Photo | Shane Rice
Lebarron Longmire could not be more excited about the prospect of commercial flights leaving from Brookley Field less than a month from now, but he’s concerned he could eventually lose his home of 34 years because of it.
As for the airport move itself, Longmire thinks it’s good for the city and good for airline customers.
“I think it’s a great idea,” he said. “There’s great access because the interstate is right there.”
Personally, he flies out of Pensacola to take advantage of low-cost carriers like the ones slated to begin flying out of Brookley on May 1.
“I’m not rolling in big bucks,” he said. “I have to make the best choice for me and my family.”
However, as a resident of the Belle Court neighborhood, off of Dauphin Island Parkway, Longmire knows eventual airport expansion could begin to impact the areas in and around Brookley.
“The main concerns I know a lot of people have is big industry moving in,” he said. “If that happens, will they give me a fair price for my property?”
Since he and his wife, Willie, moved into the house more than three decades ago, the home has been almost completely remodeled, Longmire said. While the current fair market value is $100,000 to $125,000, he said, that doesn’t reflect what he has put into it.
Longmire, an employee of Mobile County, helped raise two daughters and a son in that house.
“We have had a lot of memories in that house,” Longmire said. “It’s seen a lot.”
In addition to that, the price of homes has gone “way up” since he initially bought the house, Longmire said, and a comparable home in another area would cost more than the couple could afford now.
State Rep. Barbara Drummond, D-Mobile, said Longmire is not alone in his concerns. She has introduced a bill that could dramatically increase how much is paid to homeowners dealing with eminent domain issues.
Instead of simply paying fair market value for a property, Drummond’s bill would force Class 2 municipalities — pertaining to Mobile, specifically — to pay full replacement costs for property taken through eminent domain.
“They would pay the appraised value on properties, plus relocation costs,” Drummond said.
Without the bill, Drummond said increased commercial development would end up turning “homeowners into renters.”
“I want to start this conversation now,” she said. “I don’t want to wait until it’s too late.”
The bill itself is not really about the airport move, as Drummond supports it, but would better protect homeowners from the inevitable encroachment of commercial development. As Drummond said, Brookley abuts residential property on “all sides.”
The local bill has some bipartisan support, as Drummond said Republican Sen. David Sessions will sponsor it in the Senate. The bill — HB 38 — has not gone through the committee process yet.
Chris Curry, president of the Mobile Airport Authority, attended a March community meeting with DIP residents. Complaints included traffic and noise concerns.
For those concerned about additional flight noise from increased activity at the decades-old airport, Curry said the commercial flights will use newer, more fuel-efficient aircraft, meaning they will produce less noise than the general aviation flights leaving on a routine basis.
“I mean, it is an increase in flight activity, but as I explained to them, the type of aircraft that are using the airport today are much larger, older aircraft that were built under different engine requirements,” Curry said. “We’ll never use very large aircraft like they use here now in a commercial configuration, at least not in the next 10 years. We have triple-sevens and A330s here that go to VT MAE [VT Mobile Aerospace Engineering] and the aircraft we use in a commercial configuration are nowhere near that size and are much newer.”
Once the new terminal opens, Curry said, the largest planes to leave for the foreseeable future will be small Embraer 175s, A320s, A321s and possibly 737s.
As for parking and traffic concerns, Curry said the low-cost terminal will consist of 170-180 parking spaces.
Another way to help alleviate neighboring residents’ concerns will be through an airport master plan, which Curry said will map out the next 20 years of the airports’ development.
“They will do an environmental study [and a] facilities study,” he said. “So, as the airport continues to grow and more passengers utilize the airport, so will the facilities that support that. So, when it comes to noise or it comes to any other environmental concern, those will be addressed in the master plan.”
Concerns will also be addressed through a citizens advisory committee, which the airport will set up, Curry said.
At a recent Mobile Airport Authority meeting, Chairman Elliot Maisel stressed the importance of making sure the nearby community is involved in the process of moving the airport. He wanted to make sure residents were a partner in it.
“The process also includes the inclusion of our elected officials and leadership groups and it involves the inclusion and the receipt of opinion from the community,” he said following the meeting. “We will coordinate that through the elected officials — city, county and state — to help us access the total constituency out there.”
However, Maisel said the airport has been around for decades and that would be taken into account as well.
“All of that is viewed through the prism of the fact that Brookley Field has been an airport since the 1930s,” he said. “It’s been here. We want to maximize it for the benefit of the citizens. We want their input in order to best accomplish our mission.”
The first phase of the larger airport move comes in the form of the renovation of a 20,000-square-foot space inside a larger building formerly occupied by Airbus to be used as a low-cost terminal.
The timetable for completion of the renovation is April 15, Curry said. That gives the Transportation Safety Administration time to inspect the terminal before the first commercial flights leave May 1, he said.
“This airport is not a commercial service airport at this time, so in order for that to happen you have to federalize it and bring it up to a code that’s compliant for commercial airports,” Curry said. “That means we have to produce a complete airport security plan and we’re well on the way to completing that as well.”
TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz confirmed some regulatory requirements would have to be met by MAA before those commercial flights could take off.
“The airport must have an airport security plan that has been approved by the TSA and each of the airlines operating commercial flights must also have approved security plans,” she wrote in an email message. “TSA staffing would be carefully planned before any opening.”
