Birmingham-Shuttlesworth airport’s $201 million renovation could allow direct international flights

When the newly expanded and renovated Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport is completed in 2014, passengers will have more and better choices if they want to grab a bite to eat, they’ll have an easier time getting through security and they’ll enjoy a more comfortable and attractive terminal.

But what has business leaders buzzing is something that the $201 million project can’t promise to deliver: direct international flights.

In addition to replacing the almost 40-year-old terminal and its concourses, the Birmingham Airport Authority is adding customs offices, qualifying the airport to host regular direct international passenger and cargo flights. Currently, passengers flying internationally from Birmingham must make a connection at a larger hub airport.

While airport managers still must convince the airlines that Birmingham can support direct international routes, business leaders said they don’t think it will be a hard sell.

“There is a lot of international activity that is generated out of Birmingham,” said Bill Taylor, president of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama and former chief executive of Mercedes-Benz’s Alabama auto assembly operation.

Statewide, Alabama companies last year did $36 billion worth of international business, including $15.5 billion in exports. The volume of Alabama goods exported to the world increased 76 percent in the four years before the recession, and according to data from the Alabama Development Office that international business was directly and indirectly responsible for about 300,000 Alabama jobs.

The international boom has been led by the state’s automotive industry, which last year totaled $4 billion in exports and routinely sends its employees to Europe and Asia.

With the exception of the tiny handful of top executives who fly on private jets, the sales people, engineers, scientists and managers whose work takes them outside the United States have had to drive or fly, usually to Atlanta, to travel internationally. And foreign businesspeople coming to Alabama have had to follow the same path in reverse. That inconvenience, business leaders said, has consequences. Site selection teams routinely examine flight schedules when making decisions about where to locate new offices and manufacturing plants and, Taylor said, executives’ experiences in reaching a destination are often the first thing they discuss after they get there.

Something as simple as the aesthetics of an airport terminal can ultimately make or break a business deal.

“When we travel, we talk about our experiences,” he said. “And an airport speaks volumes about how connected a community is to the rest of the world.”

Taylor and Brian Hilson, president and chief executive of the Birmingham Business Alliance, said Europe is at the top of their wish list for international destinations, followed by Asia.

Ruffner Page, president of McWane Inc. and a member of the Airport Authority’s board of directors, said a regular direct flight to Stuttgart, Germany, is one possibility for Birmingham’s first foray into international routes.

“With Mercedes-Benz being nearby, there is real demand,” Page said.

Airport officials, business leaders and Mercedes-Benz have had informal discussions about the possibility, he said, and have talked about the possibility of an airline using planes designed to carry both cargo and passengers. Still, Page said, talks are preliminary and solid plans won’t be developed until after a BBA survey shows what destinations would be in greatest demand.

Despite the growth of international business in the state, leisure travel still accounts for about half the passengers who use Birmingham-Shuttlesworth.

That, said airport authority spokeswoman Toni Herrera-Bast, might mean that Latin America is a better bet for Birmingham’s first direct international service, because so many passengers are traveling to Mexico and Central America.

Impact

Which international routes are chosen matters not just because different routes serve different interests. International flights themselves have a significant economic impact on a community, and the origin and destination of those flights makes a big difference in the size of impact.

According to a report prepared for Denver International Airport, one daily international flight can, over the course of a year, have an economic impact in the tens of millions of dollars or more. The Denver study found that one daily flight from Mexico had an annual economic impact there of $26 million, one daily flight from Europe $91 million, and one daily flight from Asia had an annual economic impact of $142 million.

Passengers on flights from Mexico were more likely to be locals returning home, while passengers on European or Asian flights were more likely to be visitors from abroad, who would spend more money on hotels, dining, transportation and entertainment, the report found.

International flights from overseas also have a greater impact because they typically are larger aircraft carrying more passengers. In addition to bringing more paying visitors, those flights typically pay more in airport fees.

Regardless of which routes are first served, Birmingham is now enough of an international city to support international routes, business leaders said. And the city needs them to remain competitive.

The BBA, he said, will work with the airport authority to develop a business plan that will convince airlines Birmingham is a good investment, and it’s possible that the airport could be hosting direct international traffic when the renovations are complete.

“We would like to start with at least one,” Herrera-Bast said.  

Article source: http://blog.al.com/businessnews/2011/11/post_106.html