It was the drive down a long stretch of a notoriously congested, traffic light-strewn Airport Boulevard the morning of his company’s big press announcement that helped convince ViaAir Vice President of Operations Matthew Macri he had made the right decision.
No, not about the airline’s decision to offer nonstop service between Orlando and Mobile, but to ask the Federal Aviation Administration later this year to allow Via to fly out of the city’s current general aviation airport at the Brookley Aeroplex.
“My drive over here this morning [convinced me],” Macri joked from a podium set up in a room on the top floor of Mobile Regional Airport (MOB).
Plans would not only be to accommodate Via at what is known as KBFM — the “downtown airport” — but also other airlines in the future. Via, however, and its flights to Orlando Sanford International Airport (SFB) would be the first to use the facility.
For Macri, the airport could serve as a beacon for a rehabilitated downtown Mobile and could also help Mobile compete with other Gulf Coast airports.
“Far too many residents of Mobile and Baldwin counties are turning to Pensacola [International Airport — PNS] for air service,” he said.
Residents, Macri believes, have better access to Brookley via Interstate 10, and a passenger airport just fits with the aerospace and manufacturing in the sector.
“It’s smaller,” Macri said. “It’s easy in, easy out.”
Mobile Airport Authority (MAA) Executive Director Chris Curry said a transition of commercial flights to Brookley would start with Via and possibly branch out from there, depending on the results of a feasibility study. The results of the study are due in June, he said.
Conducted by Orlando’s EHB, the study will consider whether commercial service at Brookley is cost effective, Curry said. Additionally, the study will consider the role change and how it would impact economic development. The study will also tell the airport authority whether taking control of the state-operated St. Elmo airport outside Theodore is cost effective.
The study will not look at any other properties. Land near State Highway 158 and Interstate 65 in Prichard has been eyed by developers for years, most notably as the possible site of a NASCAR race track. But Curry said Brookley is the most ideal location for a new airport because of its existing infrastructure and accessibility.
“I’m not so sure Prichard brings us any closer to accessibility,” he said.
As is, the MAA would not need to make changes to Brookley’s existing runways, at least initially, Curry said. The current infrastructure at the downtown airport can support the takeoff and landing of planes as large as a Boeing 777, he said.
If the feasibility study gives the green light to the move, Curry said the authority would begin work on a master plan for the airport. While the feasibility study goes into more of a “soft look” at the issues facing a new regional airport, a master plan goes into much more detail, Curry said. It would be the start of a 20-year development plan, he explained.
“We would look at where a permanent location should be,” Curry said. “Where the tower and road infrastructure should be.”
If the feasibility study finds it necessary, Curry said the airport authority would build out a new commercial terminal on site.
“If it’s determined that Brookley is a viable airport, we could build a terminal,” he said.
Once the projects in the master plan are set, Curry said the MAA would become eligible for Federal Aviation Administration grant funding.
FAA spokeswoman Arlene Salac wrote in an email message that the agency has an Airport Improvement Program allowing airports to apply for grants.
“There is an approval process the airport must complete,” she wrote.
It’s unclear at this time the costs the MAA is considering to move the airport. The authority is self sustaining and doesn’t use any city money to operate, Curry said. It is funded through terminal rents, airport landing fees and fuel flow, which allows the MAA to charge 2 cents per gallon of gas sold at the airports.
Of course, with commercial service at a new airport, Transportation Safety Administration agents would have to be hired or transported to Brookley for however many flights there happen to be.
Mark Howell, a regional spokesman for TSA, said it’s not at all uncommon for a general aviation airport to handle some commercial traffic, especially on a seasonal basis. In those cases, he said, TSA either hires or transfers personnel from one airport to the other. The new airport would also have to have its own security plan. The cost to move agents from one airport to the other is unclear and depends on several different factors, Howell said.
Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport Authority Executive Director Parker McClellan knows quite a bit about moving an airport. The Panama City airport (ECP) changed locations in August 2010, at a total cost of $325 million.
The situation in Panama City was a bit different, as the airport authority there had to build an airport from scratch, McClellan said.
“We were going from airport to pine trees,” he said of the move. “The transition to Brookley will be significantly different. What you’re really doing is moving a terminal.”
In the Panama City move, the FAA and the Florida Department of Transportation were partners, McClellan said. They borrowed money or, in essence, took a loan from the state infrastructure bank to help with construction and took out no bonds, he said. The authority took on $42 million in debt for the project.
McClellan said he can see a need to move the regional airport in Mobile because of better access to the interstate and closer proximity to downtown.
“I’ve been to Brookley and it seems like there are some significant benefits of moving west to east,” he said.
ViaAir will begin service to Orlando from Mobile Regional Airport in May with $99 introductory one-way fares. Macri said service would begin with one flight every Sunday, Monday, Thursday and Friday.
