Can the Austin Airport Speed Up Its Sorely Needed Expansion?

Explosive growth and understaffing lead to long lines and near-misses

Art by Zeke Barbaro / Getty Images

In 2023, Austin broke into the list of the 10 largest cities in the U.S. (Now we’re 11th.) From 2020 to 2022, the Austin metro area, including Georgetown and Round Rock, grew at the fastest rate in the country. As we came out of the pandemic, that cohort of new residents and businesses decided to flex its travel budget, and passenger traffic at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport – now known as AUS – increased 25% from 2019 to 2022.

That spike was unprecedented. AUS says that growth has slowed considerably, though 2024 has already brought three of the top 10 busiest days in airport history. And we're still playing catch-up. Several new construction projects are expected to wrap up by 2026, but the one that would add the most capacity – a new concourse that could double the airport’s current number of gates – doesn’t have a timeline for completion.

Amid a nationwide shortage of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) staff and air traffic controllers, and an airline industry hungry for profits, the convenience and safety of air travel at AUS depends on its expansion. So can we speed that up?

Perpetual Boom

As airlines saw passenger demand spike in 2021, they rushed to add more flights, and some never stopped. Just last December, Delta increased its seat capacity by 20% and added 11 peak daily flights out of AUS; it also became SXSW’s official airline. “As long as their flights are profitable, they’ll keep [adding],” said Sam Haynes, the public information officer for AUS. But it’s a trade-off for the customer: “The more nonstop flights and destinations there are for the customer, the more people there are at the airport, so you have to wait in a longer line.”

Longer lines also mean “front-line workers do more with less,” says Elizabeth Hibbard, a flight attendant and United AFA Council 42 president. It’s harder for flight attendants to get to and from the airport, which adds hours to their unpaid labor. (Flight attendants aren’t paid for any time worked on the ground. They’re currently in a years-long union battle with airlines over that issue.)

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett remembers when he flew with Mayor Kirk Watson (during his previous term in the 1990s) from the old Mueller airport to the opening of AUS: “That airport looked so big. And now it appears so little. Yesterday I missed my connection by three minutes because it was packed as if it were Thanksgiving Day,” Doggett told us in April. “I have seen graphically and most unhappily how that airport is undersized for what we need.”

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, speaks at an event marking the groundbreaking of the airport expansion – with Mayor Kirk Watson behind him, on the left (Photo by Jana Birchum)

AUS, owned by the city, can’t control how airlines schedule their flights. It acts as a landlord for airlines, leasing gates and ticket counters. “Ultimately, these airlines are going to make business decisions that make the most sense for them, and our role is to facilitate that,” Haynes said. Only the federal government has the authority to control the number of scheduled flights, a practice known as slot control. (And only a few airports have done it to control congestion – including Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, JFK in New York, and Reagan National Airport in D.C.)

“I’d like for [AUS] to explore negotiating with the airlines to relieve some of the congestion at peak times,” said former Airport Advisory Commission Chair Eugene Sepulveda. “When I was chair, I thought we were adding too many flights to keep us safe.” Unfortunately, AUS can’t control how many flights airlines add. The only thing AUS can do now to avoid lines out the door is communicate with travelers clearly, and recommend they add an extra 30 minutes to their TSA-recommended two-hour-early arrival buffer.

Out of Our Control

Last February, Austinites became aware of something far more nightmarish than a long security line: an increase in near-miss incidents. In February, a FedEx plane came within about 100 feet of a Southwest jet; in April, a SkyWest jet was accidentally routed into the path of a Southwest plane; and in November, a Southwest and an American Airlines plane came dangerously close to colliding. Several of these mistakes were made by exhausted air traffic controllers – not an uncommon problem, according to a recent New York Times investigation.

A nationwide shortage of air traffic controllers has led to mandatory overtime shifts and 60-hour weeks. There is only one training facility in the entire country, in Oklahoma, and new trainees often take years to enter the workforce. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, only 60% of those who began training between FY 2014 and 2017 successfully completed it, and there is an increasing reliance on computer instruction due to a lack of retired controllers available to teach. According to the FAA’s most recent air traffic controller workforce plan, the AUS tower – authorized for 52 controllers – has only 34 fully certified controllers and another eight trainees.

The FAA is in charge of controller recruitment. Luckily, the agency’s most recent reauthorization bill, passed by the Senate May 9, requires it to hire and train up to 3,000 new air traffic controllers and increases the length of voice recordings in the cockpit to help with investigations in the event of more near-misses. That bill was stalled for months in the Senate due to disagreement over pilot retirement age and the inclusion of five new slots (to allow more flights) in the D.C. airport’s slot control system. Senators argued more flights would increase delays and make the airport more unsafe, after another near-miss occurred there last month.

Meanwhile, the FAA is facing massive attrition: It surpassed its 2023 goal of hiring 1,500 new controllers – the 2024 goal is 1,800 – but expects to lose more than 1,400 controllers this year to retirements and other departures. Locally, City Council Member Vanessa Fuentes told the Chronicle she has approached Austin Community College about opening a local training facility, as New York state colleges have begun to do, though that is still a very preliminary conversation.

Luckily, there’s a slew of safety technology coming to AUS, thanks to Doggett’s dogged pressuring of the FAA. In January, the agency gave us first priority in the nation for a new air traffic controller training tool. This month, it announced the installation of a new situational awareness tool that provides controllers with real-time maps of all the aircraft and vehicles on the airfield. A resolution by Fuentes last fall kick-started the implementation of a new ramp control system, which should be operational by this summer, though a permanent system could take until 2026. That tool will hand the city the responsibility to coordinate planes’ movements once they exit the taxiway and approach the gates, where they’re currently controlled by no one.

