Eppley Airfield logged another year of growth in passengers in 2015, marking the first time since 2007 the airport’s traffic has climbed for two years in a row.
Airport officials said strong demand and a strong local economy helped boost traffic 1.2 percent versus 2014 figures. That’s good for an increase of about 50,000 passengers, to a total of 4.17 million passengers.
Back-to-back years of growth are another sign of the long march back from the recession, when air traffic tumbled and airlines scaled back service.
The number of passengers traveling through Eppley hasn’t hit pre-recession levels, but it’s moving in that direction.
“I don’t think too many airports have reached their pre-recession highs,” said Chris Martin, Eppley’s director of operations and airline affairs. But midsize airports like Eppley “are starting to catch up” to where they were before the global crisis.
“We’re very pleased to see two years of consecutive growth,” he said.
Eppley is deemed by the Federal Aviation Administration a “medium hub” airport — in the same classification as the airports in Kansas City, Missouri, St. Louis and Milwaukee. It was the 60th-largest out of about 510 commercial airports in the U.S., based on 2014 passenger count figures, according to the FAA.
The airport served about 4.12 million passengers in 2014 and saw an increase that year versus 2013 of about 2 percent.
For this year: “We’re very positive on the outlook for 2016,” Martin said.
The increase in passengers is a good sign for Nebraska’s economy, said Eric Thompson, director of the Bureau of Business Research and associate professor of economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“Business opportunities are growing and people have more income, adjusting for inflation, so you’re seeing that in airport activity, and that’s one of the reasons it’s a good general, broad indicator of the economy,” Thompson said of the airport traffic figures.
The uptick in passengers at Eppley was largely carried by Delta and Southwest Airlines, which saw increases of about 3 percent and 8 percent, respectively.
To meet rising passenger demand, airlines have begun adding more nonstop routes for 2016, including a daily nonstop flight via American Airlines to Los Angeles International Airport, slated to begin June 2; daily nonstop service to Portland, Oregon, via Alaska Airlines beginning Feb. 18; and daily nonstop service via Southwest to Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., beginning March 10.
Alaska Airlines also said it would add more seats to its existing daily nonstop flight to Seattle. The airline in June will replace the 70-seat regional jet that has been flying the route with a 163-seat plane.
Eppley’s traffic peaked in 2007 at 4.42 million passengers.
The passenger count dictates the airport’s future expansion: Once it is on the verge of hitting about 4.8 million, changes that are part of the airport’s demand-based master plan will start kicking in. Those include expansion of the north concourse and replacing information technology infrastructure.
When the airport nears 5.4 million passengers per year it will begin work on expanding and renovating the existing terminals, including consolidation of the ticketing counters, security checkpoints and baggage claim areas.
Meanwhile, construction is to begin soon at Eppley on a six-story parking garage, to be built to the north of the existing garage.
The Lincoln Airport also saw more air travelers. Passenger traffic was up 13 percent, to 326,613, in 2015. A nonstop flight to Atlanta on Delta Airlines was added in late 2014, fueling some of the growth.
David Haring, executive director of the Lincoln Airport, said most flights from the airport are nearly full.
“We expect the trend of full flights to continue in 2016,” Haring said. “But the rate of growth in passenger numbers will slow unless airlines add more capacity.”
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