Years of Record Growth Spur New Terminal at Central Nebraska Regional

New Terminal at Central Nebraska Regional
Jodi Richards
Published in: 

When Executive Director Michael Olson first came to Central Nebraska Regional Airport (GRI) in 2005, commercial air service was sparse. A few years later, it was completely nonexistent for a brief time. "We knew we had to make some changes to our program," Olson recalls. 

Change they did. After years of steady increases in commercial service and passenger volume, the Grand Island, NE, airport outgrew its aging 10,000-square-foot terminal. With the help of federal and local funds, GRI recently built a new 34,000-square-foot facility for $14 million.  

For years, GRI has received financial support from the Essential Air Service program, a federal initiative run by the U.S. Department of Transportation to help small communities establish and/or maintain reliable and affordable air service. In addition, the taxpayers of Hall County also subsidize GRI. 


Project: New Terminal
Location: Central Nebraska Regional Airport 
Terminal Size: 34,000 sq. ft.
Cost: $14 million
Architect & Engineer: Mead & Hunt
Construction: Hausmann Construction
Consultant: Quadrex Aviation
Lavatory Systems: Bradley Corp.
Boarding Bridge: Ameribridge
Baggage Claim Unit: G&S Airport Conveyor
Wayfinding Signage: ASI
Seating: Arconas

In 2006, the airport board asked for and received an additional $150,000 per year to help incentivize airlines to operate at GRI. The extra funds helped the airport built up enough money in its piggy bank to entice Allegiant Air to begin service to Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport (LAS) in September 2008, relates Olson. 

Just before then, GRI was without air service altogether for two months because its previous provider, US Airways Express (operated by Mesa Airlines) pulled out of the Essential Air Service program and ceased operations at GRI on June 30, 2008. 

Allegiant's twice-weekly service to LAS did so well, the airline added flights to Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport (AZA) about six months later. "After that, our numbers started growing rather quickly," Olson recalls. In 2005, GRI boarded 7,500 passengers. In 2008, boardings climbed to 8,000-despite not having any service for most of the summer. Enplanements more than doubled to 20,000 in 2009, and then reached 37,000 in 2010. 

With passenger traffic increasing nearly fivefold in the five years since his arrival, Olson focused on recruiting additional air service in 2010. "I took a giant leap of faith and went down and visited with American Airlines to see what their level of interest would be in getting into the EAS (Essential Air Service program) and starting air service for us," he explains. 

While Olson suggested a Chicago route, American instead bid to establish 13 weekly roundtrips to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) via the Essential Air Service program. With the new regional jet service secured, GRI's boardings went up again, reaching 56,000 in 2011. 

Allegiant then added service to Orlando Sanford International Airport (SFB) in fall 2015. "Every year since 2011 has been a record year for us," Olson reports. In 2015, boardings topped 64,600. This year, traffic is up 16% (through the end of March), and more growth is expected to follow. "We're on pace to easily hit 70,000 this year," he reports.

Outgrowing the Facility

As boardings continued to increase year after year, it became clear that GRI's existing 10,000-square-foot terminal could not sustain the growth. Built in 1954, the original terminal was undersized, inadequate and did not foster good passenger flow, explains Olson.

"If we would have known that we were going to grow so much, we would have probably started this process a couple of years earlier," he reflects. 

A concept budget report revealed that the existing terminal was not only too small, it was also insufficient in rudimentary areas, explains architect Matt Dubbe of Mead & Hunt. "Even from a straight building code standpoint, the terminal didn't [comply with requirements] in terms of occupancy or amount of exits - it didn't meet any of the basics," says Dubbe. 

Working with Mead & Hunt and the FAA, the airport conducted a terminal area master plan and needs assessment. Ultimately, it led to the design of a new 34,000-square-foot terminal with two gates. 

Multiple planning scenarios illustrated that the best option, both financially and operationally, was to construct a new terminal rather than renovate the existing facility, Dubbe explains. "We found that it was nearly a 50% upcharge to try to mitigate all of their existing issues and meet their new projections while keeping operational," he elaborates.

