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SUBMITTED PHOTO Outbound passengers social distance themselves as they exit Gate 2 at the Lea County Regional Airport on the first day of using the new area, part of Phase 1 of a three-phase terminal expansion project declared complete on Friday.

Passengers waiting to board a United Airlines plane at Lea County Regional Airport were able the use the restroom without going back through security on Friday.

Having the restrooms outside the secure area coupled with tight quarters were frequent complaints about the airport terminal in recent years.

The first outgoing group of passengers since completion of airport terminal expansion Phase 1 navigated a new and larger Transportation Security Administration (TSA) area before pausing in a new waiting area designed to seat 75 people. That’s about twice the number of seats available last week.

Corey Needham, assistant county manager for operations and airports administrator, said the county began setting goals for expanding the terminal as far back as 2011.

“The terminal project was broken down into three phases. The first phase was constructing the new TSA security checkpoint, baggage screening area, the new security hold room where you sit after you get screened, as well as restrooms and some office space for TSA and the airlines,” Needham told the News-Sun Thursday. “That part of the project is complete and we’re ready to start utilizing it.”

TSA contractors were in Hobbs Thursday to move the checkpoints for Friday’s outbound passengers to go through and be the first to use the new part of the terminal, including the hold room, the new chairs and restrooms.

Inbound passengers have been using a new baggage claim area with a baggage belt reminiscent of larger airports for more than a week.

With Phase 1 completed, Phase 2 began immediately, and employees were already working in the area on Friday.

“That’s the existing 4,500-square-foot terminal,” Needham said. “We’ll be moving the ticketing over to its new ultimate location, as well as adding the new rental car counters and the Gate 1 area that would be available for intrastate airline traffic like … those 12-15 passenger airplanes that do not require TSA screening.”

He anticipated Phase 2, mostly moving features around and changing ceiling tiles with no structural changes, will take about eight to 10 weeks.

Phase 3 also began months ago, much as an expansion of Phase 1. When Phase 3 is done, the number of seats in the passenger waiting area will go from 75 to about 176, more than double. The size of the terminal will be almost quadrupled to around 17,000 square feet, compared to the former 4,500 square feet.

“That will give us both Gate 2 and Gate 3 for United Airlines, which is currently serving us,” Needham said. “That project is also going well. It will be functional in the late October timeframe.” He acknowledged construction projects often hit snags and the actual completion date could be in November.

Also under way — and hard to miss today for anyone driving to the airport — is expansion of the parking lot, from about 400 parking spaces to

900. Needham anticipates the parking lot will be completed by the end of September.

Needham pointed out in a previous interview the free parking is one of the advantages of flying into and out of Hobbs.

The Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) and New Mexico Department of Transportation (NMDOT) participated in many of the airport projects, but generally left the terminal to other sources of revenue.

“We’ve had several projects going on. The cost of the apron, an FAA and NMDOT project, was in the $1.4 million range,” Needham said. “The total cost of the terminal, phases 2 and 3 and the renovation, is going to approach $7 million.”

The parking lot project, expanding from 400 to 900 spaces, included much construction work done in-house by Lea County and about $400,000 for contract workers to provide the paving, curbs and gutters, concrete and lighting work.

“The FAA and NMDOT paid upward of 97% of the apron,” Needham said. “NMDOT also gave us a grant for the majority of the parking lot project.”

Needham called funding the terminal expansion itself a mixed bag.

“The county actually put in quite a bit of money on it, but NMDOT put money toward that project,” Needham said. “The FAA didn’t actually contribute towards the terminal project, but we also had three legislative grants through the State of New Mexico that our representatives and senators were able to get us over the last four years. That also paid for a large portion of the terminal expansion.”

Before the novel coronavirus pandemic hit, officials were considering doubling the number of flights to and from Denver and Houston, with Denver just having been added to the schedule last fall.

Not only did the pandemic affect ridership and temporarily cancel the Denver flights, but it also affected construction efforts.

“We ran into some obstacles. Some was just getting contractors here because some of the items related to the airport are specialty items,” Needham said, offering luggage conveyor systems as an example of equipment and expertise that comes from other states.

“At different time frames, whether it was their home state or New Mexico, we had to try to figure out (a work schedule) or postpone things because they were either going to have to quarantine here or quarantine in their home state,” Needham said. “That slowed things down quite a bit at times. We’ve been able to work through most of those issues, but it’s definitely a different world constructing things during the COVID pandemic than it was a year ago.”

Flights to and from Denver remain halted, but officials are optimistic they will resume.

Missi Courier, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of Lea County (EDCLC), said, “We know the Denver flight will return in the coming months, but we don’t have a timeline on that yet. We’re working closely with United (Airlines) as we monitor the flight numbers as well as the demand from incoming and outgoing travelers.

“United is committed to bringing the flight back and we look forward to having it back, but as of right now it just won’t be prudent to bring the flight to the area because of the low ridership numbers,” Courier concluded.

Curtis Wynne may be contacted at reporter3@hobbsnews.com.