90.3 WBHM Birmingham -- Look closely at Birmingham's city seal, and you'll see an airplane, along with Vulcan and the downtown skyline. Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport has been a part of the Magic City for nearly eight decades, but airport leaders say it's time to grow. In the past few years, the airport has upgraded its runways and cargo facilities. Now, there's talk of renovating the passenger terminal-and possible international flights to Birmingham. WBHM's Bradley George takes a closer look at the proposal.

You've probably seen the ads for the airport, wistful clouds with shapes representing various destinations. The airport is also convenient. If you live in Birmingham, it's probably a 5 or 10 minute drive. But airport officials say convenience and lots of destinations aren't enough. If Birmingham is to be completive, it needs better passenger facilities.

'What we're trying to do is get more efficiencies out of this building.'

Al Denson is CEO of Birmimngham-Shuttlesworth International Airport. Earlier this year, he announced a plan to renovate the airport's passenger terminal. It calls for a new concourse, a central security checkpoint, as well as more shops and restaurants.

But before that project can begin, Denson says he'll need to meet with everyone from the airlines and rental car companies to the Federal Aviation Administration.

'There are a lot of officials and stakeholders that we must meet with to truly define the scope of the project and the costs associated with it.'

Denson wouldn't speculate on the cost. In October, the Birmingham News reported the terminal project may cost about 193 million dollars. Funding will come from the FAA, the Department of Homeland Security, and the passenger facility charge-that's a fee you pay when you fly into or out of Birmingham.

That's Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport. But where are the international flights? For a time in the early 90s, the airport offered service to Mexico and Canada. But since then, you'll need a connecting flight in another city before you can reach an international destination. The proposed terminal renovation has also brought talk of international flights returning to Birmingham.

'We're jumping the gun, we've got Atlanta at our back door.'

Newly elected Birmingham City Councilwoman Kim Rafferty has been involved in quality of life issues surrounding airport expansion for a decade. Rafferty says the airport is an important economic engine for the city, but airport leaders should have more realistic expectations about its future.

'I think we are a mid-sized airport because of the physical location of the airport. And because of Atlanta being where it is and Nashville being where it is, we're not going to be anything larger.'

'You have to be realistic.'

John Kasarda is an airline industry expert at the University of North Carolina. He's a big proponent of airports as a tool for economic expansion. He credits Atlanta's investment in Hartsfield International Airport for fueling that region's explosive growth over the last 40 years. Kasarda says upgrades at Birmingham's airport will help, but international flights are concentrating at major airports. And airlines may not want to take a chance on those flights in mid-sized market.

'Nonetheless, the city should do everything it can to build up its aviation network. Provide as many legal incentives it can to attract airline service because the airlines are the physical internet. A web won't move a box.'

In any case, Birmingham won't see international flights without a customs inspection station. That's part of the proposed terminal renovation. But the proposal is still in an embryonic stage. Former Mayor Larry Langford pushed hard for it-international flights and all-during his the waning days of his administration. Airport CEO Al Denson says he's eager to tell the city's new mayor and city council members about the plan.

'And I feel very strongly that the elected officials will be supportive and galvanize and get behind this project. And we'll continue to move things in a very forward direction.'

Denson hopes that forward direction leads to construction starting in 2011. But seeing clouds shaped like Big Ben over Birmingham? That might take a bit longer. For WBHM, I'm Bradley George.


~ Bradley George, November 21, 2009