These safety tools will help alleviate stress on staff at the airport. But as long as passenger traffic continues to boom, they’ll continue to have to fit more people than the physical space is designed for. The current capacity is meant for 15 million passengers per year, and in recent years the airport has consistently surpassed that. Passenger traffic last year was 22 million.

Growing Pains

Current estimates for the new concourse’s completion stretch into the early 2030s, and that may be optimistic. “I don’t know how much of it is a lack of funds and how much of it is a lack of capacity to get all this stuff ready,” said Doggett. “Getting from the planning to the design to actually changing things seems to be a really long process, of which funding is only one part.”

As the Chronicle noted in 2022, some projects were planned in 2021, in response to the growth spike – but like all construction in Austin, the airport has to go through the city’s notoriously slow permitting process. Still, some projects were pushed through quickly and are underway – a new baggage handling system, three new gates on the west end, and the West Infill project (which broke ground at the end of April and will expand TSA checkpoint 3 from two to between six and eight lanes). Those will be finished by 2026.

A rendering of part of the expanded Austin-Bergstrom International Airport on display (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The new midfield concourse would add the most physical capacity, by far: an extra 20 gates in a new building behind the current Barbara Jordan Terminal, connected by an underground tunnel. (The concourse will be built so it could eventually expand to 40 new gates.) A new arrivals and departures hall on the north side of the terminal would accompany it, bringing the drop-off and pickup area right next to where rideshares and taxis park. All told, those changes will cost about $1 billion – a quarter of the entire estimated $4 billion expansion, aimed at increasing capacity to 30 million annual passengers.

The reason this construction isn’t estimated to be done until the 2030s can be explained partly by the pandemic, said Haynes, which slowed a federally required environmental assessment. Beyond that, construction just takes a while. This year, AUS has put out a solicitation for a design firm, which is expected to come to Council for approval in August. “We wish we could have done this yesterday, [but] it just takes time,” Haynes said. “We’re building all these projects on top of the airport’s existing operation. It’s silly to bring it back to the pandemic, but ... for a while, we thought it would take years to get back to 2019 travel levels, and we just completely surpassed them.”

Show Us the Money

On the funding side, the airport is unique as a city department, because it operates outside of the city’s General Fund, generates its own revenue, and does not receive city taxes. Its revenue comes from rent and landing fees paid by airlines, parking and concessions revenue, selling airport bonds, and the all-important FAA grants.

Securing those grants will be up to Austin’s congressional representatives, Doggett and Greg Casar, who wheedle the FAA into prioritizing AUS amid requests from all over the country. Doggett secured $39 million in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding this year for the atrium expansion and the new concourse – but that’s a drop in the bucket of a $4 billion expansion.

Airlines could be more instrumental in securing a timeline and funding for expansion. AUS is currently renegotiating the terms of their lease agreements, which could extend into next year. Those will tell us how many gates airlines will need in the new concourse and how much to adjust their rent to fund them. “We don’t have the full needs of the airlines set in stone yet,” explained Haynes, because those negotiations aren’t straightforward. “They’re all in a room with their competitors, so they’re not gonna outwardly say, 'Hey, we’re gonna launch nonstop service in two years from Austin to some exotic location,’” she said. “Airlines are multibillion-dollar private corporations that answer to shareholders and boards.”

Could they leverage those billions to more directly fund the expansion? United Airlines has invested more than $3.5 billion in Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport since 2015, including a recent $2.6 billion expansion of a terminal. These changes will allow a 40% increase in the number of people who can fly on peak travel dates in 2026 compared to 2023. The reason United can build out Houston’s airport unilaterally is because GBIA is a “hub” for the airline, just like William P. Hobby airport is a hub for Southwest. But AUS wants to remain a non-hub, said Haynes, because competition between airlines keeps prices low for customers. Still, Sepulveda said, “I think our airline partners will be creative in helping us access the capital to build for future needs.”

Even with all the funding in the world, it still takes time to build buildings. So are there other ways the city could streamline the process? Sepulveda said the city should “create a separate permitting department that just rushes through everything for the airport.” Luckily, the city has already granted several variances to AUS as part of its master development plan ordinance that treats the airport as its own single site plan. Last year, Council approved allowances for AUS to develop in segments of the Critical Water Quality Zone and build in compliance with FAA height and site requirements, where city code is in conflict.

Art by Zeke Barbaro / Getty Images

Owning the Airport Experience

If you’re planning summer vacation, all of this may make you want to throw in the towel. A tangled web of multiple jurisdictions, business interests, and national labor shortages make the space we urgently need seem far away and out of the city’s control. But along with its growth, AUS’s leadership and approach has changed immensely.

Former CEO Jacqueline Yaft resigned last year amid a conflict-of-interest scandal, and after a year of interim leadership, a new permanent CEO, Ghizlane Badawi, was appointed in April. Airport Advisory Commission members are excited to see an internal hire, and a renewed focus on community engagement: In a tweet this month, Sepulveda said Badawi has “always been the most passenger conscious. Under [her], it’s a new ABIA.” He told the Chronicle, “I think you’ve seen staff change their mindset and understand that we own the customer experience from when they turn off 71 onto Presidential Boulevard, until they disembark and get on 71 to go home.” Regardless of the factors out of AUS’s control, “It is our responsibility to wield commercial and political clout to make sure that the assets necessary for good customer experience and safe traveling experience are taking place,” said Sepulveda. “At the end of the day, we own it.”

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