Downtown airport in transformation
A $160 million Downtown Airport terminal is part of a master plan to bring
commercial air service closer to where the population lives and works.
In 1938, the U.S. Army Air Corps bought the Bates Field municipal airport and
established the Brookley Army Air Field, according to a history of Mobile’s airports
found on the website www.mobairport.com.
Bates Field relocated to west Mobile and is known today as the Mobile Regional
Airport. Brookley went on to become the city’s largest employer and played an
important role in World War II. In 1948, it was renamed Brookley Air Force Base. The
base closed in 1969.
More than a half-century after the base closure, and 82 years after the original
move out west, the Mobile Airport Authority plans to bring commercial passenger
service back to downtown. It’s a move that acknowledges the regional airport’s status
as the red-headed stepchild of the northern Gulf Coast.
The regional airport is spacious, bright and easy to negotiate – once one gets
there. That’s the problem.
The location is not just out Airport Boulevard. It is way out Airport Boulevard, a
maddening collection of stoplights, commercial developments and congested traffic
that runs seven miles from the airport exit on Interstate 65. If one lives in Baldwin
County or in downtown or Midtown Mobile, it’s far easier to head east on Interstate 10
and stay there until the exit for Pensacola International appears.
Whether or not Mobile Regional ever fully deserved the reputation, over the
decades it has become known not only as less accessible, but also more expensive
and without as many flights to popular destinations as are available at the airports in
Pensacola, Gulfport and New Orleans. Advertising campaigns emphasizing flying
local and including the price of gasoline and parking when comparing airports have
met with mixed success.
Chris Curry, president of the Mobile Airport Authority, said a feasibility study begun
in 2018 justified the decision to go back downtown.
“I think it was feasible to do it years ago, but I think no one ever wanted to deal with
the amount of difficulty involved in it,” Curry said. “After the feasibility study we
realized it was a no-brainer, that the downtown airport provided a better overall
transportation experience based on its geographic location.
“What may be new is the fact that Baldwin County has grown so quickly. You can
also say that would apply to Saraland as well. I think that the downtown airport brings
commercial service closer to more users of the system with better access.”
Bill Sisson, president and CEO of the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce and
director of the Airport Authority from 2008 to 2013, concurs that the explosion of
growth in Baldwin County put the Regional Airport in an out-of-the-way location.
“The center of the metropolitan population has shifted and has shifted more to the
east,” Sisson said. “It makes more and more sense for [commercial service] to be at
the downtown airport because we’re blessed with two airports in this region, which is
not typical for an area this size.”
Using a temporary $8 million terminal, commercial passenger service briefly started
up downtown last year with Frontier Airlines, but Frontier pulled out in April of this
year largely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Curry said. At that point,
passenger service had dropped 90 percent. Since then, regularly scheduled
passenger service has rebounded somewhat but is still down 50 percent over last
However, the temporary terminal still accommodates occasional charter flights
headed to Nevada and other Western locales for gambling. It also provides flexibility
to the project timetable.
The project cost is $400 million over 20 years. It includes a new $160 million
terminal with as many as eight gates, 12 airline check-in positions, and a parking
deck. The new terminal will be at a different location from the current terminal. The
relocation of air service is expected to be complete in three to five years. But if a
carrier wants to move in sooner, the airport authority is happy to accommodate.
“Any new carrier that’s interested in serving Mobile, we would bring them to the
downtown terminal,” Curry said. “If one of the legacy carriers from the regional airport
wanted to come downtown quicker than we could build a new terminal, we would
consider bringing them to the temporary terminal.”
The Federal Aviation Administration provides the bulk of the money for airport
improvements, 70 to 90 percent depending on whether a particular piece of the
project, such as parking or concessions, will generate its own revenue. The FAA
already has approved the 20-year master plan released by the Airport Authority in
August, Curry said.
Roughly 5 percent of the money would come from state government. The rest would
be a combination of airport funds and possibly private investors or partnerships as
well as city and county governments. Curry said the authority has the bonding
capacity to cover its contribution or speed up the timetable if the need arises.
Although Curry would not discuss whether a purchase is imminent or the potential
price tags, the Airport Authority is also eyeing additional land downtown.
“We have expressed interest in two pieces of land. One is to the east and is
currently owned by the USA Foundation, and there is an area to the north that is
currently owned by the Mobile Housing Board. Both of these properties at one time
were part of the Brookley Air Force Base,” he said.
The Downtown Airport comprises 1,200 acres, and surrounding industrial park,
which includes the Airbus manufacturing campus, makes up another 500. The
Regional Airport is much larger, taking up 1,700 acres out of a total of 3,000
The plan is that the Regional Airport will stay open, even without passenger service,
Curry said. The Coast Guard operates out of Mobile Regional, and some military
training is also done there.
“We would probably reduce the footprint by selling some of the land and investing it
in the downtown airport,” he said.
Even if COVID-19 continues to depress passenger traffic, the Downtown Airport’s
accessibility provides greater economic development options, according to Sisson.
“My position from an economic development standpoint has always been we either
had to bring the airport to the infrastructure or bring the infrastructure to the airport,”
he said. “You could have the airport out where it is but you need better access to it.”
Curry sees the Downtown Airport as part of a transportation synergy. Interstate 10
offers highway access, the Port of Mobile offers water and rail service is also
available. There has even been talk of ferry service from the Eastern Shore of
“The move downtown is more than just an air service upgrade,” Curry said. “It is
transforming the Downtown Airport into a major multimodal transportation hub.”
- Jane Nicholes