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Airport report: The best of Nashville


President and CEO, Doug Kreulen, tells Joe Bates why expansion and future traffic growth continue to be a key focus for Nashville International Airport.

Nashville International Airport (BNA) is an airport with a plan, it aims to become one of the most modern gateways in the US and future large hub, and despite the impact of COVID-19, it is well on its way to achieving at least one of those goals.

Arguably, when most people think of Nashville and the State of Tennessee, they think of the city as being the spiritual home of country and western music and the Grand Ole Opry.

However, to those in the know, the city of Nashville is much more than that. Indeed, it is one of the top medical centres in the US, a significant player in the automotive and high-tech industries, a growing location for finance and logistics companies and an established conference venue.

While the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, the nation’s most visited national park, is on its doorstep and attracts millions of visitors each year, many of which arrive in Tennessee via BNA, which is a vital economic generator for the entire region, being directly and indirectly responsible for some 76,000 jobs and $8.1 billion in economic activity.

The combination of Nashville’s robust economy and business and tourism appeal led to seven successive years of often double-digit growth, which ended on a high with the record 18.3 million passengers that passed through the airport in 2019.

The dramatic upturn in traffic up until the outbreak of COVID-19 is likened to 21 years’ of growth in seven years by Metropolitan Nashville Airports Authority (MNAA) president and CEO, Doug Kreulen, who notes that the airport started work on its $1.4 billion BNA Vision master plan in 2017 to ensure that it did not become a victim of its own success and run out of capacity.

Now in full swing, the game changing master plan last year delivered a new Concourse D, two expanded ticketing wings each with their own security checkpoint, and two new parking garages.

Still to come is a spacious new terminal lobby, International Arrivals Facility and an on-airport Hilton hotel, while BNA’s runways and roadways will be renovated and improved, and a host of new retail and F&B outlets opened in a new central marketplace.

The ultimate plan for this phase of BNA Vision is to have an airport capable of handling in excess of 36 million passengers annually by 2024.

And for those of you thinking that the timing couldn’t have been worse, think again, as the airlines are fully supportive of BNA’s upgrade and the MNAA has actually used the current decline in passenger numbers to bring some projects forward by a year or more.

Explaining the reasons behind the decision to fast track some BNA Vision projects instead of putting them on hold or cancelling them all together, Kreulen says: “With challenges come opportunities, and having less people to work around provided us with the chance to minimise any future disruption by completing some projects earlier than originally planned.

“Make no mistake about it, we need these new facilities as we are fast outgrowing our existing ones and the new additions will significantly improve our operational efficiency and customer service levels and ensure that we are better placed to achieve our long-term ambitions.

“Pre-COVID, Nashville was ranked the 31st busiest airport in the United States and basically one of the biggest medium-sized hubs in the country. What we want to do is catch up with our friends in Portland and Honolulu to enter into the large hub system, and I firmly believe that the new facilities will help us achieve this goal.”

New Concourse D and other 2020 highlights

Opened in July 2020, the airport’s new $292 million Concourse D is a key element of the airport’s billion dollar BNA Vision master plan.

The 115,000-square-foot complex has added six new domestic aircraft gates, public art, and a variety of traveller amenities, along with improved ramp facilities and function space.

Additional components of the project include a 136,000-square-foot renovation of existing terminal space and a new 11,000-square-foot Central Utility Plant to heat and cool the terminal.

“If the airport is to continue as a major catalyst for economic growth and job creation in Nashville and Middle Tennessee, we need to add capacity to BNA while maintaining a welcoming and accessible environment for our passengers,” admits Kreulen.

“With the new Concourse D, we’ve added gates for more flights and attractive customer amenities, all in a modern and convenient setting that brings out the best of BNA.”

Just as importantly for Kreulen, the new concourse is also a sustainable development having recently gained LEED Silver certification from the US Green Building Council (USGBC).

It follows 2019’s award of Parksmart Bronze certification for the airport’s new Terminal Garage. Awarded by the Green Business Certification Inc (GBCI), the accolade recognises the sustainable design, construction and operation of the facility, which opened in 2018.

“We wanted to show the community that we are efficient and sustainable and care about how our buildings are being constructed and operated,” enthuses Kreulen. “We’re building not only a bigger airport, but also a better, ‘greener’ and more sustainable airport.”

He cites saving around $1 million per year in energy costs for BNA’s air conditioning system by using water pumped under the airfield and onto the airport campus from a nearby quarry as an example of how investing in sustainability also has its economic benefits.

Another, he points out, is the use of glass in Concourse D that can be programmed to tint during the brightest and hottest parts of the day to improve visibility and help control the build-up of heat, subsequently reducing the air conditioning needs.

