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Long lines at AVL? New TSA lane coming as terminal expansion continues, airport CEO says

Passengers board a flight at Asheville Regional Airport on Sunday, June 16, 2024.
Felicia Sonmez
Passengers board a flight at Asheville Regional Airport on Sunday, June 16, 2024.

Asheville Regional Airport is adding a fourth security lane to ease wait times as passenger numbers reach record highs, the airport’s CEO said in an interview Monday.

Lew Bleiweis, president and CEO of the Greater Asheville Regional Airport Authority, told BPR that Transportation Security Administration (TSA) office space inside the airport will be demolished to make room for the new lane, which should be in operation sometime in July.

But even then, the airport chief said, travelers should arrive as early as three hours before their flight boards. And the wait could start before you step inside. In recent weeks, passengers have been directed to line up in a covered area outside the airport due to a lack of space inside the check-in area.

The news comes as the airport, which is in the midst of a multi-year, $400 million expansion, enters July – historically AVL’s busiest month. It also comes amid reports by some passengers of long lines and missed flights, a problem that was exacerbated on Saturday by the temporary failure of TSA screening equipment.

“Everyone's expecting record numbers of travelers this summer,” Bleiweis said. “So everyone was well in advance trying to put things in place to handle those record number of passengers. So we are limited right now with the space availability for three checkpoint areas. We are doing a little bit of demo to be able to put a temporary fourth lane in.”

The additional lane “will help relieve some of the congestion at the checkpoint, but it will also provide backup equipment if one of the other lanes goes down for equipment failure,” he added.

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Fueled by the rise in Western North Carolina’s population and the booming tourism industry, Asheville Regional Airport has grown from its humble beginnings to become the third busiest in North Carolina, behind Raleigh-Durham and Charlotte Douglas. The airport has nonstop flights to 27 domestic destinations.

Last year, work began on a new passenger terminal that will increase the number of gates to 12 from the current seven and boost the airport’s square footage by 150%. The main work of the project is expected to be completed by 2027, about three-and-a-half years after construction began.

The project is divided into three phases. Currently, the airport is in Phase One. The old north concourse has been demolished and a modular building has been erected on the south end, keeping the total number of gates at seven while the construction of the new north concourse is underway. During this phase, no jetways are available, meaning that passengers must walk outside and up a ramp in order to board their flight.

Once the new north concourse is complete, which is expected to happen next summer, the project will enter Phase Two. That phase will include the demolition of the south concourse and the construction of a new one. During Phase Two, the airport’s main operations will be moved to the new north concourse, which will have seven gates. The north concourse will also have jetways and a temporary TSA checkpoint area.

That checkpoint area is expected to have enough lanes to handle next summer’s rush of travelers, but more lanes can be added if needed, Bleiweis said.

“There is the ability to be expanded again on a temporary basis, to put in some additional equipment and everything if it's needed. The permanent location will be able to handle up to six checkpoint lanes,” he said, noting that those lanes will position the airport well “for growth into the future.”

Phase Three will begin upon the completion of the new, five-gate south concourse. By that point, the airport will have a total of 12 gates. Most of the Phase Three work will include “back of house” construction and clean-up.

The expansion is moving along quickly – but in recent months, there have been some growing pains, Bleiweis acknowledged.

“The airport here is limited in where and how much we can build,” he told BPR. “We don't have unlimited space to be building a brand-new terminal while we're operating out of the existing terminal. So again, we're building on top of an operating airport, and it makes it very, very difficult for everybody. The community needs to know that we thank them profusely for their patience and just bear with us until this is done – first half next summer, and the rest will be done in early ‘27.”

While the number of gates at the airport has remained at seven while construction is underway, the number of flights has continued to increase. Overall, the number of passengers traveling through Asheville Regional Airport has doubled in five years, reaching a record high of 2.2 million last year.

This year is on pace to break that record. In April, the most recent month for which statistics are available, 181,705 passengers traveled through AVL – an increase of nearly 12% over 2023.

According to a BPR analysis, the airport currently has 317 departures a week – compared with 272 departures a week last June. That’s an increase of nearly 17%.

The airport does have a limit on the number of overnight parking spots available for aircraft – and this spring, it stopped a carrier from adding a flight due to parking issues – but beyond that, Bleiweis said the airport is limited in its ability to prevent commercial airlines from adding more flights.

Airlines, he said, are increasing their service to meet demand.

“The region is growing tremendously, and we don't necessarily have that kind of control over the airlines when they want to put flights in,” he said. “The way it works with the [Federal Aviation Authority], we really don't have that ability to say, ‘No, we can't.’

“And so, the airlines put their flights in. They understand the necessary requirements to handle their flights from their staffing personnel. … So, it's a combination of everyone's aware and makes the necessary adjustments to be able to accommodate the flights that we have departing from the airport.”

Parking has also been an issue at the airport, with spaces in the garage and daily lot regularly reaching capacity. The airport has added several overflow parking lots since late last year, with regular shuttle service bringing passengers to and from the main terminal. While plans have not yet been finalized, a second parking garage is expected once the airport terminal expansion is complete.

With the increased potential for delays during the airport expansion, Bleiweis emphasized the need for travelers to arrive at the airport much earlier than they would in the past – as much as three hours before their flight is set to depart.

“We used to say two hours before your flight,” he said. “Now, we're saying two to three hours before boarding. And boarding usually starts 30 to 45 minutes before your flight.”

Felicia Sonmez is a reporter covering growth and development for Blue Ridge Public Radio.
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