Asheville – Executive Director Lew Bleiweis of the Greater Asheville Regional Airport shared its latest annual report with the Buncombe County Commissioners. 2021 was the airport’s 60th anniversary, and it was also the first year of COVID recovery. Bleiweis described it as a time for learning to travel differently, with a focus on health and safety. Despite all obstacles, some of the airport’s performance indicators were higher than they had been pre-pandemic.
Economic impact analyses, however, tend towards underestimating the contributions of other economic players as well as opportunity costs. Nonetheless, a 2021 report from the North Carolina Division of Aviation, compiling the latest available data, credited the Asheville airport with a $2 billion impact on the regional economy in 2019. In addition to creating 12,500 local jobs, the report claimed the airport increased personal incomes in the region by over $400 million and contributed $65 million in state and local taxes.
For 2021, the airport reported strong growth beginning in May and continuing through the end of the year, which is correlated with the availability of COVID vaccinations. Point of fact, the airport experienced record growth for the three summer months, with July being the highest-growth month in the airport’s history. The year finished with 1,428,266 passengers boarding or deplaning, compared to 704,972 in 2020.
Asheville Regional managed to make it through the pandemic with zero layoffs, thanks in part to retention bonuses. In 2020, the airport received $14.4 million via the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, one purpose of which was to help keep airport workers on the payroll.
Back in 2020, Bleiweis had projected that Asheville Regional would recover from the COVID shutdown well before the projected four-year time frame for the airline industry as a whole. He cited the airport’s seven-month rebound from the last recession, when industry analysts were saying it would take three years. Two reasons Bleiweis noted were the affluence of locals and the area’s reputation as a tourist destination. In addition, right before the shutdown, business had been booming at Asheville Regional, which had been named one of the country’s fastest-growing airports.
Also aiding the rapid recovery was the airport authority’s insistence on maintaining the highest standards in sanitation. Asheville Regional was the first in the state to receive COVID safety accreditation from the Airports Council International. Bleiweis also gave the passengers credit for their congenial compliance with all government-issued health and safety orders.
In 2021, the airport authority collected $205,981,563, with parking, car rentals, and airlines, in that order, being the greatest revenue generators. Concessions and the federal government only contributed 3%, each. For the year, the airport netted $3.4 million in operational revenues, which totalled $12,225,286. Assets at the end of the year were valued at just under $209 million and represented a $36.9 million year-over-year increase.
JetBlue and Sun Country airlines announced their entry into the Asheville market in 2021. They join Allegiant, American, Delta, and United in providing Asheville passengers with direct flights to 25 destinations. In 2021, eight new routes were added, and three were reinstated. JetBlue did not start running flights until the current year.
New airport construction included the completion of a remote parking lot with shuttle service. It added 300 spaces to the existing 2,200. Work began on overnight parking spaces for three additional airplanes as well. Additional construction included improvements to the airport’s water and sewage systems in preparation for larger expansions.
Planning continued for expansion and modernization, for which the airport hoped to issue $275 million in bonds. The Local Government Commission approved $185 million of this amount the day after the commissioners met.
The airport must maintain Airport Layout Plans that are approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in order to qualify for federal funding. The FAA, in turn, requires that airports be somewhat self-sustaining, in order to reduce demand for federal subsidy. That is why airports typically diversify their revenue streams with shops and restaurants.
To this end, part of the planning process surveyed the airport’s holdings to plan for optimum land use. In compliance with FAA guidelines, the airport entered into a contract with DreamCatcher Broadmoor for building, managing, and operating a hotel and conference center, while preserving the golf course already on the property that was recently purchased south of the airport.
Having received approval to issue bonds from the boards of commissioners of Buncombe and Henderson counties, the airport authority is now shepherding its modernization plans through those counties’ design review processes. The square footage of the building would more than double to add seven terminals to the existing five. Ticketing, security, baggage claim, and administrative areas will be made more spacious. Other renovations include the construction of a new air traffic control tower, a central energy plant, and parking improvements.
The control tower was believed to be one of the oldest in the country. It is currently built into the terminal, and it does not provide the field of view required by the FAA. It will be demolished, and the new tower will be freestanding. All of the above construction projects should be completed by the end of 2026.
Since non-business activities pay dividends in public relations these days, Bleiweis spoke about how the airport “gave back to the community” in 2021. The Runway 5k raised over $15,000 for the AB-Tech Aviation Fund and the Western North Carolina Pilots Association Educational Foundation. The airport made space in its gallery for performing and showcasing visual art by locals. It even piloted a program for persons on the autism spectrum to welcome visitors, and welcomed back its volunteer ambassadors.