Major airlines are betting on Wilmington.
The Wilmington International Airport has nearly doubled its nonstop 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.
Check out an abridged version of the Q&A below, or read the full-length discussion here:
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.
Master of All They Survey
It’s a pretty incredible view from the penthouse floor of the city’s new consolidated headquarters in downtown Wilmington–although the panoramic scenery isn’t the only thing the city gets with its $68 million purchase of the former Thermo Fisher Scientific building.
The city also gets the legal right to dictate how the surrounding area looks, an authority codified in architectural covenants that cover the northern downtown area.
These covenants effectively give the city oversight of what gets built between the Isabel Holmes Bridge and the Wilmington Convention Center as part of the property deed. The covenants date back to 2005 when the pharmaceutical company PPD purchased the land for its future campus from the Almont Shipping Company. The “Master Site Plan,” as it’s known in the land deed, gave PPD the right to approve or object to everything from trash cans, landscaping, and signage to building design and materials, even on property it didn’t own.
The covenants played a role in the long-running public bathroom debacle several years ago, when PPD blocked riverwalk developer Chuck Schoninger from including restrooms in his project. The city had asked Schoninger to install the bathrooms as part of a public-private agreement, but PPD’s covenants trumped that contract.
Concerns about the city’s purchase of the Thermo Fisher building were varied, including the timetable for the process, the wisdom of venturing into the commercial real estate business in a down market (the city will end up with roughly 150,000 square feet of unused office space), and the optics of occupying the building’s penthouse floor. Still, the sale closed earlier this summer and generated a hefty $2.7 million commission.
Now those covenants have transferred to the city, but how it uses them remains to be seen. It could help dictate what gets built on the two neighboring parcels included in the deal even after they are eventually sold. It could also help the city shape the look of the area, including the proposed Gateway Project, even beyond the leverage usually associated with a public-private endeavor.
So if the city council doesn’t like the view from the 12th floor, there’s actually something they can do about it.
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In other flying news, Southport is home to the only “drop zone” for skydivers in the region, and one of seven statewide. Skydiving has long been largely self-regulated; its safety guidelines come from the U.S. Parachute Association, a trade group that represents skydiving interests.
Now Congress is considering new safety rules for skydiving as part of legislation to reauthorize and fund the Federal Aviation Administration. Lawmakers are facing a major deadline Saturday to reauthorize the FAA, and pass a colossal spending bill, or risk a government shutdown.
The legislation would create a rulemaking committee to introduce new requirements for skydiving and commercial air sightseeing tours. For the former, the committee would be tasked to consider, “at a minimum,” requirements to comply with engine manufacturers, aircraft inspections, and pilot review programs. Sightseeing tours face annual reporting requirements for how many tours they conduct, and training programs.
Final rules would be due within three years of passage.
The U.S. Parachute Association opposes the changes, arguing it would be burdensome for operators and prohibitively increase costs. Each year, thousands of dives take place in Southport’s drop zone, managed by Skydive Coastal Carolinas, according to a public relations firm representing the industry.
U.S. Sen. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) has attempted to strike the act from the reauthorization bill.
While industry representatives say skydiving has gotten safer over the years, a deadly 2019 plane crash in Hawaii killed 11 people and drew the attention of regulators.
A tandem skydive with an instructor out of Southport starts at $275.
–Johanna F. Still
Around the Region
Old Guard v. New Guard: In November, Surf City voters will pick their next mayor. Leadership of the small beach town, which has doubled in size in a decade, is linked to its evolving identity, WHQR reports.
18 Years, 18 Years: The long-awaited Military Cutoff Extension will finally open this morning, according to Port City Daily. The N.C. Department of Transportation’s 4-mile connector was first planned in 2005 and was, unsurprisingly, over budget and behind schedule.
Big Bucks, Big Fish: Brunswick County will shell out $19 million from its general fund on a bet that controlling 539 acres will give officials more leverage to lure large employers. Greater Wilmington Business Journal details the board’s motivations.
Around the State
A Western N.C. gathering of far-right sheriffs who believe they are “the last line of defense” against the federal government draws both praise and scrutiny.
After two women accused a college student of sexual assault, he sued to clear his name—and keep it a secret.
Lagging salaries in state government have made it difficult to fill vacant jobs, and the budget deal falls short of the boost many say is needed.