Other BNA Vision projects completed in 2020 include the airport’s 200,000-square-foot North and South Terminal wing expansions to provide additional space for interim TSA checkpoints, permanent ticketing check-in counters, baggage claim devices and support offices.

Next phase of BNA Vision

The ongoing expansion of the now closed central portion of the airport means that BNA is currently operating with separate North and South terminals instead of one passenger complex with four concourses or spokes as Kreulen refers to them.

The North Terminal with concourses A and B serves United, Delta, JetBlue, WestJet, Frontier, Spirit and the handful of international carriers serving BNA, while the South Terminal with concourses C and D is home to Southwest, American, Allegiant and Alaska.

The airline locations are unlikely to change any time soon but when the new facilities open in late 2023 the airport will once again go back to having one central terminal with four concourses, only this time it will boast a number of new, passenger friendly facilities and new retail/F&B outlets.

The extra revenue generated by the new shops and restaurants – the number will grow from 50 today to 90 spread across the terminal in three years’ time – will be used to help keep BNA’s airline fees down as agreed under MNAA’s compensatory business model.

Describing the ongoing construction work in the central part of the airport, Kreulen says that the existing building is being stretched to accommodate the new terminal lobby and its impressive roof that will be extend over new access roadways to the recently opened parking garage.

“When the new central terminal opens in September 2023, it will be as wide as a football field and contain an expanded security area and a shopping mall,” he says.

“It will have its own distinct sense of place, so passengers will know that they are in Nashville and Tennessee, but in terms of concepts it will look much like the newer sections of London Heathrow and be a place where people will enjoy shopping and relaxing before they get on their flights.

“We are building a modern new airport that really reflects the warm and welcoming city of Nashville.”

The new shops and F&B outlets will certainly be welcomed by passengers as Kreulen concedes that the current lack of food and retail choices at BNA is one area where the airport has to improve, based on customer satisfaction surveys.

Its concessions developer, Fraport USA, is responsible for the management of all retail and F&B operations at BNA and is expected to invest some $17 million in Nashville’s concessions development over the next decade, with further investments to be made by individual sub-tenants that include HMSHost, Delaware North and Hudson.

He notes that the new retail/F&B outlets will include a healthy smattering of local favourites in line with MNAA’s desire to create a sense of place.

Airlines and traffic trends

Four airlines essentially drive traffic growth at BNA today – Southwest Airlines, which accounts for around 52% of all travellers, along with American (15%), Delta (14%) and United (8%).

The mix ensures that BNA is effectively a domestic O&D gateway, with transfer traffic accounting for just 20% of all passengers.

But it hasn’t always been this way, as up until 1992 Nashville was a hub for American Airlines, and its network of flights to and from BNA meant that back then 80% of travellers transited through the gateway.

Southwest moved to Nashville following American’s de-hubbing of BNA and its market leading position today and, of course, the global impact of the pandemic on air travel, means that this 80/20 mix of O&D/transfer traffic isn’t likely to change for a while.

However, Kreulen believes that there is more scope for through traffic and more international services, when the time is right.

“I am happy with today’s traffic mix, and it’s worth noting that we announced 31 new services in 2020, but we can always do better and expand our route network and the international services we offer, but I don’t expect anything to change until COVID-19 is beaten,” he comments.

In terms of the airport’s traffic performance in 2020, Kreulen reveals that BNA was actually on target for a record breaking year after its busiest ever January and February marked by 13% to 14% rises in passenger numbers, but then COVID-19 hit and air travel plummeted, particularly from mid-March to early May.

April 2020’s low of just 62,533 passengers was, thankfully, as bad as it got last year for BNA, which accommodated an annual high of 729,293 passengers in December to end the year on 8.2 million passengers – 54.7% less than in 2019, but considerably better off than many other US airports.

Like at most gateways across the US, BNA only lost a handful of domestic routes as the airlines continued to operate most services with reduced frequencies, but it did lose a few key international services, such as British Airways’ non-stop flights to London, which Kreulen admits that the airport is already working hard to get back.

Ironically, last year’s passenger total will almost certainly see BNA jump up a few places in the rankings for the busiest airports in the US, but Kreulen for one, won’t be celebrating.

He does, however, take satisfaction out of the way that the airport responded to the pandemic and how MNAA, working with its airline partners, managed to safely keep the airport open throughout 2020, even during the darkest days of April when just 500 passengers a day were passing through its facilities compared to the usual 50,000.

