Bigger crowds likely at Des Moines airport

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — It’s common knowledge for residents of central Iowa that it typically takes only about 30 minutes to get from the front doors to the boarding gates at Des Moines International Airport.

However, don’t count on this being true during Thanksgiving week, when airport officials expect passenger traffic to reach or exceed pre-pandemic levels.

They also warned that it might be a good idea to start construction with a little more time, even for non-holiday travel.

The Des Moines Register reports that the airport has seen a 67% increase in passenger numbers over the past 10 years, despite a sharp decline in 2020 when COVID-19 severely impacted travel. This year in particular, passengers are flocking back. October was the first month that traffic exceeded pre-pandemic levels, with nearly 248,000 passengers using the airport, compared with 245,649 for the same month in 2019, according to statistics from the Des Moines Airport Authority.

The upcoming wave of holidays is likely to test temporary fixes made over the years as the airport awaits construction of a planned larger terminal.

“We gave the existing terminal a facelift,” said Kevin Foley, managing director of the airport. “We reskinned the existing bones, but the bones are very old and need updating.”

Measures to deal with expected crowds include: Staff plan to turn off the escalator to departure screening gates to allow people to queue as existing queues overflow.

Foley said the airport will also work with the US Transportation Security Administration, which operates the screening facility, “to hire as many staff as possible to get passengers through during this time.”

The TSA planned to host a recruitment event to assist individuals applying for positions as transportation security officers at Des Moines Airport. Starting salary is $18.65 per hour and TSA offers eligible new hires a $2,000 bonus – $1,000 after onboarding and $1,000 after one year of service.

Serving the fastest-growing major metro in the Midwest, passenger traffic at the airport reached nearly 3 million in 2019, a level of service airport officials didn’t expect until 2027. They gave a behind-the-scenes look Monday at the kind of restrictions they are experiencing while waiting for the new terminal.

As plans are affected by inflation, construction will take place in three phases, with the first beginning in late 2023 or early 2024. Completion is expected in 2026.

Foley said the airport needs an additional $122.7 million for the first phase of the project, in addition to the $343 million raised so far. That’s a total of $466 million, up from the previously forecast $411 million.

Foley warned that the plans are still vulnerable to rising costs.

“Due to the rise in interest rates, we are struggling to stay ahead of inflation,” he said. “These are probably the biggest factors slowing the construction of the terminal, and additional funds are needed to get the hurdle back over.”

What passengers don’t see, meanwhile, are the crowded spaces where TSA employees scan suitcases before loading them onto planes at peak times. Also, the basement is prone to flooding, which has historically been a problem for the computer room, the brain of the airport that keeps everything running digitally.

Evidence of additions is visible throughout the circa 1948 structure, with a mixture of new and old plumbing and wiring peeping through the walls and ceiling.

Foley urged Central Iowa residents to urge their state and federal legislatures to allocate additional funding to the project, noting the airport’s economic importance.

The Iowa Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Aviation recently conducted a study that put the annual economic impact of the airport, Iowa’s largest, at over $750 million. A new terminal will allow the airport to compete for additional airlines, be it new routes, a new airline or cargo airlines.

“This competition keeps ticket prices down but also gives passengers additional non-stop destinations, which is something we all want,” Foley said.