A look at the latest chapter in the never-ending construction at Charlotte’s airport

A look at the latest chapter in the never-ending construction at Charlotte’s airport
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If you’ve traveled through Charlotte’s airport at any point in the past decade, you’ve noticed dust and construction crews. The loud buzz of jackhammers and saws seems constant. For years, walls have been plastered with signs indicating that “We’re building an airport fit for the Queen.”

The dust is not going to settle anytime soon.

“We will always be under construction,” says Jack Christine, the airport’s chief operating officer, smiling after a recent press conference.

“It’s easy to see, when you look around, that we have a lot of demand. We have lots of passengers, and we have lots of aircraft in and out of here. As long as we continue to have that demand, we will continue to build.”

On Monday night, Charlotte City Council will likely approve the next phase of the airport’s seemingly endless construction: A $600 million expansion of and renovation to the building’s lobby and baggage claim area. The whole project will take more than five years, and it’ll nearly double the size of the lobby.

The project is part of a larger renovation effort that the airport kicked off five years ago. Destination CLT is a multibillion-dollar capital investment program that includes concourse renovations, expansion of the airport’s roadways, and a new terminal.

Charlotte Douglas International Airport renovation

Rendering of the renovated lobby at Charlotte’s airport (Courtesy of Charlotte Douglas International Airport)

The lobby expansion is expected to be the biggest, most in-your-face chapter of the airport’s revitalization, at least for passengers.

Yes, this will mean travel headaches for local customers, especially those who travel through the airport frequently and have a system. You know, they travel the same airline. Each time, they get dropped off in the same place and walk in through the same door.

Throughout construction, some doors on both the upper and lower levels will be closed for stretches of time. Travelers will have to walk to the next nearest one, which could be a pain if, for instance, you’re hauling a big suitcase or traveling with kids or in a wheelchair.

“That will frustrate some folks, and we understand that. We just ask for patience as we work through it,” Christine says.

The latest project will add 175,000 square feet of new space, roughly four average-sized Harris Teeters. It will include the renovation of another 191,000 square feet.

The new construction portion will extend the building out into where traffic used to flow through for passenger pickups and drop-offs. Last week, the airport began a lower-level traffic shift that moves vehicles from the three inner lanes closest to baggage claim to the outer five lanes closest to hourly deck.

Christine says that crews will finish construction of the expansion before renovating the current building’s interior. They will temporarily pull some functions into the new building to start renovation work on sections of the old building.

Outside the lobby, crews will add a massive canopy that’ll cover the upper level lanes.

Charlotte Douglas International Airport renovation

As part of the latest round of renovations at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, crews will add a massive white canopy that’ll cover the upper level lanes of traffic. (Courtesy of Charlotte Douglas International Airport)

Inside the renovated lobby, travelers will find new checkpoints and automated screening lines. The whole space will have an open and modern look and feel, officials have said.

Another part of the lobby renovation includes adding 7,520 square feet for food vendors and other retail. Most of it will be on the lower level.

Currently, there’s little in the way of food and drink options before you go through security. There’s a Starbucks on the lower level near the baggage claim area. On either side of it, there’s Charlotte Bistro with a little bar inside, and a Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory.

Destination CLT was announced in 2015, right after Charlotte’s airport wrapped up its previous major round of renovations.

Called CLT 2015, that $1.5 billion, eight-year effort included, among other improvements, a new entrance roadway, new hourly parking decks and a new business valet parking deck.

The first few years of Destination CLT included several major projects — some that recently wrapped up and some that are still underway. Several concourses are getting new bathrooms, new signage, new lighting, a new sound system, new chairs with outlets, and new hard surface terrazzo flooring to replace the old carpet that’s been torn out.

An expanded Concourse A opened last year for passengers traveling non-American Airlines companies like United and Southwest. New lanes opened up outside the airport’s entrance last year, too. Among other projects, Concourses B and C are both scheduled to be expanded to make room for new gates, and a new air traffic control tower is expected to open this spring.

Destination CLT has a price tag of $2.5-$3.1 billion. Its funding comes not from local tax dollars, but from passenger fees and state and federal grants, Christine says. The price range ($2.5-$3.1) stems from the fact that construction costs fluctuate, he adds.

Since the start of Destination CLT, airport and city leaders have emphasized that the building was constructed in another era, when no one could have anticipated the kind of growth Charlotte’s seen in recent years.

When Charlotte Douglas opened for business in May 1982, the airport served five million local passengers. It now sees nearly three times as many, Christine told city council in a recent presentation. Various expansion efforts over the years have quadrupled the size of the airport since it opened.

Charlotte Douglas International Airport lobby, 1982

Charlotte Douglas International Airport lobby, 1982 rendering (Courtesy of Charlotte Douglas)

Charlotte’s airport is now the sixth busiest in the nation, according to rankings from the Airports Council International. More than 46 million total travelers passed through last year, an all-time high. Airport officials said that 80-90 percent of the people who travel through Charlotte Douglas never actually leave the airport. In other words, they’re connecting.

All that’s to say, if it feels crammed at Charlotte’s airport recently, relief may be in sight. Until, of course, more growth prompts another major round of renovations.

“I know it can be frustrating when you’re always seeing construction, but I come from the premise of, if we didn’t do anything and we continue to see that growth, it would be even more frustrating,” Christine says.

The airport’s never-ending construction mirrors what’s happening in and around Uptown, where roads are closed and the skyline’s full of cranes. It’s the price of living in a place where 60 people move every day.

A city that’s building is a city on the move,” says James “Smuggie” Mitchell, an at-large city council member. 

The airport’s grown in passenger traffic for all of the 24 years that Christine has lived in Charlotte. As long as that trend continues, the airport will continue with construction work.

“It’s a good problem to have,” Christine says. “But it does mean that we’re always going to be building stuff.”

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