The Austin Chronicle

Austin Airport Back up to Speed

By Richard Whittaker, November 18, 2015, 4:10pm, Newsdesk

Something for which to be thankful: As of yesterday Austin Bergstrom International Airport is running at normal levels after the Federal Aviation Authority reopened the air traffic control tower, just in time for Thanksgiving.

ABIA was hit hard by the freak storms on Oct. 30, with six inches of water flooding the bottom of the tower. That wasn't just a minor inconvenience, but took out all the electronics and radar approach systems on the first floor. This left the airfield functionally blind and it was forced to temporarily close.

Once it re-opened, it was working with limited equipment as the FAA checked, repaired, and replaced systems. Normally, radar control for the region is handled out of Houston, using a radar station in Temple, with Bergstrom only handling low-level traffic, take-offs and landings. With the tower off-line, staff initially were totally dependent on Houston for radar, and were using a portable control facility that had to be shipped in from Kansas City. Unfortunately, that trailer only had a clear view of one runway, so the second had to be closed.

The timing could not be worse: with less than a month before ABIA faced Thanksgiving, the busiest travel time of the year, it was running at under 50% capacity. The hope was to get the airfield up to 80% by the holiday, with repair work to be completed by mid-December. However, FAA repair crews managed to complete the work two weeks ahead of schedule.

The work isn't complete. While essential technical services have been restored, and ABIA now fully controls its own airspace again, there are still several weeks of work left to completely repair administrative facilities.

What that boils down to is that the airport is as ready as it can possibly be for the Thanksgiving crush. However, that crush is only getting worse. This morning, ABIA released its passenger and cargo statistics for September and the year to date, and the headline number is that, for the 36th consecutive month, there has been growth.

• Sept. 2015 passenger traffic: up 12.5% from same month in 2014
• Enplanements: up 12%
• Air cargo: up 11.5%
• International air cargo: up 22%
• Jan-Sept 2015 passenger traffic: Up 10.5% from same period in 2014

ABIA has been expanding and shifting facilities to deal with demand. After opening a customs facility last December, the airport relocated and extended one of its security checkpoints, adding additional lanes, and is opening two more baggage carousels (that last addition may be of questionable value, as ABIA's practice of linking carousels to specific airlines leaves some overloaded and some stationary). On top of that, there's a large new rental car garage, which should free up ground and overflow parking spaces. Council has also approved an apron and terminal gate expansion, designed to increase total annual capacity from 11 million to 15 million passengers.

However, with no sign of growth abating, the inevitable question is, how long until ABIA has to either further extend the current building, or open more space in a new terminal?

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