Concord airport banks on Allegiant

 In May 2020

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Photo by Eddie Maloney

The pilot throttles back the small Cessna 172 and the altimeter slowly dips. Eighteen hundred feet below lies a wooded swath of southern Cabarrus County that from the ground seems like nothing but highways, the parking lots of the Concord Mills mall and big-box stores. The thrumming in the headsets that link the pilot and his passenger softens as the plane’s speed gradually drops until cars on Interstate 85 over his right shoulder seem to be passing. He lands with a bump and taxis to a hangar.

Close behind, an Allegiant Airbus A320 with orange sunbursts on its fuselage lines up on the runway. Passengers barely notice the scrunch of the Cessna’s tires as it touches down.

The Cessna and Airbus underscore the rise of 25-year-old Concord-Padgett Regional Airport from barnstorming links to modern jet airport, and one of North Carolina’s busiest — at least before the COVID-19 crisis slammed the airline industry.

Concord says it ranked sixth in the state in enplanements in 2019, with more than 81,400 landings and takeoffs. The N.C. Department of Transportation ranks it ninth in passengers but sixth in annual economic impact. “You might say we were the perfect opportunity for aviation and local governments to collaborate with what will best work for all parties,” says airport Aviation Director Dirk Vanderleest. “Charlotte Douglas [International Airport] was an increasingly busy hub that didn’t want to tie up its arrival and departure gateways, and Cabarrus County and Concord were looking to having a general-aviation airport.”

Concord-Padgett’s transition from a mere reliever for Charlotte Douglas, which topped 50 million passengers in 2019, was cemented in January. That’s when Las Vegas-based Allegiant Travel announced plans for a $50 million base that would create more than 60 jobs and house two Airbus A320s. Because of the pandemic, construction is being delayed until 2021. Meanwhile, federal officials in April approved $2.1 million in aid for the airport to help cover losses incurred due to the public health crisis.

Once the economy recovers, Allegiant says it still plans a 5,000-square-foot maintenance building and other offices. The expansion will supplement the seven nonstop flights from Concord to Florida and New Orleans that operated before the pandemic forced schedule reductions. “Their business model requires attendants and crews to be home at the end of the day, with eight hours flying maximum,” Vanderleest says. “They’ll have two aircraft ready for early morning departures.”

The airline, founded in 1998, specializes in discount fares to leisure destinations that are supplemented by extra fees including charges for a carry-on bag. Allegiant declared bankruptcy in 2000, but rebounded despite chronic lateness and safety rebuffs from regulators. Allegiant bought new Airbus jets, and it reported a combined profit of more than $800 million from 2015-19. Its shares topped $180 before the coronavirus crisis. As of mid-April, Allegiant was trading at about $78 with a market value of $1.3 billion.

In December 2013, Allegiant became Concord-Padgett’s first commercial airline. Three years later, the airport built a $12.3 million terminal and parking deck. “Allegiant began with an inaugural flight to Florida,” Vanderleest says. “That month they had six departures and a total of 600 enplanements.” In 2019, its Concord passengers topped 350,000.

“As a regional destination for race enthusiasts, art fans and more, Concord’s an ideal location for an Allegiant’s base,” says Keith Hansen, the airline’s vice president of government affairs.

For the city-owned airport, the Allegiant expansion is a payoff after local leaders began pushing for an airport in the 1980s. Corporate and private fliers, including NASCAR teams and supporting industries based near the speedway, complained about traffic snarls and lengthy waits at Charlotte’s airport.

Collectively known as the NASCAR Air Force, they were unaccustomed to sitting still. Hendrick Motorsports, with a sprawling complex adjacent to the track 2 miles away, is an example. “With hundreds of employees flying in and out to races every week, it’s a major resource for the company and its teams,” says Heather Masterson, human resources director.

Hendrick’s planes are among more than 180 based at Concord-Padgett, including those of Roush Fenway Racing. Its colorful owner, Jack Roush, was known for flying his World War II P-51 Mustang fighters — until he crashed one in an Alabama pond and almost drowned.

“Since 1994, $85 million has been invested in airport facilities that now cover 750 acres, including lengthening the runway to 7,400 feet; strengthening the runway, taxiway and aprons; adding hangars; and ultimately adding commercial service supported by a dedicated terminal with a parking deck,” says Concord Mayor Bill Dusch, a former commercial pilot and flight instructor. The airport, he says, is a reason Concord is one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities in its size range, with about 94,000 residents.

“The airport comes up in conversation every time we meet with a company interested in our community,” says Page Castrodale, director of existing industry at Cabarrus Economic Development. “They’re thinking a lot about executive travel and not having to drive to Charlotte Douglas to catch flights.”

County officials say the airport is a selling point for The Grounds at Concord, the 1,000-acre tract that includes the 2.3 million-square-foot former Philip Morris plant. Industry recruiters are considering cobbling together as many as 3,000 acres, making it one of the state’s biggest industrial megasites.

“We’re courting a lot of folks,” Castrodale says. When she shows them the airport, “they get excited about it.”

Concord-Padgett has not cut all ties with its modest past. Dusch notes its three flight schools such as Victory Lane Aviation, with a three-plane fleet of Cessna 172s and a Piper Cherokee 180. “It’s a wonderful place to work and learn to fly, and people can come here and go at their own pace,” says Jamie Hatley, the manager. But that’s changing.

“Allegiant has brought a lot of rules and new regulations that some aircraft owners on the field don’t like,” she says. “It used to be old-fashioned. Now you have to keep the doors locked.”

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