Quad-Cities Airport Director Confident to Get Federal Support For Major Facelift
The timing of the Quad Cities International Airport (QCIA) announcing its ambitious, sleek renovation plans Tuesday was no coincidence.
The public unveiling of more than $20 million in passenger terminal improvements came the day before President Joe Biden today announced his ambitious $2-trillion infrastructure plans, dubbed “The American Jobs Plan” – which includes $25 billion for airport improvements nationwide.
“A lot of the funds we get, we pull in federally into the community. So we’re not big on pulling taxes from our neighbors,” QCIA executive director Benjamin Leischner said Wednesday. “That’s not where we get a lot of our funding — a majority of our funding comes at the federal level.
“I think it’s big news today with Biden’s announcement of the transportation infrastructure plan,” he said, adding the president’s commitment is welcome, as Congress has been integral in providing federal assistance to airports nationwide that have been battered due to
Covid’s negative impact on air travel.
In February, the Moline airport got a $2.8 million boost from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Coronavirus Response Grant Program.
The program, funded under the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2020 (CRRSA), awarded $2 billion total to U.S. airports. This funding will continue to offset lost revenue and provide operational and payroll support. The Q-C airport previously received $8 million from the CARES Act.
“As a facility that supports nearly 500 jobs, nearly 100 of which are employed directly by the Metropolitan Airport Authority, this funding ensures that we can continue to provide the level of service that we are known for while keeping the MAA workforce fully intact,” Leischner said in February.
The QCIA in Moline serves passengers from western Illinois and Eastern Iowa. With 11 nonstop destinations, the airport served over 700,000 passengers in 2019. Four major airlines operate out of the airport — Allegiant Air, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines.
Due to Covid, the airport saw a 58-percent drop in total passengers for 2020. The airport served 306,260 total passengers last year, compared to 2019’s 721,999. The most recent data available, for February 2021, showed 23,981 passengers came through the airport then – a 57-percent decline compared to the same month in 2020.
Since the pandemic started, the busiest month for the airport was October 2020, with 26,415 passengers, compared to 65,572 in October 2019.
Leischner (who heads the new Illinois Airports Council) said Wednesday that he works closely with federal officials in Washington, D.C. to track future funding opportunities for the airport, and planned for today’s infrastructure announcement. That’s why he invited
Congresswoman Cheri Bustos to speak at the Tuesday afternoon press conference on the facelift plans in the airport.
“We wanted her to speak about the value of federal investment in public infrastructure,” the airport director said. “This type of work creates jobs, and it’s great for labor. It’s great for the community for every dollar of investment. We can bring in a construction company in the community, when it’s a local contractor that dollar gets circulating in the community six times over.”
“So I was I was delighted to hear that that was part of her remarks during the opening part of our announcement,” Leischner said. “”It’s what a lot of practitioners have been saying for a long time.”
“We lost 10 million jobs over the last year and we’ve got to rebuild,” Bustos, the Moline Democrat (who represents Illinois’ 17th District), said Tuesday. “The best way to do that is to invest in our infrastructure. There are good jobs; they will bring our community together.”
“Because all of those are jobs,” she said. “What we’re talking about in the future is making sure that the Quad Cities International Airport is as strong as it can possibly be. It’s got the leadership in place that it needs and I’m happy to be a partner.”
“It is this asset that not only should we love, we should invest in it,” agreed Dave Herrell, president/CEO of Visit Quad Cities. “The airport delivers on so many levels – obviously, it’s an economic development opportunity for us. It’s part of our brand; it should be part of our rich history, tradition, but it also should be about our future.
“That’s really its purpose,” he said. “We’re really grateful to be part of this announcement. It’s an amazing opportunity to emotionally connect with a vision, to emotionally connect with an asset like the Quad Cities Airport, and where it wants to head for the future.”
The White House announcement Wednesday said in part:
“The United States built modern aviation, but our airports lag far behind our competitors. According to some rankings, no U.S. airports rank in the top 25 of airports worldwide. Our ports and waterways need repair and reimagination too. President Biden is calling on Congress to invest $25 billion in our airports, including funding for the Airport Improvement Program, upgrades to FAA assets that ensure safe and efficient air travel, and a new program to support terminal renovations and multimodal connections for affordable, convenient, car-free access to air travel.”
Public domestic investment as a share of the economy has fallen by more than 40 percent since the 1960s, the White House said. “The American Jobs Plan will invest in America in a way we have not invested since we built the interstate highways and won the Space Race.”
