Photo of Southwest planes in an airport

Major airports nationwide have been returning to significant construction projects in 2021, even with the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to affect the travel industry.

Plans for Southwest Airline’s first Northeast maintenance facility are coming back into the picture for the Baltimore/ Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) after plans were delayed by the pandemic.

A September 15, 2021, vote by the Maryland Board of Public Works approved the construction contract and a lease agreement with Southwest for the facility, with the total amount for the project coming to $135 million. According to state transportation officials, the building’s construction could begin as soon as early October 2021.

As prior Levelset coverage has focused on, construction of new terminals and facilities around the US have been ramping up in recent months.

An August 3, 2021, press release from then-New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and private group JFK Millennium Partners reached an agreement on the construction of a new terminal at New York City’s JFK International Airport, with the 1.2 million-square-foot development projected to cost $3.9 billion and result in an economic impact purportedly near “$2.8 billion in total wages and $6.3 billion in total economic activity.”

Not long afterward, an August 5, 2021 announcement from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport noted its plans for major expansion in the next few years as the airport’s board of directors approved a close to $140 million expansion plan.

Southwest expansion happening in tandem to smaller construction at BWI

The project’s Board of Public Works summary noted that the Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Aviation Administration will be responsible for additional infrastructure improvements at the site, including grounds clearance, stormwater management, and grading.

“Southwest Airlines began serving BWI Marshall Airport 28 years ago and we are honored to demonstrate our ongoing commitment to the airport, and to Maryland, by progressing with plans to build a first-class maintenance hangar to support our employees and customers,” says Landon Nitschke, Southwest Technical Operations Senior Vice President.

The 27-acre maintenance facility will include a hangar to house up to three Boeing 737 planes, as well as apron space — an area where aircraft are parked, refueled, or maintained — for eight other aircraft. Additionally, the facility will include office, workshop, and storage space for Southwest’s mechanics.

The state of Maryland will be providing $44.6 million to the project, while Southwest will be responsible for the remaining $90 million.

Maryland Lieutenant Governor Boyd K. Rutherford notes that “[the new facility will] be another key maintenance facility for Southwest Airlines and enhances an established long term and strategic relationship. Our administration continues to support BWI as a major transportation hub, as well as a catalyst for tourism, trade and economic development.”

The facility’s plans were originally unveiled in 2018, with the project intended for completion in 2021. However, these were delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, with construction being pushed back a number of months. BWI CEO Ricky Smith said in early 2021 that the airport had difficulties with various construction projects due to concerns about issuing some $400 million in bonds needed to provide funding for the work early in the pandemic.

“We just didn’t want to go out in the market for a bond with all the uncertainty around the economy, so we first wanted to get a feel for how the economy was going to settle, how the rating agencies were going to begin to evaluate our creditworthiness,” Smith said. “We now have a much better feel for that, so we’re moving forward with the project.”

Southwest’s ambitious construction plans may be rewarded soon, though. State officials noted that airport traffic picked up in summer 2021, with BWI’s departing passenger traffic rising 120% from August 2020 to August 2021.

Airline construction projects exceding prior projections

Other individual airlines have raised their construction activity during the pandemic, as well, with not every project being airport-driven.

May 2020 saw Delta Airlines ramp up its terminal construction in Los Angeles, New York, and Salt Lake City, while Southwest Airlines also opened a new concourse in Portland, Oregon during July 2020. 

Significantly more substantial work is just over the horizon, as well: During the week of September 20, 2021, officials at Charlotte Douglas International Airport unveiled aspects of “Destination CLT,” the airport’s 10-year renovation and expansion plan that is expected to finish in 2025 with a total cost between a staggering $3 billion and $3.5 billion.

The plan includes the addition of 175,000 square feet of space to the airport while making improvements to 191,000 square feet of the airport’s existing space — including significant concourse renovations, security upgrades, new baggage systems, relocated check-in and ticketing areas, and more room for passengers.

A $50.5 million expansion of Concourse E is also part of the project’s goal, with the concourse scheduled to open in spring 2022. The project includes 34,000 square feet of new space, which will also have a major impact on American Airlines, which will be able to fill three additional gates in Concourse E after work is completed.

Though these projects are airport-funded, there are additional projects not run by Charlotte Douglas as well — 2022 will see a new a $112 million air traffic control tower opened by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Much like the new BWI maintenance facility, this project, too, was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Charlotte Douglas International Chief Operating Officer Jack Christine noted that the airport pushed back the expansion of its Concourse A by a year while it waited to see how the pandemic would impact demand.

According to a report by the Charlotte Business Journal, despite the fact that Charlotte Douglas eclipsed pre-pandemic travel levels in July 2021, “[pandemic] and labor shortages, among other factors, have since caused declines, prompting airlines to reduce flights.” 

Christine added that these considerations will certainly impact the airport’s construction plan, pointing out that airport officials don’t expect to see a return to pre-pandemic levels of air traffic — numbers similar to the 12.5 million local passengers served in 2018 —  until 2024.