Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport officials are continuing to spend heavily to upgrade Lovell Field’s general aviation facilities as they plan for its third, and largest, new hangar in the last four years.
There’s no more room for corporate and recreational aircraft at the airport, they said, which is why they want to add a $4 million hangar on the west side of the main runway.
That will push the airport’s investment in its new general aviation terminal and adjacent facilities to about $17 million, figures show.
That tally doesn’t include the $12.3 million the airport spent last year to buy out TAC Air, which had operated a general aviation business at Lovell Field. That deal in early 2014 gave the airport access to another 174,000 square feet of hangar space and 65,000 square feet of office space.
The moves are about servicing Lovell Field’s customers, airport CEO Terry Hart said.
“We’re at capacity in all our hangars,” he said. “We’re looking at the continued growth going on here. We’ve got to support that.”
However, planning work on the new hangar is underway as general aviation operations — as measured by take offs and landings — fell in 2014, according to airport figures.
Itinerant operations, corporate and recreational aircraft stopping over at the airport, fell 7.7 percent to 22,965. Local operations dropped 30.6 percent to 3,113, figures show.
Hart said Lovell Field has lost a lot of small planes in recent years to other airports in the area. Cleveland, Tenn., opened a new $40 million airport in 2013, for example.
“They weren’t satisfied with pricing and the types of facilities [in Chattanooga],” he said.
Efforts to correct those problems were much of the reasoning airport officials gave for their buyout of TAC Air. That ended years of charges and counter charges that the airport was using public money to drive out a private business.
Southern Airways suspending service to Memphis
This summer, the general aviation terminal also will lose flights offered by a small commuter airline. Southern Airways plans to suspend nonstop service it has been running between Chattanooga and Memphis since last year.
We have operated from that [general aviation] terminal since early last October. We love the market, though flights to Memphis may not be the best option for future service from Chattanooga,” said airline spokesman Keith Sisson.
Sisson said the airline is looking at potential other routes for Chattanooga.
He said Southern officials like the general aviation terminal, which is run by Wilson Air, a fixed-base operator that’s managing all of the similar hangar space for the airport.
“There is absolutely no disadvantage of flying from [Wilson Air],” Sisson said. “They offer free parking to our customers, they have a friendly staff, as well as complimentary coffee and newspapers. Our passengers get to experience air travel the same way as those who own their own jets.”
Commercial airline boardings at the airport set a record last year and are up sharply so far in 2015, prompting customer parking to be at a premium. About 300 more parking spaces will go where a 1950s-era, 20,000-square-foot hangar was located until it was torn down earlier this month, airport officials said, and allow them to avoid building a costly parking garage.
The new hangar will be 28,125 square feet and have capacity for seven to 10 larger corporate jets, officials said. Also, it will be built to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards, Hart said.
Work is expected to start in August and take about six months. A state grant will pay 95 percent of the cost with local money picking up the remainder, he said.
After the new terminal was built and before the merger of TAC Air’s facilities, the Wilson Air operations had been losing money.
But, Hart said, he believes there will be positive operating income at the end of this budget year for the merged general aviation operations, though he couldn’t immediately provide a number.
He said the budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 projects $830,000 in profit. He said the debt service from the TAC Air buyout will be taken from that amount, though the bottom line is still “a positive number.”
Airport officials use money generated at the airport along with state and federal grants to finance its operations. Lovell Field doesn’t receive tax dollars from the city or Hamilton County.