Major airlines are betting on Wilmington.

The Wilmington International Airport has nearly doubled its non-stop routes since 2022. Stakeholders anticipated growth, but not at this scale.

ILM now has the third-highest growth rate in the nation, according to a recent analysis from Ailevon Pacific. That year-over-year measure tracks how many seats carriers make available, spanning from January through September.

ILM’s seats jumped 32 percent, which was twice the state average and makes it North Carolina’s fastest-growing airport. 

The Assembly caught up with airport director Jeff Bourk earlier this month to reflect on this year’s wild ride. The interview has been condensed and edited for brevity.

Note: After our interview, Avelo cut its fall and winter plans for its seasonal route to West Palm Beach. Avelo blamed the cancelation on low demand and high fuel costs, but added ILM still has the highest number of destinations out of its non-base airports. An ILM spokesperson says Bourk’s comment about room for “more Florida” routes is still applicable. Once American Airlines’ Miami route begins Nov. 1, ILM will service four nonstop routes to Florida.

The Dive: It looks like the total outgoing passengers has been an all-time record for the airport every month since February. Is it safe to say you’ll beat last year’s annual record?

Bourk: For sure. Last year, we were just under 550,000. This year, we’ll exceed 650,000, maybe get to 675,000.

The Dive: Other travel trends in our region seem to be showing signs of moderation, but the airport is still soaring. Why? 

Bourk: We’ve added more nonstops–a lot more nonstops. We’ve almost doubled the number of nonstops and the choices for people. We have a strong inbound leisure destination market here.

But we also have people that live here that want to travel, and we’ve offered them more options than they’ve had in the past. So I think it’s a mix of all of those things that not every market has that’s helping us make sure these new routes are successful. There’s a lot of room for continued growth here still, I believe.

The Dive: After the pandemic, people antsy to get out of the house spurred the “revenge travel” phenomenon. Have we gotten that out of us yet? Or is this a new normal?

Bourk: I think there’s still a lot of travel happening. There’s a lot of travel for leisure, and business travel is starting to come back in many ways, and we have a mixture of both here. We also have had a lot of leakage–meaning, passengers would drive to other area airports like Raleigh and Myrtle Beach–to get those nonstop flights.

Now we’re starting to give them alternatives where they can come back and use this airport here as their primary airport rather than driving long distances to save some money.

The Dive: The first low-cost carrier, Avelo, arrived here last summer, catering to the leisure market. ILM has traditionally served mostly business travelers. How has this affected legacy carriers?

Bourk: My opinion is that the legacy carriers are seeing the opportunity for growth. And that’s why they’re growing. It’s not really–one’s not related to the other, in my opinion.

The Dive: Is this a chicken-or-egg situation? Now that we’ve got more flight options, we’re flying more, or is it that the increased demand has prompted carriers to offer more flights, or both?

Bourk: It’s a little bit of both. 

We talked about the leakage–like before Avelo went to Fort Lauderdale, or American added a nonstop to Miami, it was pretty difficult and expensive to get from Wilmington to that market. Yeah, you could drive two hours to multiple airports and get low-cost service to that market cheaply, but it made it difficult for people that wanted to go to that very popular market from our area to choose to fly from here.

So it’s definitely a combination of both. There’s a lot more opportunity here. 

ILM airport director Jeff Bourk. (Photo courtesy of ILM)

The Dive: What’s on your new nonstop wishlist?

Bourk: We’d love to see more service to the northeast. We think there’s markets in the northeast that are still underserved. We think there’s more in Florida. And then places like Nashville and Denver are high on our list.

The Dive: More Florida? 

Bourk: Yes, more Florida. 

The Dive: Your revenue this summer has been way more than you budgeted. How will you use the extra cash?

Bourk: At the end of the day, on roughly a $12 million operating budget, we’ve produced a $4 million surplus. That’s good in any arena. That money will go directly into these capital projects that we’re planning for the future.

The Dive: You’re doing a massive $92-million overhaul and 600-space expansion of your parking lot and sprucing up runways. Last month, you told commissioners you’ve exceeded the capacity of your new terminal before the current expansion project is even finished. What’s in store for a new new terminal?

Bourk: We’ve started the environmental work for the new terminal. The Federal Aviation Administration funded a grant of $250,000 for us to begin that work, which we have started. That will wrap up by the spring, and then we will start to design that terminal–hopefully, next year–and be ready to start construction within roughly a year of that. That would add two more gates and increase our capabilities for future growth.

Right now we have roughly 1,500 parking spaces. At our peak time, we need roughly 2,100 to 2,200 parking spaces. So we know we’ll hit that this November and December, the largest month where the most number of locals are using the airport. So that’s why we call that lot that’s being built out there right now the “November lot.” 

The Dive: You’ve also got a boatload of other projects in the works outside the airport itself–a hotel, new hangars for private aircraft, an entertainment complex. You’ve said before you want to use lease revenues from those to potentially lower the rates ILM charges airlines to operate, which could theoretically lower ticket prices. Is that still the plan?

Bourk: All of those projects are in various stages of their due diligence or development period. It creates additional revenue streams and gives us more options in how we price things for the airlines and others to keep the aeronautical users in the best possible position to grow.

The Dive: Through a new foundation, y’all hope to install flight simulators in schools and start a scholarship. What’s the timeline and progress on this initiative? 

Bourk: It costs $12,000 to $15,000 to get your pilot’s license these days. That obviously stops a lot of young people from pursuing it.

We want to get more people interested. It’s a group of us that are trying to draw awareness to the pilot shortage, air traffic controller shortage, aircraft maintenance personnel–and these are all great job opportunities for kids in the New Hanover County School system. So that’s really the goal of the foundation, I think.

We’re in the early stages. There’s a lot of good things I think that this can grow into. And we’re just in the very early days of it.

The Dive: Lastly, what’s your favorite new nonstop and why?

Bourk: That’s like asking me who my favorite kid is. I don’t think I can answer that.

The seven new nonstops that Avelo has brought have had an amazing impact overall. And things that people wouldn’t expect have done extremely well–like nonstop service to Minneapolis. I love that because it wasn’t something that was immediately recognizable, but it was very successful this summer.  So I love them all for their own individual reasons.

Subscribe to The Wilmington Dive, our weekly newsletter covering the Cape Fear region. The edition this Q&A was featured in is online here.

Johanna Still is The Assembly‘s Wilmington editor. She previously covered economic development for Greater Wilmington Business Journal and was the assistant editor at Port City Daily.