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VOL. 44 | NO. 23 | Friday, June 5, 2020

New wing & a prayer: BNA building for uncertain times

Passenger count fell from 50,000 per day to 1,000 as virus hit

By Hollie Deese

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Nashville International Airport should be enjoying its best year ever in 2020. After all, 2019 was a record year for the airport, as was 2018.

In fact, BNA has had seven record-breaking years in a row, with more than 18 million passengers traveling to and from Nashville last year, an increase of 14% compared to 2018. And 2019 and 2018 were the only other years the airport exceeded 1 million passengers every month.

Not only that, the airport is in the middle of a major renovation and expansion, “BNA Vision,” to accommodate its ever-growing usage. This construction project, set for completion in 2024, will bring more parking garages, terminal wings and expanded central terminal, a new concourse, security checkpoint and even an on-site hotel.

BNA was buzzing.

Then, COVID-19 came to town.

Nashville shut down, tourism stalled and few were willing to risk flying. Nashville’s airport cut expenses and has spent more than $2 million on COVID-related cleaning.

“January and February, we were up by 13% and about ready to do high-fives at the end of June, but March, everything started coming off the rails,” says Doug Kreulen, president and CEO of the Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority. “In April, we averaged just about 1,000 passengers leaving every day.”

That’s a huge drop from the 50,000 passengers who passed through BNA daily in 2019. Until the airport is generating revenue again, either from the passengers flying through, parking or concessions, Kreulen has reduced spending to what he calls a “survival budget.”

“Our staff has done a really good job,” he says. “We have reduced about $56 million in expenses, to just make it on through 2021, and then come out on the other side.

“At one point last year, we would have been doing 550 commercial flights a day. That dropped down to under 100,” Kreulen adds. “And with so few passengers, most businesses inside the airport have been closed, hopefully, temporarily.”

Such drastically reduced ridership is a big blow to Nashville’s airport, and how the next few months play out will determine how long it will take to recover. Kreulen says BNA has not lost money but has experienced decreased revenue. The airport earns revenue from airlines, concessions and parking. All three are down due to the pandemic and stay-at-home orders.

Several economic models suggest air travel will take between 18 and 36 months or more to recover.

“BNA’s Board of Commissioners approved our budget for FY2021 in May based on the assumption that it will take us two-plus years to recover, hopefully sooner,’’ Kreulen says.

Recently Kreulen notes the airport has begun to see a bit of a comeback, with as many as 10,000 people going and coming a day.

“So it’s getting a little better, but it isn’t the 50,000,” Kreulen acknowledges.

No halt in construction

Despite the virus and lockdown, progress on BNA Vision continues.

Launched in July 2016, BNA Vision was designed to grow the airport from being able to accommodate the high last year of 18 million, to about 36 million passengers in the future. That is an expansion of half a million square feet. The airport’s current footprint is about a million square feet including terminal and concourses.

By 2023, completed projects will include a three-phased terminal garage parking expansion, new Concourse D, additional space for ticketing and baggage claim, renovated terminal lobby, expanded security checkpoint, a state-of-the-art International Arrivals facility, a variety of dining, retail and service amenities, airport administration building, pedestrian plaza, hotel and potential transit connection.

Construction continues on the new Concourse D, scheduled to open in September, at Nashville International Airport. The work is part of a $1.4 billion expansion project, BNA Vision.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

Projects already completed include upgrades to the existing interim International Arrivals Building, a six-level terminal garage with 2,200 parking spaces and a dedicated Ground Transportation Center, and phase 1 of the Terminal Apron and Taxilane expansion.

Projects nearing completion and opening this summer include a second six-level terminal garage with 2,800 spaces and a new valet parking center and the new Concourse D.

The estimated cost of the upgrade is $1.4 billion, but no local tax dollars are being used to fund BNA Vision.

“We have been funding that through a short-term credit facility, sort of like a home improvement loan, and then bonds,” Kreulen explains. “In December of last year, our CFO, Marge Basrai, went to New York and sold $920 million worth of bonds, and so those bonds are borrowed just for this project.”

