In the midst of a pandemic that has driven passenger loads to historic lows, daily operations at the Fort Wayne International Airport (FWA) remain as busy as ever.
“Business has found its new abnormal, but our workload hasn’t changed,” says Scott Hinderman, executive director of airports. “Passenger counts may be down, but we’re very busy. Operations personnel continue to work on the airfield whether there is commercial flying or not. We still have military, private, cargo and other flights. And we’re doing business development now more than ever.”
Preparedness has been critical to the FWA team, and it has made all the difference to continuing operations. The airport has long maintained a pandemic response plan, which the team has been reviewing and updating as they navigate the current situation. In fact, having an effective response plan has meant FWA has been able to continue its Project Gateway uninterrupted.
Project Gateway, begun in 2017, centers on the airport terminal complex. Comprised of several distinct phases, the overall objective of the project is to enhance the terminal area to improve travelers’ experience.
“We want to make northeast Indiana proud of our airport,” says Hinderman. “The need to expand is because northeast Indiana is growing.”
Parts of the project have already been completed, such as improvements to the terminal entrance road and the refurbishing of sixty percent of the airport’s paid parking lots. By mid-September, canopies will cover all rental car return spots and will incorporate solar panels into their construction. The most striking improvements, however, involve the terminal building itself and are split into two phases: the west and east terminal expansions.
The west phase includes 44,500 new square feet and 47,500 square feet of renovated space. It includes an expanded concourse and reconfigured ticketing area, additional gates, and an enhanced curbside experience. The east phase involves the TSA checkpoint, ground level concessions, baggage claim, and behind-the-scenes infrastructure. A terminal ramp expansion, started in March, will reconfigure the aircraft apron around gates 1 through 4 and the apron where new gates 9 and 10 will be added. The new configuration will allow the future expansion of all gates to accommodate larger aircraft at the same time, something that is not currently possible.
Joe Marana, director of operations and facilities, is overseeing the project, which involves attention to detail in all aspects of ongoing construction and future planning. One particular area of focus for the airport is accessibility for all passengers.
“Our architect has been focused on accessibility since our first planning meeting,” says Marana. “We’ve engaged with the accessibility community of Fort Wayne on this project, especially Turnstone and the Northeast Indiana Disability Advocacy Coalition.”
(Athletes with disabilities come from all over the world to train and compete at Turnstone’s adaptive sports facilities, a designated Paralympic training site.)
In addition, Marana says the project will incorporate local art well beyond its current gallery format. Ultimately, it will manifest itself as part of the infrastructure of the terminal itself, welcoming travelers with a unique local flair.
“I’m really excited to see people’s reactions as we transform the terminal,” says Marana.
Robin Strasser, director of administration and finance, understands that area residents may be concerned with the financing of these projects, particularly in an uncertain economy. She notes that the airport is planning to receive several grants from agencies such as the FAA, INDOT and TSA to cover specific areas of the project. In addition, over the past several years the airport has been able to build reserves that will help cover some of the cost. The remainder will be financed through a bond issue, though it should not affect taxes.
“Residents of northeast Indiana will not see an increase to pay for the bond,” says Strasser. “It will simply replace debt that is being retired.”
Regardless, says Strasser, maintaining a modern, welcoming airport is critical to the economic growth of the region. The airport not only serves those who live here, but also the people who are coming to do business.
“If it’s easy and relatively reasonable cost to fly in and out, that’s a huge plus for Fort Wayne,” says Strasser. “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.”
Hinderman adds, “We work hard to differentiate ourselves through customer service to where people appreciate flying through this airport. If people choose to fly through another airport instead, it moves those economic development dollars to a different community.”
Pre-COVID data from the airport tells a remarkable success story. FWA has enjoyed ten consecutive years of passenger growth, breaking records each of the past four years. Service has grown to fourteen non-stop destinations operated by four major airline carriers. All the while, FWA has been quietly accumulating accolades.
For five years in a row, FWA has passed its FAA 139 annual safety and certification inspection with no discrepancies. While a zero-discrepancy inspection is already a huge win, receiving it five years running has rarely been accomplished. In addition, the airport’s financial reporting has obtained a Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting (CAFR) for thirty consecutive years; Strasser is getting ready to submit year 31.
“It all goes back to our people,” says Hinderman. “Our staff has strong desire to do the right thing and work hard to make sure the attention to detail is there to make the airport stand out among others.”
While Hinderman and his team position Fort Wayne International Airport for the future, they see signs that passengers are ready to return to the air – and the airport.
“The drop in passengers with COVID was a cliff, but we are already seeing a recovery,” says Hinderman. “Clearly the recovery will not be as immediate as the drop, but we’re hopeful.”
As commercial air travel resumes, one thing is certain. Travelers through FWA will enjoy the convenience of a local airport coupled with a customer experience that gets better every year.
Address: 3801 W. Ferguson Road, Suite 209 Fort Wayne, Indiana 46809
Phone: (260) 747-4146