There is a lot of change taking place at the Lea County Regional Airport west of Hobbs.
And the Hobbs City Commission got an update from Lea County Assistant Manager Corey Needham and Economic Development Corporation of Lea County President Missi Currier during its meeting on Monday.
The airport is currently undergoing a three-phased renovation and expansion that will more than triple the size of the current airport. Since 2012, more than $24 million has been utilized to reconstruct runways, rehabilitate taxiways, construct a new fire station, fencing, parking lot and terminal expansions.
“That number will climb over $30 million by the end of this year,” said Needham. “The runways (weight capacity) can now handle 120,000-plus (pounds) loads off the type of aircraft we hope to be utilizing. Even up to 160,000, which exceeds that of large planes like 737s or Airbus 121s. We feel pretty good about our asphalt and pavement sections moving into the next 20 years.”
What made Hobbs Mayor Sam Cobb smile was the funding portion of the projects. Lea Regional Airport became a primary airport in 2012, meaning it flew out at least 10,000 passengers in 2011. That mark allows the county to apply for federal funding. The airport went from $150,000 per year to a minimum of $1 million in entitlement and discretionary funding.
“Of the money that is spent on these projects, 93% is federal money, 3% is state money and 3% is county money,” Needham told the Commission.
“That’s a pretty good use of county money,” Cobb responded.
Needham talked in depth on the terminal expansion. Currently anyone who enters the gate area for passengers to sit and wait, have to leave the TSA security area for a restroom break, and enter through the TSA security area again. Other than two food and soft drink machines, there is also no current food service in the gated area. Those were two of several issues with the current terminal that also included a lack of TSA office space, rental car options and additional seating.
“Then we also had issues outside on the apron,” said Needham. The airport apron is the area where the aircraft can park, unload and load passengers and refuel. “Anytime there was a mechanical problem, or there was a weather issue either here or in Houston, we would have to start stacking aircraft, which created a capacity problem.”
Through their analysis of the issues, county officials came up with the need for an additional 30,000-square feet in the long term and the creation of three gates, one of which replaces the current gate.
“What we are working on now expands the existing 4,000-square-foot terminal into a little bit over 16,000 square feet,” Needham said. “So we will quadruple the size by the time we open it fully in the summer of 2020.”
Phase 1 is currently being built. It is next to the existing terminal and includes a holding area for 75 passengers, a new luggage carousel, new TSA checkpoint area, office space, larger restrooms and office space. Phase 2 is the repurposing of the existing ticketing/TSA areas and terminal to include car rental areas, an expanded ticketing area, bag makeup, restrooms and additional office space. Phase 3 introduces additional seating, a possible restaurant and additional restrooms.
Needham said Phase 1 should be complete around March, and Phases 2 and 3 will take place simultaneously and need about five months to complete.
“Barring any large delays, we are thinking September we will have everything completed,” Needham said. “That also includes two runway projects that also need to be completed. So there’s about $13 million worth of construction going on right now.”
Needham said the growth also offers the idea of accommodating passengers. The Phase 3 expansion will double the hold room size for passengers to 176 seats.
“… Which is big enough for three 50-seaters (aircraft), two 76-seaters or a 737 aircraft or an Airbus 321, if the time ever comes,” Needham said.
With the expansion of services and size, comes the growth in numbers of passengers. But where will they park their vehicles? Needham showed the commission two photos of the airport parking lot. The first was during the 2017 holiday season that showed 192 vehicles. The second was this past holiday season that showed 557 vehicles.
“We are under construction for a 900-slot parking lot,” said Needham. The lot will consume the current parking area and increase lot size from the front of the terminal toward the Carlsbad Highway.
“We will build a perimeter road around the outside and fix the circulation problem,” Needham said. “It will also give us an opportunity to improve our signage, advertising, marketing and branding. We believe this will give everyone a better customer experience and something to be proud of.”
Speaking of customers, the reason for all of the expansion and growth is because of the popularity of the Hobbs to Houston flights and the early success of the Hobbs to Denver flights that started in late October. All flights are through United Airlines. Currier talked about how the popularity hasn’t just grown because of the economic benefit of the oil and gas industry. She said there has been increase in ridership for non-industry reasons. She shared a story with the commission that took place during a recent EDCLC holiday event.
“There was a wonderful woman there who broke down in tears thanking the airline committee for bringing the Denver flight to this area because her daughter got to come home for Christmas,” Currier said. “Those are the little things. We talk about the subsidy dollars. We talk about the partnership with United, but you forget about the human aspect of it and how important that is. We are bringing businesses together, families together and more opportunities to the region.”