D/FW Airport still spreading its wings after 40 years

A. Lee Graham lgraham@bizpress.net

Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport boasts more than runways and reservation counters. Since taking flight in 1974, the transportation hub has heightened North Texas’ cache in luring tourists, new businesses and travel dollars. Just ask Bill Thornton. “We’re working on a huge project right now and wouldn’t even be in the hunt were it not for the airport,” said Thornton, president and CEO of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, keeping mum on a deal that he said could seed new jobs but withholding nothing when it comes to the airport’s local impact. “For us, it is a living, breathing part of what we do every day. It is truly the economic engine that drives North Texas,” Thornton said. Sharing that perspective is Mayor Betsy Price.

“It’s really a destination in its own right, an example of regionalism at its best,” Price said. That regionalism became evident when former Mayor Mike Moncrief not only sat on the airport board, but also helped hammer out the city’s first oil and gas drilling ordinance. “I can recall the drilling activity and leasing that came later [on airport property] and trying not to interrupt the hundreds of daily departures and arrivals, while also allowing the company that was providing the lease to recover the gas they were after in the Barnett [Shale],” Moncrief said. Serving the best interests of Fort Worth, as well as neighboring cities affected by drilling and daily airport activity, drove Moncrief and others to minimize airport disruption on community life while encouraging business for one of the world’s biggest travel hubs. Never understating the airport’s impact is District 6 Councilman Jungus Jordan. “They talk about all roads leading to Rome. Well, all ours lead to D/FW Airport,” Jordan said. Hyperbole? Perhaps. But few dispute the airport’s economic impact.

According to a recently released study by the University of North Texas Center for Economic Development and Research, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport pumps more than $31 billion worth of impact into the Dallas-Fort Worth area each year. That’s almost double what previous studies had shown because the latest numbers reflect cargo operations and related business activity not included in previous analyses. “There’s no question D/FW is a major contributor to the Dallas-Fort Worth economy,” said airport CEO Sean Donohue in a news release. He pointed to its 1,900 daily flights, as well as its role in supporting more than 143,000 permanent jobs in North Texas, including 60,000 individuals who work on airport grounds every day. Donohue also praised the Terminal Renewal and Improvement Program. When the $2.3 billion makeover, also known as TRIP, is completed in 2017, travelers can expect larger concession space, added parking and greater customer convenience features. Paying for the project are bonds issued by the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth. TRIP takes its cues from Terminal D, which opened in 2005. By revamping terminals A, B, C and E, airport officials aim to bring the airport’s original, or legacy, terminals up to date. Keeping abreast with travel trends and consumer demands has helped vault the airport to global prominence, with the industry analysts considering the airport the nation’s fourth busiest.

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With Etihad Airways as the airport’s latest confirmed presence, the airport continues extending its global reach. When it opened, D/FW Airport served about 10 million passengers. It now serves more than 60 million a year, a number that might have stunned Price when she rode horseback on airport property before runways overtook the land. “There were stables on the land before, and I used to love going out there to ride,” said Price, remembering Greater Southwest International Airport (originally Amon G. Carter Airfield) as the commercial air hub occupying the area until 1974. That’s when Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport debuted a few miles north, replacing Greater Southwest and Dallas Love Field as the primary airport serving the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Though Fort Worth and Dallas officials discussed a regional airport for decades, the vision didn’t gain momentum until 1964. That’s when the Federal Aviation Administration decided to stop funding both Greater Southwest and Love Field, with the two cities ordered to hammer out plans for a regional airport. While Jordan grew up at the former Carswell Air Force Base in West Fort Worth (subsequently converted into part of the current Naval Air Station Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base), the lifelong aviation enthusiast did not witness the birth of D/FW Airport. The former Air Force officer was stationed at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio at the time. “But we kept track of what was going on in Fort Worth,” Jordan said. Meanwhile, Thornton was still living in San Antonio when the North Texas airport opened. Thirty years after moving to Fort Worth in 1983, the airport remains a powerful tool in attracting new businesses to town. Its central location; freeway, railroad and air access; and wealth of Fortune 500 companies nearby have persuaded many companies to set up shop in and near Fort Worth. Employees of those companies buy houses, patronize area businesses and enrich the tax base, as do tourists whose visits are made possible through the airport.

Thornton is happy to bring new business to town, crediting the airport not only in maximizing the area’s image but also in improving the odds of landing his latest prospect. “If we are fortunate with this company [with which the chamber is negotiating], to land this job generator, it will be one more accomplishment helped because of the significant piece of infrastructure, the airport,” Thornton said.