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Bigger Delta, American jets mean bigger apron at this small, eastern N.C. airport

By  – Senior Staff Writer, Triangle Business Journal

As commercial airlines shift focus to larger jets, it presents a conundrum for smaller airports – one federal funds might help solve for a tiny, regional airfield near the North Carolina coast.

In New Bern, Coastal Carolina Regional Airport has been quietly serving both Delta Airlines and American Airlines for more than a decade, says its director, Andy Shorter. And it’s doing it from a 40,000-square-foot terminal.

Small jets, many of them 50-seaters, land at the airport, taking eastern North Carolinians on quick jaunts to Charlotte and Atlanta where they can then connect to destinations throughout the globe.

But, as Joe Esposito, senior vice president of network planning at Delta, told a crowd last week at the Regional Transportation Alliance 2018 Transportation Breakfast, the airline is moving to larger jets.

While Delta used to have 500 of its 50-seaters, it’s now down to 120 “and shrinking,” Esposito said. “Buying smaller airplanes is not necessarily where Delta wants to be,” Esposito told the crowd last week.

Shorter says it’s a shift his team has seen coming, which is why it’s elated to win a new $3.9 million FAA grant for “the first transformational project we’ve had in a long time,” an apron expansion. An apron is where airplanes park to load and unload passengers and cargo.

“Even the small airplanes are getting bigger,” Shorter says. “Bigger means more space… By expanding the apron, we can basically have enough space for them.”

By using some of the cash to swap the ramp’s asphalt for concrete, it will be able to handle a heavier weight, too.

And that’s all just the first phase of what’s coming. Phases 2, 3, and 4 coming to the New Bern airport will expand the terminal by another 5,000 feet, increase how many people it can hold and provide more area for enhanced TSA screening.

In order to attract more growth, investments are essential, he says. He envisions a Coastal Carolina that can one day fly nonstop to other hubs such as Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Right now, 70 percent of the airport’s traffic is general aviation, with commercial traffic from Delta and American accounting for the other 30 percent. The airport sees “about a quarter million commercial passengers” each year, and just over 40,000 operations.

“All the needles are pointing up for increased air passengers,” he says. “The economy is increasing. The population is going to increase out this way.”

State funds are already being used for general aviation projects, such as new hangar space that could lure more companies to eastern North Carolina.