"Plus, we looked at the general inefficiencies from an energy and sustainability standpoint of the existing building," Dubbe adds. The 60-year-old structure was simply not designed to handle the growth GRI was experiencing. 
Between entitlements and $7.5 million in discretionary funds, GRI received $11 million in federal funding for the $14 million terminal project. The remainder was paid for locally through a bond.

According to Olson, garnering community support for the project was not difficult; and he suspects that the lack of a boarding bridge at the old terminal helped the cause. Ground boarding winter flights was not a favorable experience for passengers, he explains. "It didn't take them long to buy into the fact that we needed a new terminal," Olson remarks. "Plus, it was so congested in that old terminal. We simply outgrew [it]."

Regional, Sustainable, Modern

Crews had to demolish an administration building to make room for GRI's new 34,000-square-foot terminal. But even though the new facility is located just 200 feet south of the old, construction did not impact flight operations. 

The project was not a "field of dreams" project, Olson stresses. "This was demand-driven, and the FAA agreed," he relates, noting that the new terminal is designed to accommodate 120,000 annual passengers.

"It's an elegant design that is completely driven by performance and regional aesthetics," Dubbe adds. "It will wear well long into the future and be flexible enough to handle the nature of aviation." 

The holdroom, for instance, can be expanded to accommodate more passengers as traffic grows. 

Mead & Hunt designed the terminal with open sightlines to allow travelers a visual connection with all aspects of the airport experience: ticketing, security checkpoint, restrooms, baggage claim and exit lanes. Many of the interior walls are glass. "It's all about opening up sightlines and blurring the barriers between these spaces," Dubbe explains. 

In addition to meeting the practical needs of GRI's growing volume, Olson had other goals in mind for the new facility: sustainability, regional character and modern conveniences.

Although the airport did not pursue Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, sustainability was a key goal in the design, says Olson.

The exterior envelope is super-insulated for maximum energy efficiency, with thermal materials on all sides, including the floor, notes Dubbe. Designers also positioned energy-efficient skylights on the north-facing roof to capitalize on natural light during the day. "The way the daylight tracks there is beautiful," he comments. "Largely during the day, they don't need artificial illumination." 

The building's saw-tooth roof allows natural light to stream in, but minimizes heat gain, Olson adds. 

The terminal was designed to accommodate the future installation of solar panels on the south-facing portion of the roof. If GRI executes such a project, Dubbe estimates that the airport could reduce its electrical load by 25%. 
High-performance glazing on the exterior glass and advanced mechanical systems are key sustainability features already in place. A geo-thermal heating system in the floor and LED lighting inside and outside the terminal were specified to further reduce energy consumption. 

A central building core houses a tornado shelter and restrooms with 14 new handwashing stations that eliminate the problem of wet hands dripping across bathroom floors. Mechanical systems are housed above, on a second-story mezzanine. 

Durable finishes like terrazzo flooring and porcelain wall tiles were selected to keep maintenance costs low and increase the sustainability of the project. 

The terrazzo flooring also communicates GRI's regional characteristics and serves as an intuitive wayfinding tool. Designed to resemble the local Platte River, the flooring pattern helps guide departing passengers from the entrance vestibule to the ticketing counters, through the security checkpoint and out to the gates. Another river-like flooring pattern leads arriving passengers to the baggage claim, car rental counters and out the exit door. "It's a really unique design," comments Olson.

"We took a sharp look at the context and the sense of place and tried to reflect that in the design," Dubbe adds.

Artwork and gallery wraps throughout the terminal illustrate some of Nebraska's notable features. A 20-foot mural in the exit vestibule depicts sandhill cranes and a sunset over the Platte River. Along the TSA checkpoint, a 32-foot mural showcases some of the state's agricultural crops, such as corn and soybeans. 

Airport officials insisted on providing plenty of power outlets in the gate area, and charging stations were integrated into more than 40 of the 220 seats. "[Now], there's more than ample phone charging in the terminal," Olson relates.

Beyond Economic Impact

According to a 2003 economic impact study, GRI contributed $21 million annually to the region. Since then, however, GRI has substantially increased air service and added more tenants to its industrial park. In 2009, the Nebraska Army Air National Guard established a base there, with $45 million of capital investments. 