On the TSA staffing front, Curry said the agency has requested more agents for Mobile in anticipation of the Brookley operation. At first, he said, those agents might split their time between the downtown and West Mobile airports.
“Those agents initially may stage out of regional and transit over here, but as we develop and start to have more use of this airport, then we’ll have permanent agents assigned,” he said.
Regulatory factors have played a part in a number of overruns on terminal construction, reaching a total of about $700,000. One of those overruns was caused because the MAA tried to have bluetooth-enabled cameras installed in and around the terminal, but TSA requires them to be hard-wired. There was also a $125,000 overrun on parking lot costs.
Maisel acknowledged overruns often happen when an entity is trying to move quickly on a project, but he was still unhappy about it.
“I don’t like surprises,” Maisel told the MAA board. “I’m not surprised we got a cost overrun, given we had a timetable to hit and we didn’t have a design, but there are some things I don’t like.
“I don’t think this percentage overrun is out of line … ,” Maisel added. “I’m unhappy. I would’ve been unhappy with a 4 percent overage.”
The new terminal will have five ticket counters to begin with, Curry said. Unlike a traditional terminal, a single airline will not lay claim to any of the counters. Instead, they can rotate from one airline to another through a digital monitor, which will be located behind the counter, he said.
“It’s called a common-use concept,” Curry said. “So, we’ll have the digital monitors behind the counters and as one airline leaves, the monitor will switch. That’s the most efficient way for us to use this terminal.”
Initially, the terminal will include a small TSA checkpoint with one line and a passenger holding area with two gates, Curry said. The passenger holding area could be expanded, as a wall separating an area currently being used by Airbus could be removed. That would allow the terminal to expand to four gates. The TSA checkpoint can also expand to two lines, Curry said.
Photo | Shane Rice
When the terminal opens May 1, it will consist of a manual baggage procedure, Curry said, because the baggage claim system will not yet be installed.
“Again, with the time schedule to build this terminal, that’s one of the things we were not able to get full equipment in time and so, over the next few months, we’ll receive that equipment and the baggage system will become less manual,” he said.
The new terminal will not have traditional concessions at first, either, Curry said.
“When we open May 1 concessions will be vending machines, and as we build out the terminal we may end up with one concessionaire, but the idea for this terminal is efficient, modern, get you in, get you out at a very low cost,” he said.
With that idea in mind, traditional jet bridges will also not be in place early on.
“You may have a covered walkway that leads you up to the aircraft,” Curry said. “We have the possibility of adding those onto the terminal if needed, but Frontier and the low-cost carrier airlines, they are very comfortable not having jet bridges. Jet bridges, for them, are an additional cost.”
The terminal will have rental car offices that could operate full-time, regular business hours out of the Brookley terminal, if needed, Curry said.
“One of the things about it is, although we will only have nine flights, it may be an opportunity for the rental cars to establish a full daytime operation, because if you think about this area, there’s nowhere to rent cars,” he said. “So, if they decide that they want to operate, even on days we’re not flying, the airport is open to that.”
The first flights out of Brookley will belong to Frontier Airlines, which will conduct five direct flights per week initially. The budget airline will have two flights per week to Chicago and three flights per week to Denver.
ViaAir will join Frontier on May 2, Curry said, with four direct flights to Orlando Sanford International Airport per week. The terminal will open with a total of nine flights per week. To compare, Mobile Regional Airport, currently the city’s only commercial airport, conducts 21 flights per week, Curry said.
“That’s less than triple the size, but keep in mind that a large part of the aircraft that use Regional are regional jets,” Curry said. “Whereas every flight from Frontier will be the A320 that seats somewhere between 180 and 186 passengers.”
The MAA is still actively recruiting other carriers, especially low-cost ones, Curry said. The new terminal will help with that, as the pricing pressure will not be as great away from the more traditional carriers.
“If we can bring in carriers to serve more destinations, especially low-cost carriers, then we can cater to customers in this region who have never been able to fly because they can’t afford it,” Curry said. “We also create opportunities with other carriers to put competition in the market. Competition in this market will also be able to drive pricing at Regional.”
The current price tag on the new terminal is about $6 million, Curry said. While Federal Aviation Administration airport improvement funds were initially discussed to help offset some of the costs, Curry said those grants have not yet been used.
“The FAA was not involved in the funding of this,” he said. “Now, that does not mean that we can’t go back to FAA and get reimbursed for some of it.”
MAA did not float a bond for the work, either. Instead, the board used fees it already charges to help pay for the improvements.
“We collect fees a number of ways, whether it’s terminal rents, parking, lease of property,” Curry said. “You know, we have multiple ways to collect revenue.”
The plan is to use FAA funding for a larger Brookley terminal to be built in the future, Curry said.
“It is not our intent to utilize FAA funding for this terminal,” he said. “What we would prefer to do is utilize a significant amount of FAA funding for a future terminal located here.”
The plan going forward is to move all commercial activity to Brookley in the next three to five years, Curry said. Depending on what the master plan outlines, Curry expects the new airport to consist of two terminals — a home for low-cost carriers and one for traditional carriers.
Maisel told board members the focus should also be on demolishing the older buildings on the MAA campus and replacing them with newer, more modern buildings.
“We have 400,000 square feet of light industrial space … in one of the better markets in history,” Maisel said. “The old buildings need to come down and be replaced with something more modern. Regional is set to become a general aviation airport with 3,400 acres of prime property. It changes the dynamic of West Mobile, probably positively, but that’s on us.”
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