“Luckily we had gotten the financing before this happened, or it would have been even more difficult for us to do so,” he says of the COVID-19 pandemic fallout.

On May 20, the Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority Board of Commissioners selected Superior Construction Company Southeast for BNA’s terminal access roadway improvements project.

The board approved an initial $18.4 million contract for pre-construction services at the meeting, with additional funding for construction to be approved as the project progresses over the next three years. The design-build contract, estimated at $137 million, is for a key component of BNA Vision, the airport’s dynamic expansion and renovation plan.

Many Nashville International Airport stores remain closed because of COVID-19 and will open as airline traffic begins to return to normal.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

Roadway construction will begin in spring 2021 with completion anticipated in late 2024. The project includes a goal of more than $25 million in contract opportunities for small, minority and woman-owned business enterprises and will create approximately 150 jobs.

It’s perhaps the most transformative aspect of the project, and Kreulen says it is necessary to improve traffic flow and prepare for future growth over the next two decades. It will add a new outer loop roadway and realign and widen existing roadways to build greater capacity and improve traffic circulation.

The construction will be executed concurrently with the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s Donelson Pike relocation project, slated to begin in early 2021 with completion anticipated in late 2023.

Additionally, the roadways project entails expansions of Terminal Lot A and Economy Lot B, improving access to Economy Lot C, building a consolidated toll plaza for the airport’s Terminal Garage complex and enlarging the airport’s cellphone waiting area and ride share driver waiting area.

“We have on average, about 3,000 construction workers at the airport, and we’re running five different construction sites to try to continue the expansion,” Kreulen says.

Social distancing protocols have slowed the process as workers figure out the best way to stay safe while keeping construction going. Still, teams often need to work closely on occasion for safety purposes when lifting heavy items.

Crews from Hensel Phelps and Messer Construction are on-site, and Kreulen says they’ve had a few people who have tested positive for COVID-19, which stops construction for that day. They then hire people to come in and clean down everything before bringing crews back.

Flying with confidence?

The key to getting BNA back to normal is renewed confidence in air travel.

A family heads to the Spirit ticket counter for check-in assistance. The airline, along with others, are only offering limited flights at this time in Nashville and around the world.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

After distance learning ended for his children a few weeks ago, Sandeep Patel drove his wife Neelam and their children to Oklahoma to visit his wife’s family. He flew back to Middle Tennessee, then flew back to Oklahoma to drive them home. They would have all just flown together in the past, but Patel was not comfortable having his family fly during the pandemic. He didn’t even really want to fly himself.

“I was actually scared of the first time, but actually it wasn’t that bad at all,” Patel says of his Southwest flight from BNA to OKC. “But they’re not letting that many people come through, so you get your own row. And the flight was not full, either. When I flew back two weeks ago, there was maybe 20 people max. And then last night when I came back it was probably maybe 30, 35. It’s really empty.”

Kreulen says more people are wearing masks at the airport, not just on the plane, which is what is recommended anyway to be in accordance with the city’s public health guidance.

“Most passengers are wearing a mask as they come into the airport, and then as they go through security, and then definitely when they’re getting on the airplane,” Kreulen notes.

Patel says passengers were not allowed on the Southwest airplane without wearing a mask, and before boarding the airline only allowed six people lined up at a time. After those six moved on board, the next six lined up.

Once on board, Patel used his own Lysol to spray the whole row, then disinfecting the seat arms with wipes.

Concourse D construction

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

“I think they’re taking really good precaution,” Patel says. “So if you have to fly, it’s not bad at all. I was scared the first time, I’m not going to lie. So that’s why I wanted to travel by myself.”

Typically a frequent flier, Patel says it will be a while before he feels comfortable flying for anything other than necessity, and probably not with his family any time soon.

“We usually fly every time where we go anywhere,” Patel says. “I don’t know how comfortable I feel yet with the kids. Maybe the end of the year. But to be honest with you, unless I really, really have to fly, I probably won’t fly until probably next year.”

Sick? Don’t fly

BNA keeps its website up-to-date with COVID-related information, rules and safety guidelines.