Living with COVID-19

In response to the pandemic itself, on the health side of things, the airport reinforced and enhanced its cleaning and sanitising protocols, launched a public awareness campaign about CDC best practices, began distributing free face coverings, increased the number of hand sanitiser stations and installed plastic shields at airline counters.

And more technology advances have been incorporated or are on the way, including touchless elevator buttons and germ-killing UV lighting for the handrails of escalators and HUVC air-handling systems.

‘Be Safe. Be Healthy. Be Nashville’ emerged as BNA’s message to reassure travellers of the precautions being taken at the terminal.

Kreulen, who never once stayed at home on a working day, says: “I’m enormously proud of how our team responded to the pandemic. From enhancing our cleaning programme to adding the latest in sanitising technology and more, we have focused on keeping our passengers safe and the airport operational.

“I laugh about it now, but everyone here was so keen to follow the new protocols that at the start of the pandemic we went through 30 days of hand sanitiser in three days. We’ve got better at it now.

“As a result of our efforts, the airport has remained open throughout the pandemic and I have made sure that I come into work each and every day as I don’t believe that you can convince people that Nashville International Airport is a safe place to fly from if the guy who runs it is at home.”

From a financial perspective, Kreulen reveals that MNAA has introduced a series of cost saving measures that have shaved $58 million off its operating budget and helped keep BNA’s expenditure down.

The move has included saving $9 million through freezing pay raises, bonuses and the planned hiring of 40 new staff and another $9 million by stopping shuttle bus services to BNA’s basically empty parking lots.

“We were quick to act and make cuts to all unnecessary expenditure to help keep our heads above water and deliver on our promise of not raising our airline fees,” says Kreulen.

“I am positive about the future. We are not going into debt, our credit ratings are great and we are building new facilities that will transform the airport experience for passengers.

“Once COVID wanes, we fully expect BNA to help lead the economic recovery for Middle Tennessee and beyond.”

Future traffic forecast

The airport’s bold master plan and determination to not only finish it but bring it forward by 12 months shows BNA’s confidence in its ability to overcome COVID-19 and get growth back on the agenda.

However, like many, Kreulen believes that the speed of BNA and Nashville’s recovery will be determined by the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines locally and across the United States.

So much so in fact that BNA has drafted three future traffic recovery scenarios based on the timing and success of the vaccine rollout.

The most optimistic scenario predicts that traffic levels could be back to 2019 levels by the summer of 2022 if most travellers are vaccinated by Q3. It is a possible future I suspect Kreulen would take right now, especially as BNA’s worst case scenario forecasts that a protracted vaccination rollout might mean that it is 2024/2025 before passenger numbers return to the previous high.

He says: “In every scenario we expect to be between 30% and 50% down over the next 12 months with everything depending on the success and speed of the vaccine and opening up of the market.”

Explaining where BNA is at today in terms of its traffic throughput, Kreulen reveals that the airport is currently handling around 334 flights a day compared to 618 in 2019.

The airlines have also been hit hard when it comes to their high yield business customers, with the number of passengers travelling on business in and out of Nashville slumping from a 40% share of the market in 2019 to just 15% today as companies have shelved business trips and an ever increasing number of people work from home.

He sums up the past 12 months by saying that BNA has gone from 100mph to zero, and now back up to 50mph again, with most other US airports probably about eight to ten miles per hour behind it.

Tennessee matters

As well as spearheading MNAA, Kreulen is also president of the Tennessee Association of Air Carrier Airports (TAACA), the trade association for the five commercial airports in Tennessee – Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville (McGhee Tyson), Chattanooga and Tri-Cities.

And TAACA’s newly re-elected president has no doubts about the value of the organisation, which advocates for airport interests and priorities, particularly as they relate to state government.

He says: “We may be the largest commercial airport in Tennessee, but we need all our airports and, arguably, it is more important than ever that we work together and where possible help each other out during these difficult times.

“Tennessee’s large commercial airports are engines of great economic activity and job creation, and we look forward to leading a robust recovery once the pandemic wanes.”

Although the former United States Air Force colonel has lived in many places throughout his life, he has certainly taken to Nashville and Tennessee since joining MNAA in April 2012, and his determination to oversee the completion of BNA’s master plan, and equip it for an even brighter future since becoming CEO just over three years ago, comes through loud and clear during our conversation.

An airport with an ambitious master plan and a leader who is optimistic about the future whilst acknowledging the challenges ahead, Nashville International Airport is certainly well placed to resume its growth pattern when the world finally recovers from the pandemic.

And, after months of writing about the negative impact of COVID-19 on aviation, hearing such positivity coming out of Nashville, is like music to my ears.

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