With expansion of the terminal at the Lea County Regional Airport already begun, Assistant County Manager Corey Needham wants to again double the passenger holding area.
At an estimated cost of more than $1.6 million and with funding already available, Lea County Commissioners gave their collective nod of approval after Needham explained the wisdom of making that change now, rather than later.
Currently, Needham said, the secured area for passengers has only 41 seats while the airplanes landing at the airport have 50 seats. Construction begun in January will expand the passenger holding area to 72 seats, but Needham said many more seats may be needed in the near future.
“With possible changes to a larger aircraft that’s being discussed right now, possibly an additional flight or an additional destination,” Needham said, 72 seats may not be enough for long.
His proposal to add 3,300 square feet would improve that outlook.
“It changes from 72 to approximately 150 passengers to fit in the hold room. If additional flights are added, it will be able to accommodate them in an overlapping time,” Needham said. “The problem is if we have a 72-passenger hold room, we could handle a bigger aircraft, but any additional flights would have to be added in the afternoon so they’re not stacked on top of each other.”
He explained afternoon flights could result in passengers reaching a hub too late for connecting flights, then having to spend the night, not an ideal situation for travelers.
The current expansion programming started in May 2015 and was completed May 2016, with the construction contract awarded to Lasco Construction in December 2018.
“Since completing programming and beginning design, ridership has increased by 67%,” Needham said.
Further expanding the passenger holding area now would provide a number of advantages, he added.
• Minimize the cost of construction by reducing the need to reconstruct walls, footings, etc. on the east wall of expansion at a later time.
• Allow for future flight times to be adjusted to times that would promote better connection flights.
• Allow for construction near secured area that may become more restricted when new requirements are triggered.
• Provide larger open space for passengers.
• Provide infrastructure for a jet bridge, if later desired.
• Provide a visually more substantial terminal for arriving and departing passengers.
The cost would be covered by existing funding, Needham said.
Already in the fiscal year 2019-20 budget are two line items containing about $900,000 each related to the airport improvements.
“It’s currently budgeted in enough line items that we can cover the proposed changes without having a budget adjustment,” Needham said. “Doing it now, rather than later, would help me out.”
In addition, a separate project with $2.1 million in the budget recently received another $2.1 million in the for of a Federal Aviation Administration grant.
“Now I have $4.2 million to go toward a $2.1 million project,” Needham said. “We’re working with the FAA to reallocate a little over $1 million of that fund to go toward asphalt and concrete improvements associated with this project.”
The potential of increasing the number of flights and passengers at the rate now being proposed concerned Commission Chairwoman Rebecca Long, who was worried about parking spaces.
“Do we have enough parking spaces?” she asked.
Needham assured her the current space available will be enlarged to accommodate requirements, but pointed out that’s another project altogether. In addition, the county has sufficient space at the airport to increase parking spaces up to an estimated need of 600.
“What does 600 parking spaces look like? Walmart. They have 630 parking spaces,” Needham said. “That’s what we’re looking at building this year.”
He anticipates completion of the new portion to occur late this year, with renovation of the existing 4,400 square feet of the terminal to begin almost immediately and be completed in April 2020.
No decision was made immediately at the May 23 County Commission meeting since the information was provided during a discussion session without intent of action. Needham said he would bring a resolution back to the board at the next meeting on June 13 for a vote if commissioners wanted him to do so.
“I hear a lot of nods,” Long quipped.
Curtis C. Wynne may be contacted at reporter3@hobbsnews. com.