Dec 20, 2022 - News

Expansion of Austin airport could cost as much as $6.5 billion

Illustration of an airport runway shaped like a checkmark.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

The leaders of the city-run Austin-Bergstrom International Airport are trying to make the travel experience, from the moment you step out of your Uber to the moment you step on your plane, as wonderful a journey as navigating an airport can be.

By the numbers: AUS, as the airport's re-branders prefer it to be called, now has $6.5 billion worth of capital projects in the pipeline over the next two decades, per airport planning documents.

  • Eighteen airlines fly to 94 nonstop destinations out of Austin. By comparison, San Antonio International Airport has 14 airlines jetting to 41 destinations, and Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, a hub for American, has 265 nonstop flights on 28 commercial airlines.

Yes, but: Austin's airport, which opened in 1999, is suffering growing pains as safety and airplane capacity try to catch up with the city's rapid growth.

What we're watching: The city has allocated more than $3 million in legal fees for an eminent domain standoff with the operator of the far-flung South Terminal.

  • A plan to add at least three gates to the main terminal, already budgeted to cost $148 million, is now running into the prospect of cost overruns due to inflation and labor shortages, per airport planning documents reviewed by Axios.

What's next: By decade's end, Austin's airport is slated to break ground on a new concourse with 10 additional gates, connected to the main terminal by an underground tunnel.

  • The projected multibillion-dollar total capital costs at the airport over the next 20 years will include runway and utility upgrades.
  • In the meantime, airlines are adding more nonstop destinations and flying in and out of Austin with bigger aircraft, per airport officials.

The rub: Amid all this expansion, how does the Austin airport stays local while getting passengers through security quickly?

The big picture: The airport is a reflection of modern Austin — successful, shimmering, framed with glass and steel, full of traffic, and always straining to retain some flavor of the city's character.

How it works: To give the airport some Austin flavor, 2% of its capital project funding goes toward the city's public art program — including pieces at the airport.

A piece by the artist Angela Navarro
A piece by artist Angela Navarro is displayed at the Austin airport. Photo: Asher Price/Axios
  • "We know that for many travelers, the airport might be the most art they get to be exposed to, and we think that is really special," airport spokesperson Sam Haynes tells Axios.
  • Of note: The airport, with an operating budget of about $210 million, is city-owned and operated but doesn't take any Austin taxpayer money. All expenses are covered through airport revenue, federal grants and airport revenue bonds.

The airport also emphasizes local branding with its food concessions — there's a Salt Lick, a Salvation Pizza and a Peached Tortilla, among others.

Plus: The Austin airport employs a music program coordinator as the booking agent and stage manager for the hundreds of musicians across the airport's eight live music stages.

What they're saying: "I've never quite experienced anything like that in the multitude of airports I've been to and through" — Axios Austin reader Bradley B. — who lives in Minnesota — recently wrote to us about the great music he heard in the Austin airport.

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