The airport has implemented a 24-hour cleaning program that adheres to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, including cleaning and disinfecting touchpoints using an EPA-approved cleaning agent. Restrooms are closed every two hours for cleaning and disinfecting, and hand sanitizers are located throughout the terminal and refilled daily.

In addition, airline gate areas are cleaned after the last flight, as well as routinely throughout the day, and ventilation systems are cleaned on a defined schedule. Kreulen, who is on Metro Nashville’s coronavirus task force, says BNA has spent a little more than $2 million in COVID-related cleaning and remediation.

“As Americans, we have always found ways to adapt and improve when faced with new challenges,” Kreulen says. “From the airport perspective we are already adapting to the challenges presented to us today… new cleaning protocols, improved airflow, air filtration, using electrostatic foggers and ultraviolent light to kill bacteria and viruses. The airline industry is doing the same thing.”

Kruelen says airports and airlines are business partners that work together to address these challenges so that passengers feel more comfortable to travel. However, passengers play a large part in that success, so they should absolutely not fly if they are sick. Infecting others, he says, would set back any progress the industry has made.

“If you’re sick, don’t fly,” he says. “Keep following the CDC guidelines, and we’ll get through this. And as far as the airport, I promised you, it is the cleanest place you’ve ever been in your life.”

Kreulen is also head of the Tennessee Association of Air Carrier Airports, which includes four other commercial airports in Tennessee: Memphis International, McGhee Tyson outside Knoxville, Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport and Tri-Cities Airport in upper East Tennessee.

“I talk to those CEOs weekly, and we’re all passing this data back and forth, because between the five of us, we’re moving 30 plus million passengers through Tennessee,” he says. “We know we have a big role to play to make sure that all of our airports are in first-class shape.”

Synergy with tourism

Kreulen says he isn’t afraid of losing any carriers during this downturn, and that BNA is an efficient airport, which translates to very low operational expenses for the airlines.

And while tourism has been a huge reason so many riders fly into Nashville, other industries are helping bolster ridership even with fewer people coming to hit the Broadway hotspots.

“Our low costs combined with a very vibrant business and leisure market in Middle Tennessee makes operating to and from Nashville very attractive,” he says. “We are very thankful for the health care, automotive, education, music, tourism and hospitality industries situated in and around Nashville.”

But without tourists, BNA will take much longer to recover.

“I kid with Charles Starks at the Music City Center, or Butch Spyridon at the CVC, that, ‘Y’all need to open up.’ If they don’t open up, then nobody’s going to come through the airport,” Kreulen says. “That’s the biggest challenge. We’re all hooked together. Whether it’s business or leisure travel, I need businesses to open up, I need tourism to open up, for us to keep being successful.”

Spyridon introduced the city’s new “Good To Go” program at Mayor John Cooper’s press conference May 29, a program to promote the safety of residents and visitors as Nashville reopens. The voluntary program will provide businesses with free resources, training, access to public health experts and support to carry out health guidelines set by the Metro Public Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Participating businesses will be given a special green music note to display at storefronts, on the website and other materials to show its commitment to following the safety standards. The goal is to promote peace of mind and boost consumer confidence to lure travelers back to town.

“All the improvements we are making in the airport and airline environment must also be made in all of the other business sectors we serve,” Kreulen says. “Our partners in the tourism and hospitality industries are making the same investments in customer safety. Our customers are their customers.”

But it is still hard to predict how things will go if out-of-town visitors take their time returning, or a second wave of the virus hits before the usually-busy holiday season.

“From the different economists that we use to try to predict, there was basically four different models. And we picked a hybrid of those. We have tracking mechanisms to see how are we doing along that model, and we predict it’ll probably take us one and a half, to two and a half years, to get back to normal,” he says.

“But everybody wants to know whether or not we’re going to have that double dip that they all talk about.”

Of course, he says that is all based on the belief that the industry as a whole will be able to make the travel experience even better.

“Will some of the airlines fold? Maybe. But the industry as a whole will adapt and improve to meet the demands of our customers.”

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