Flights to Mobile would depart Orlando at 11:42 a.m. and last about two hours. The drive to Orlando can take seven to eight hours.
The schedule wouldn’t just accommodate Mobilians, but would work well for visitors from Central Florida to the Port City, Macri said.
Brian Belcher, MAA director of marketing and air service development, said MAA wanted to add “another dot to the route.” Orlando is the first new city added since United added its Chicago flight in 2013 and Via is the first new airline added since 2002.
Via could be the first airline to take advantage of the new airport. Curry said early on the MAA could simply construct a modular building as a terminal. Other airlines could transition later and a permanent facility could be built at that time. At some point, commercial flights could be taking off from both Brookley and Mobile Regional Airport, Curry said.
Belcher added that the Via flights would be much more affordable than the average round-trip ticket. Most round-trip fares average $252 to $502 one way. Via flights, which use 50-seat Embraer regional jets, would cost about $200 round-trip.
Flights from other cities to Orlando vary in price based on the departure date. A United Airlines flight from Pensacola (PNS) to Orlando International Airport (MCO) runs $523 if booked for departure on Tuesday, Feb. 28. However a similar flight booked on United to depart in early May is $218 round trip.
A flight from Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport (GPT) to Orlando Sanford International Airport (SFB) on Allegiant Air costs less than $60 for a round-trip ticket. However, additional baggage fees may apply, according to the Allegiant website.
However, Pensacola beats Mobile when it comes to fares to some of the more popular destinations. A flight from Mobile to Atlanta on Delta booked for departure on Feb. 28 would cost the purchaser $353, according to Delta’s website. A similar flight from Pensacola to Atlanta booked for departure the same day would cost $348.
Flights to Chicago from both areas varied even more. A flight from Mobile to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (ORD) on United booked for departure Feb. 28 would run $513. A similar flight from Pensacola would run $413.
Flights booked to depart in early May showed similar results. A flight from Pensacola to O’Hare costs $345, while a similar flight from Mobile costs $421.
Jonathan Guerin, a United spokesman, wrote in an email message that fares are determined largely by demand.
“As a practice and for competitive reasons, airlines typically do not discuss pricing strategies,” he wrote. “However, we continuously monitor supply and demand in markets we serve to determine competitive offerings that meet the needs of our customers.”
Delta did not respond to an email requesting comment.
In a statement, Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson said he supports the MAA’s effort to provide an “active, accessible airport with multiple destinations and low fares.”
“I am in full support of a feasibility study on moving the Mobile Regional Airport to Brookley,” he said. “Because of our commitment to transition the new Orlando nonstop flight to Brookley, ViaAir ultimately selected Mobile as its next destination.”
Seth Morrow, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, wrote, “The congressman strongly supports efforts to move the Mobile airport to Brookley and he has pledged to assist local leaders as he can be helpful from the federal level.”
Visit Mobile President and CEO David Clark said any move that increases the amount of air traffic in the city is good for tourism.
“I want to support what makes sense,” Clark said. “You have to have a viable location for an airport.”
Airbus spokeswoman Kristi Tucker wrote, “Airbus supports the city in improving air service to Mobile.”
The Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce board hasn’t released a statement on the airport move, Susan Rak-Blanchard, director of marketing and communications, wrote in an email.
“It is our understanding the Mobile Airport Authority has a feasibility study underway, and we look forward to the completion of the study and any recommendations shared,” she wrote.
Residents of neighborhoods in and around Brookley were more vocal.
Oakleigh Garden District Society President Jason Burce said he couldn’t speak for the neighborhood because of the diversity of opinions on the issue. Some residents are against the move, citing concerns over noise and declining property values. But Burce personally joins many residents who one day look forward to driving to the nearby airport to catch a flight.
“I think it’ll be beneficial,” he said. “For one, I won’t have to drive nine miles to the airport.”
Burce added he’s not too concerned with noise right now, but admitted it would depend on flight patterns. He said he was “cautiously optimistic” about it.
Oakleigh resident Palmer Hamilton said he is “wholeheartedly in favor” of the proposal. The local attorney, who flies regularly to Washington, D.C., said Airport Boulevard has caused travelers to avoid the regional airport and look for alternatives.
“Going out is never a problem,” Hamilton said of his weekly flights. “Coming back is just bumper to bumper.”
Moving the airport to Brookley would make the journey more convenient, not only for a number of Mobilians but for Baldwin County residents as well.
As for noise, Hamilton said he doesn’t notice when planes fly over now, for the most part.
“If I do, it doesn’t disturb me,” he said.
As for lower property values, Hamilton argues that real estate in other areas, such as Palm Beach, isn’t negatively impacted by flight paths.
Councilman C.J. Small, who represents residents near the airfield, wrote “I look forward to learning more about the potential move and what all it would entail for the surrounding area and city as a whole. I am aware that some residents have expressed concerns and we will definitely be taking those into consideration as this process moves forward.”