Rare is it for a city to pick up and move its entire commercial airport operation from one place to another. But that’s the plan in Mobile, and Elliott Maisel is confident that the flying public is aware of it.
What startles many, he said, is that the first commercial flights will be departing the rapidly retooling Downtown Mobile Airport at the Brookley Aeroplex in a mere 35 days.
“They are amazed over when this will happen,” said Maisel, chairman of the Mobile Airport Authority. “I tell them, ‘May 1.’ They are surprised. ‘May 1?’’
For that reason, he said, it’s important to press ahead spreading awareness, kicking up ticket sales and excitement.
Maisel’s comments at Wednesday’s Airport Authority board meeting came as construction crews worked to meet a tight timeline to prepare for the inaugural flight to Chicago that departs around 1:30 p.m. on May 1.
Frontier Airlines, the Denver-based low-cost carrier, will offer three flights per week to Denver International Airport and two flights per week to Chicago O’Hare International Airport.
A new 20,000-square-foot terminal is being established to accommodate Frontier, other airlines soon to arrive downtown, and their passengers.
That terminal – named “Terminal One” — will be situated inside a 50,000-square-foot building that partially serves as an Airbus logistics center.
The new terminal’s $8 million cost is being paid for by the Airport Authority’s cash flows, reserves and other financing.
The speed with which they’ve pushed to begin operations has caused a $700,000 cost overrun, about 9 percent. Most of that extra cost came from parking and security.
“I don’t think this percentage of overage is that far out of line given the facts of this project,” Maisel said. “Don’t confuse that with any sense that I’m happy.”
The terminal will feature two gates and five ticket counters, according to Chris Curry, Airport Authority executive director.
“All of our funds are meant to be reinvested into aviation for the benefits of the citizens of Mobile,” Maisel said. “We believe we’ll get an ample return on investment by virtue of our mission.”
‘Around the corner’
Maisel is urging business and civic leaders to quickly ramp up efforts to spread the word about the downtown flights.
Maisel suggested that entities such as Visit Mobile, the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce and the Retirement Systems of Alabama form a marketing coalition emphasizing the May 1 date.
“We need to do a better job of saying, ‘It’s right around the corner,’” Maisel said.
The Chamber, according to spokeswoman Susan Rak-Blanchard, is highlighting the Brookley airport’s evolution in its various publications and blog, and on social media.
Michael Pegues, spokesman with RSA, praised the terminal project for being important to downtown’s vitality — “for everything from shopping to eating ,as well as increasing overnight stays.”
He added, “It will clearly increase business for the carriers, as it will now be more competitive with Florida airports for all the travelers of Baldwin County.”
Maisel said that Frontier, in conversations with airport officials, is “satisfied with bookings” out of Brookley thus far.
Frontier officials will be in Mobile on April 22, to perform training exercises ahead of the first flights.
Maisel, though, said he wants Mobile to be awash in details about the new terminal and the flights to Denver and Chicago. It’s essential, he said, for the city’s leadership to be “the catalyst” of more and more ticket sales.
Curry said that Orlando-based low-cost carrier, Via Airlines, will move to the downtown airport at some point after May 1. Via was the first airline to commit to Brookley about one year ago, and will begin offering flights to Birmingham on April 4.
Curry said the terminal will grow by 30,000 square feet, occupying the entire building, once Airbus moves out its offices this summer. That will allow for construction of two more gates.
Long term view
Meanwhile, a $1.5 million master plan is under way by aviation consultants LeighFisher to examine the complete shift of commercial airline service to Brookley from Mobile Regional Airport on the city’s western edge.
The Federal Aviation Administration shouldering nearly all of the cost of the master plan.
Maisel said the authority decided against approaching the FAA to seek funding for the Terminal One project.
Rather, the authority hopes that the FAA will pitch in to help pay for a primary terminal to be built later, once the master plan wraps up.
Mobile Regional has handled commercial flights since it opened in 1986, while Brookley has long served as a general aviation cargo carriers such as FedEx.
But since December 2017, the Airport Authority – with the backing of Mayor Sandy Stimpson — has been charged with overseeing a complete relocation of commercial flights to Brookley. The Downtown Airport is easily accessible to Interstate 10, and is much closer to booming Eastern Shore communities in Baldwin County.
Mobile Regional, by contrast, is far removed from Interstates 65 and 10. Critics also believe that fares to fly out of Mobile Regional are more expensive than easier-to-get-to airports in Pensacola, Florida, and Gulfport, Mississippi.
Moving all commercial airline operations to downtown Mobile could be “three to five years” away, according to Curry. The master plan is expected to take another year or 24 months to complete, he said, and public meetings revealing more details are forthcoming.