Bigger crowds likely at Des Moines airport

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — It’s common knowledge for central Iowans that it usually takes only about 30 minutes to get from the entrance doors to Des Moines International Airport’s departure gates.

But don’t count on that to hold true during Thanksgiving week, when airport officials expect passenger traffic to reach or exceed prepandemic levels.

They also cautioned it might be a good idea to start building in some extra time even for nonholiday travel.

The Des Moines Register reports the airport has experienced a 67% increase in passengers over the past 10 years, despite a sharp decline in 2020, when COVID-19 put a major crimp in travel. Especially this year, passengers have been flocking back. October was the first month that saw traffic exceed its prepandemic level, with nearly 248,000 passengers using the airport compared to 245,649 during the same month in 2019, according to Des Moines Airport Authority statistics.

The coming holiday surge will likely put to the test temporary fixes made over the years as the airport awaits construction of a planned larger terminal.

“We’ve given the existing terminal a facelift.” said Kevin Foley, executive director of the airport. “We’ve put a new skin on the existing bones, but the bones are still very old and need some updating.”

Among measures to cope with the expected crowds: Employees plan on turning off the escalator leading to the departure screening gates so people can stand in line on it when the existing queues overflow.

Foley said the airport also will work with the U.S Transportation Security Administration, which operates the screening facility, “to put on as much staff as possible during that period to get passengers through.”

The TSA planned to host a hiring event to assist individuals in applying for jobs as transportation security officers at the Des Moines airport. Starting pay is $18.65 per hour, and TSA is offering a $2,000 bonus to eligible new hires — $1,000 after onboarding and $1,000 after one year of service.

Passenger volume for the airport serving the fastest-growing large metro in the Midwest reached nearly 3 million in 2019, a level of service that airport officials had not anticipated until 2027. They provided a behind-the-scenes glimpse Monday of the sort of limitations they’re experiencing as they wait on the new terminal.

With plans hit by inflation, construction will take place in three phases, with the first starting in late 2023 or early 2024. Completion is expected in 2026.

Foley said the airport still needs $122.7 million more for the first phase of the project, above the $343 million raised so far. That’s a total of $466 million, up from the $411 million previously projected.

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

“We’re struggling to stay ahead of inflation because of increased interest rates,” he said, “Those are probably the biggest factors that are slowing the construction of the terminal down, and additional funding is needed to get over the hurdle again.”

In the meantime, what passengers don’t see are the crowded rooms where TSA workers scan suitcases before they are loaded on planes during peak hours. Also, the basement is susceptible to flooding, which has been a problem in the past for the computer room, the brain of the airport, which keeps everything digital running.

Evidence of add-ons is visible throughout the circa-1948 structure, with mixtures of new and old pipes and conduits popping out of walls and ceilings.

Foley urged central Iowa residents to urge their state and federal lawmakers to allocate additional funding for the project, pointing to the economic importance of the airport.

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

“That competition keeps ticket prices low, but it also provides additional nonstop destinations for passengers, which is what we all want,” Foley said.

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