To update its economic impact figure and express the growth that has occurred during the last decade, GRI hired consultant David Byers of Quadrex Aviation.

Byers conducted an airport regional value study, which he says provides a better description of GRI and its local contributions than an economic impact study. A regional value study goes beyond job creation and the payroll an airport brings to the region and illustrates the true value of the asset, explains Byers. "It's not just the jobs," Olson agrees. "The airport brings a lot to the community." 

Taking a more detailed look at the value of the assets on and around the airport-and evaluating GRI's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats-helps officials and community members see the airport as an investment that needs to be protected and improved, says Byers. 

After reviewing various metrics, Byers develops a numeric score for each airport he studies. In GRI's case, it was 33.75 out of 40 points. The score can be an important tool for officials to use when telling an airport's story because it quantifies the value of the facility and investments the community has made, he explains. It also identifies specific areas where there is room to improve. 

Olson describes the results of GRI's regional value study as staggering. "When you go from $21 million per year economic impact on the region to $158 million per year, that means you've done some good things at the airport. And we certainly have," he notes. 

For Olson, the regional value study set a new standard for what should be included in an economic impact study. "It's a great marketing tool," he remarks. "Airports don't market enough. Airports are huge economic generating engines, and airport directors don't promote the economic impact enough."

"It shows that we're doing our job at the airport," he reflects. "We're developing, and we're helping Grand Island develop at the same time."

Favorable Conditions

GRI's catchment area has grown substantially in recent years, Olson reports. "People will drive great distances-especially here in Nebraska-to fly on affordable airlines," he explains. A quick survey of vehicles in GRI's parking lot reveals that passengers come from northern Kansas and southern South Dakota, as well as Lincoln and Omaha. 

Allegiant's nonstop service to places like Las Vegas, Phoenix and Orlando certainly helps, quips Olson. American's DFW flights also set GRI apart from its regional competition-Lincoln Airport and Kearney Regional. "They didn't have service to the south," he details. 

A largely agricultural economy helped insulate GRI from the 2008 recession, notes Olson. "I think the highest I ever saw unemployment was 5.5%," he reflects. "Today, it's pushing 2.4%." 

Local tourism received a boost in 2010, when the Nebraska State Fair moved from Lincoln to Grand Island. The city is also the site of numerous animal shows throughout the year, and the Platte River is the world's largest stopping ground on the sandhill crane migration route.

Given the variety of events attracting visitors to the region, Olson sees unmet travel demand and predicts that airlines will grow their current service and add new routes. "The community is telling me they need daily service going east," he reports. 

Looking Ahead

Because FAA's forecasts are more conservative than the expansion GRI is experiencing, Olson foresees the airport outgrowing its current terminal sooner than expected: "We figured in 2025 we would have to do an expansion; I'm thinking it's going to be 2020." 

"That's good news/bad news," he adds. "The good news is we're growing that much. The bad news is we're growing that much." 

Currently, American Airlines receives about $25 per passenger from the Essential Air Service program-the second lowest amount in the system. "That's good," notes Olson. "This is truly a success story. I hope we can get out of the program. And once we do, we'll potentially be eyed by more airlines and more air service." 

Last year, the airport requested and received $250,000 in taxpayer funds to use for airline incentives.

As of mid-May, the airport board had not determined what will become of GRI's old terminal, but Olson expected a decision within a few months. Likely options include leveling it to make room for airport administration offices or additional parking. A previous assessment determined that it didn't make economic sense to renovate the facility for other uses. Located right next to the new terminal, the old structure occupies valuable land-"Miami beachfront property" as Olson puts it. 

Since Allegiant added service, GRI has added 520 new parking stalls, bringing its total to 840. Historically, parking has been free, but Olson expects that to change later this year or in early 2017. "We're leaving a lot of money on the table," he notes. "But we had free parking forever here because of the competition at Lincoln, Omaha and Kearney." 

Another previous project, self-funded by the airport, was a new terminal for GRI's fixed base operator, Trego-Dugan Aviation, which provides ground handling and passenger services for Allegiant and American flights. 


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