to amend the budget by $349,000 to fund the jobs. A council vote is set for Oct. 2.

The proposed measure includes two supervisory staff positions, one for the custodial staff and one for the airport police force.

In 2022, council approved the addition of an asset manager position to oversee half a million square feet of space, or almost 5 square miles, including airfield and building facilities, Weiler said, equating the airport to a small city. Though it was approved last year, the position remained unfilled until the end of September, when longtime city employee Troy Morehouse was hired for an internal promotion from airfield maintenance supervisor. Morehouse will begin in his new role Oct. 8.

“We’ve got a good benefit package, and we try to have a good environment. But we struggle like everybody else with workforce issues, especially frontline positions – custodial, airfield maintenance, that kind of thing,” Weiler said. “It takes a lot of equipment and people to maintain a high level of service.”

Weiler said all of the hires were suggested in an airport reorganization study conducted by New York-based ADK Consulting about three years ago. The organizational analysis cost approximately $50,000, Weiler said.

“They looked at some of the best practices around the industry, and one of the recommendations that came out of that was to do a little bit of restructuring,” he said.

Master plan
Paige Oxendine, chair of the Airport Board, said this is an exciting time, noting the general aviation terminal’s $6.7 million remodel and expansion underway. The project is headed by Nabholz Construction Corp. and designed by Dake Wells Architecture Inc. The general aviation terminal, Midwest Premier SGF Aviation, is separate from the Roy Blunt Terminal used by commercial passengers. It serves private planes that are often linked to the business community.

“The airport is the front door to the community for so many who visit Springfield, and the improvements that are being made to our general aviation facility will completely transform the experience that these users have when visiting our region,” Oxendine said.

Oxendine said the board is also in the final stages of a master planning effort that should wrap up at year’s end. The plan has involved input from dozens of community stakeholders over more than a year’s time.

“With so much growth, we’ve been very focused on how we can continue to support increased levels of passenger, airline and cargo activity while maintaining the beautiful and accessible airport we all love. The visions outlined in the plan will lay the foundation for that future.”

Wieler noted the plan will be presented in a public meeting on Oct. 17 at the Springfield Art Museum.

Plans call for a terminal building expansion, which Weiler believes is at least five years out, and a new parking garage to be built on the west side of the Roy Blunt Terminal in three to five years.

Also planned are terminal amenities, such as additional concession options, a pet relief area, a sensory room and an outdoor observation and patio area.

A new development area is envisioned for corporate hangars, with two additional spots for airline maintenance bases to be fed by a workforce trained in the Ozarks Technical Community College Aviation Program.

Weiler acknowledged that the master plan’s development has been somewhat low-key. But a master plan must be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration for any construction or other major changes to occur.

“We rely heavily on the Federal Aviation Administration for grants to do infrastructure development,” Weiler said. “It’s not like I say, ‘Hey, FAA, I’d like to redo this runway.’ Everything that we put in for has to be on an approved airport master plan.”

Master plans are redrawn every 10 years, though they cover a 20-year period. Weiler said officials don’t know what will happen in 20 years.

“That’s a long way out,” he said.

The current master plan shows an additional runway that likely won’t be built for 30 years, and that runway also appears on the proposed plan.

“If you don’t protect the airport today and some incompatible development sneaks in there, you may lose the ability,” he said. “This airport should, theoretically, serve the aviation needs of the region for many decades going into the future – long after we’re all gone.”

The development process included input from a stakeholder committee including City Council, the Airport Board, the business community and Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, and major airport tenants, Weiler said.

Economic indicators
Weiler said the master plan is geared for growth.

“One thing that’s kind of interesting about our airport is that all parts of it are growing,” he said. “At a lot of airports, maybe just the airlines are growing, but here, the military’s growing, general aviation’s growing, airlines for sure are growing.”

The plan is on track to be wrapped up this fall, he noted.

“Ultimately, the City Council will have to adopt the recommendations of the master plan before we submit it to the FAA, and, guess what – it’s projecting that we’ll have continued growth ahead,” he said.

That growth is a reflection of the community, he said, and that’s different than the last master plan, drafted in 2011 and receiving final approval in 2013.

“I will say, the last airport master plan, the forecasts were low, and we exceeded every projection in that. We grew at a much faster rate than what was predicted.”

Kent Boyd, public information and marketing manager for the airport, noted the airport gets a lot of credit for what goes well there, but it’s part of a larger ecosystem.

“The bottom line is that the airport is a barometer of the economic activity in the metropolitan area,” he said. “If the local economy was in the tank, we wouldn’t be doing so well.”

Mark Hecquet, president and CEO of the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau Inc., said the CVB tracks multiple indicators when it comes to travel. At the airport, airlines are bringing in bigger planes with more passengers, and that’s more exposure for the city, Hecquet said.

He noted there has been some softness in hotel occupancy this year in comparison with 2022, which set an all-time record for oc-cupancy. Year-to-date occupancy is 60.1%, a 5% decrease over 2022.

“The airport is a very positive bright spot in what we’re seeing,” he said.

Hecquet noted the airport, CVB and city work together on strategic planning, and a desire of all parties is flight expansion, particularly to the northeastern United States.

Trend on track to continue
Proposing new full-time hires was a cautious step for Weiler, who said he had a wait-and-see attitude coming out of the pandemic.

“There was so much uncertainty, and we weren’t sure which way it was going to go,” he said. “I don’t want to hire somebody that I’d have lay off a couple years from now.”

Boyd said the level of airport activity is an economic indicator for the community.

Boyd recalled being at the airport before the Great Recession in 2008.

“Our passenger numbers started to go down about six months before – not a lot, but then they started going down faster and faster and faster, and then, boom – stock market crash,” he said.

Even though monthly records are being broken regularly – most recently, August’s 18% increase over the same month a year ago – Weiler remains cautious on passenger trends.

“It’s all a crystal ball,” he said. “You could go into recession tomorrow, and everything’s put on hold.”

The airport operates on an enterprise fund, meaning it supports itself through funds generated by operations, and it does not receive tax dollars. This means things can change very quickly, he noted; the pandemic demonstrated that.

“I’m walking out in March of 2020 and there are four cars in the parking lot,” he said. “There were some pretty dark days. But we’re coming out of it, strong.”

Weiler said the master plan projects 3% annual growth going forward, and in 10 years, 1.6 million yearly passengers are anticipated.

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