The Trouble With the Memphis Airport: No Crowds

The ticketing lobby at Memphis International Airport. The passenger count, more than 11 million in 2007, fell to about four million last year.

MEMPHIS — The view from the chief executive’s office window at Memphis International Airport is as sweeping as it is dispiriting: On a recent afternoon, he could see 10 empty jet bridges and not a single airliner. Later, at the curb in front of the terminal, there were only three cars dropping off passengers, and inside, a pair of moving walkways carried just three people between them.

An empty airport may sound heavenly to anyone who has had to cope with the crowds and chaos at La Guardia or Hartsfield-Jackson or O’Hare. But it is a humbling reality for Memphis.

To walk the airport’s deserted corridors now is to know that its glory days of just a decade ago are gone, a glaring casualty of an airline merger that transformed the American aviation industry but cost the Mid-South’s most important city its status as a hub.

So now, while many airports are desperately trying to figure out how to add more gates, more destinations, more parking, more restaurants and, for goodness’ sake, more bathrooms, Memphis is grappling with the opposite, much rarer riddle: how to shrink gracefully.

“We spend most of our careers trying to figure out how to grow passengers and grow facilities,” said Scott A. Brockman, the president and chief executive of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority. “To remove things, without a plan to rebuild them better, is really a painful thing for an airport guy.”

Memphis used to be a regular transfer stop for business and leisure travelers, when Northwest Airlines was the dominant carrier and the airport was marketed as a “hassle-free” hub. But then Delta Air Lines gobbled up Northwest, and decided it only needed one hub in the South, its own base in Atlanta. The decision cost Memphis almost two-thirds of its passengers: From more than 11 million in 2007, the last full year before the merger announcement, the count fell to about four million last year.

That has sometimes left the spacious three-concourse terminal looking staggeringly deserted, with most of its gates unused. The airport’s solution is to spend $219 million on what it is calling a modernization effort: closing and renovating Concourse B, and then consolidating operations there and essentially mothballing Concourses A and C.

The plan is as much a push toward the future as it is an admission that Memphis — the sign at the entrance still calls it “America’s Aerotropolis” — is a lesser passenger magnet these days than Omaha or Columbus, Ohio, or even the second airport serving Dallas.

“It was death by a thousand cuts,” said Mr. Brockman, who has worked at the airport long enough that he can recall when the terminal was “bustling,” “crazy” and “kind of orchestrated mayhem.”

Memphis had few role models to look to. The closest analogue, industry experts said, was Pittsburgh, which had to reimagine its airport after US Airways, which is now part of American Airlines, stopped using it as a hub.

But such demoralizing plans and strategies can only do so much, especially for now. In Memphis, there are direct flights to far fewer destinations than before, and only two to help justify the “international” in the name (Toronto and Cancún, Mexico). It takes no time at all to walk through the terminal’s three ticketing areas or to zip through the security line. A gate may be crowded when a flight is about to board, but others nearby will be idle, and finding a place to sit is rarely a problem.

The airport is betting its future on Concourse B. Over the next three years or so, it will be rebuilt to feature wider corridors, more amenities, more natural light and even a stage for live entertainment. (After all, this is Memphis, where blues notes still pulse through the airport’s parking garage, and the airport’s logo is a reminder of the city’s musical heritage.)

When Concourse B reopens, A and C will close, idling about 60 gates. The airport plans to keep a minimal level of heat and ventilation in each of them, Mr. Brockman said, and will test their equipment occasionally just in case they are needed again someday. That day may be a long time coming, or may never come.

Though Concourse B is already closed, demolition work won’t start for a few months yet. There are still some signs there for Allegiant and Delta, and portraits of Elvis Presley and B.B. King still hang, reflected on the gleaming terrazzo floors. Every so often, the public address system booms out recorded announcements to no one.

The sprawling terminal may have become a bit of a white elephant with the falloff in passenger traffic, but not so the airport as a whole. Its runways are still busy, chiefly because Memphis is home to FedEx, whose purple, orange and white cargo jets roar morning and night through the western Tennessee sky. Among the world’s cargo airports, Memphis is second only to Hong Kong.

Airport officials tend to toggle between offering optimism and consolation. A favorite statistic is the decline in airfares to and from Memphis since the merger. They averaged $389.81 last year, down nearly $70 from 2007 when adjusted for inflation.

Even so, residents lament the lost hub, and when you mention the airport in these parts, you will often get a shrug, a grimace or a sad stare.

“So sad to watch a booming airport turn into a ghost town,” a letter to the editor of The Commercial Appeal said in January.

And the criticism used to be even harsher.

“Probably the biggest impact was the psychology on the community — ‘Oh, my God, we’re not going to be a real city any more,’” Mr. Brockman said. “I think that now, the community has pretty much come to terms. The ones who grumble the most are the business travelers who now have to spend two-and-a-half hours laying over somewhere. Instead of a two-hour trip somewhere, it’s now six or seven hours.”

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