In the Charlotte region, the words airport and Charlotte Douglas International usually go together. It might surprise you to know that North Carolina’s fifth-busiest airport is just about 20 miles away – in Concord.
Before Charlotte hosted the Democratic National Convention in 2012, the city of Concord promoted Concord Regional Airport as the “fastest gateway to Charlotte” for private and charter flights bringing convention attendees to town.
Over the past two years, Concord’s airport has been carving out a new niche in the Charlotte region’s air travel business.
As airports go, Concord Regional is still young, at 21 years old. The city of Concord built it to encourage economic development and to help accommodate the Charlotte region’s general aviation traffic.
In the 1990s, the airport also emerged as a perfect partner for NASCAR teams. As racing expanded coast-to-coast, Concord Regional became known as “NASCAR’s Airport,” a convenient base for team-owned and charter jets taking crews to the weekly races.
But Concord Deputy City Manager Merl Hamilton says it’s not just NASCAR that makes the airport an economic engine for the area. “We have a lot of local businesses that fly out of here,” says Hamilton. He cites Concord-based S&D Coffee and Electrolux, which has its North American headquarters in Charlotte.
This year, Concord Regional is expected to have more than 55,000 takeoffs and landings. That’s roughly one-tenth the number of planes coming and going at Charlotte Douglas International. Still, at Concord’s airport, you might spot recognizable figures, from North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory to entertainer Kid Rock, using the airport as a quick way in and out of the Charlotte area.
These days, you might also see a crowd of people wearing flip-flops, walking across the tarmac to an awaiting jet that has a sunshine logo on its tail. In December 2013, Allegiant Airlines began offering two flights per week between Concord and an airport in Sanford, Fla., near Orlando. It was the first scheduled commercial airline service at Concord’s airport. Allegiant now has nine weekly flights, including service to Ft. Lauderdale and the Tampa Bay area.
Concord’s Allegiant flights offer a low-cost alternative for passengers like Stewart Gold, who calls both Charlotte and Ft. Lauderdale home. “It’s dramatically cheaper to fly Allegiant into Concord, as opposed to flying into Charlotte Douglas,” says Gold.
Along with discount fares, many travelers also like the convenience and smaller scale of Concord Regional. “It’s about 10 minutes from our house to get here,” says Jane Edwards of Davidson, who was headed to a conference in Orlando. “We can unload right at the door, and we don’t have to walk so far as we do if we use Charlotte Douglas,” she added.
Concord Regional is definitely not Charlotte Douglas International. Currently, Allegiant passengers check in for their flights inside an old aircraft hangar. The airport converted it into a makeshift terminal when commercial airline service began. Orlando-bound passenger James Kudalis can’t help but make a humorous comparison. “It reminds me of Wings (the 1990s television sitcom),” Kudalis jokes. “But once we figured out we could park on the grass and we got through, it was, like, super easy.”
The days of parking on the grass – and Concord Regional’s “sitcom” atmosphere – should soon disappear. Construction is underway on a new passenger terminal and a 600-space parking deck. Both facilities are scheduled to open in July.
Rick Cloutier, aviation director for the city of Concord, says the airport expansion will help put a little distance between Concord Regional’s general aviation traffic and the newer commercial airline service. The new terminal will have two gates instead of the current single gate. “That will allow us to meet our demands now, and possibly have some controlled growth going forward,” says Cloutier.
Concord officials say Allegiant Airlines has expressed interest in adding a few destinations from the city’s airport, which could attract additional travelers in search of cheap fares and sunny destinations.
Allegiant’s low fares may be hard to resist. But passengers who choose the discount carrier should keep a few things in mind, according to airline industry analyst Seth Kaplan, with the publication Airline Weekly. “This is not an airline where, if something goes wrong with your flight, there’s going to be another flight an hour later,” Kaplan explains. “This is not an airline that is going to re-accommodate you on another airline.”
The small number of Allegiant flights at an airport like Concord’s can lead to long delays for passengers, for example if a plane has a mechanical problem. Allegiant isn’t required to report statistics on flight cancellations and delays. The airline has also faced questions about safety.
Rick Cloutier says some other discount carriers have also expressed interest in serving Concord. But city leaders don’t have any grand visions for a huge airport. For one thing, airport managers say, there’s no room to build a second runway.
Keeping Concord Regional accessible seems to be a high priority for airport officials. That philosophy even extends to those whom Cloutier calls the airport’s “Friday night visitors.” They aren’t catching a flight. But they like to come out on warm summer evenings, when a food truck shows up at the airport. “They watch the aircraft come and go, they’ll sit on the grass, get something from the food truck,” says Cloutier. “We’ve kept that in place with our new construction.”
With an attitude like that, maybe the words airport and hassle don’t always go hand-in-hand.