The U.S. is the wealthiest country in the world, yet we rank 13th when it comes to the overall quality of our infrastructure, the White House said.
Working on plans since 2018
Leischner said Wednesday that the Metropolitan Airport Authority began long-range planning when he started at the airport in 2018.
“A lot of the focus for strategic priorities was obviously about the future and having a structure of facilities to support the community for many decades to come, so we identified some of the need over year ago,” he said.
Minneapolis-based Alliiance was selected as the airport’s design firm in early 2020, and the initial planning and design process cost $84,000. They have worked with airports around the world to create efficient spaces that incorporate beautiful design. Through a proprietary process, Alliiance engages with stakeholders to understand the region and bring the spirit of the community into the terminal.
Alliiance has provided comprehensive planning, architectural and design services to the aviation industry since 1978, completing more than 1,000 projects at 110 airports, including in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Memphis, Louisville, Little Rock, Ark., and Grand Rapids, Mich.
The firm has teamed with the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on over 600 projects totaling in excess of $1.5 billion, and has a satellite office within the terminal.
“They do work around the world. One of the unique opportunities around timing with Covid popping up this past year, we were able to incorporate some lessons learned from the impacts of Covid on travel and the travel industry,” Leischner said.
“Some of our future concept design actually reflects that and that’s like the incorporation of the indoor-outdoor space or garden lounge space that likely wouldn’t have been a big priority prior to Covid and in the world of a pandemic,” he said.
The airport also has been working on a landscaping project, including a patio and outdoor seating area on the west end of the terminal, which is expected to be done within the next few months.
“That has some additional outdoor seating and some kind of shade canopies,” Leischner said. “Again incorporating some outdoor space for people before they begin their travel. They have someplace to enjoy the outdoors before they go indoors.”
Among the main components of the new plans (which may take three to five years to fund and complete) are:
- A redesigned curbside features a canopy to protect visitors from the elements. Once inside, the terminal will be flooded with bright, natural light. New flooring and walkways will be widened in the ticketing space and mobile check-in kiosks will be added. Baggage screening equipment will be moved out of sight with a conveyor belt running behind the ticket counters to speed up the check-in process.
- The atrium concept features comfortable lounge seating and a redesigned retail, food and beverage space. The restrooms will be renovated, with the addition of a family restroom and a nursing suite. The TSA checkpoint will be widened so passengers going through the checkpoint as well as those arriving and going to baggage claim have plenty of space.
- A new indoor/outdoor space near baggage claim will have a garden area, including a water feature to evoke the pride Quad Citizens have for the Mississippi River. There will be seating and an outdoor space – something that’s becoming more commonplace for airports as the industry looks toward a post-Covid world. Many Quad Citizens will remember a time when they could come to the airport and watch the planes take off and land. This space will restore a viewing area for all to enjoy.
- The airside of the terminal will see some improvements to connect it to the landside concepts. A nursing suite will be added to the airside of the airport alongside restroom renovations with the addition of another family restroom. Comfortable lounge seating and power sources will be added throughout the concourses.
The renovations will be funded through a mix of federal grants, cash-on-hand and debt service, if needed. Whenever possible, airport leaders have committed to using local contractors to complete the work.
The new plans represent the first major investment in the aging facility since 2001. The landside terminal, which includes ticketing and baggage claim, has not been updated since 1985.
“The travel industry has changed dramatically since 1985, but our airport has had to take a patchwork approach to keep up,” Leischner said Tuesday. “With the work being done to make the Quad-Cities a destination for business and leisure, we want to create a future-focused terminal that will make our community proud and provide a world-class experience for travelers.”
The upgrades are also important to meet returning passengers as the travel rebounds post-pandemic, he said Wednesday.
“We’re pretty confident. Now that we’ve been tracking monthly activity and as an industry, we see where we’re going to get back to pre-pandemic numbers,” Leischner said. “It’s likely going to be several years, but we’ll get back to where we were in 2019 and then continue growing from there. So I think it creates an opportunity and really I think across the board, people can agree that a lot of our facility is at the point where it’s not modern, efficient and it’s not a great reflection of the community.
“So regardless of how things work out, it’s a need, the piece that’s borne out of some of this is it creates an opportunity while traffic is down, we can do some of this work with less of an impact on the travelers,” he said. “When travel does get back to the pre-pandemic numbers, people are coming back to a new facility that meets the future.”
The many cosmetic improvements are key, since the airport offers the first impression for many people visiting the Q-C, the director said.
“So when you come to the airport and pull up to the curbside and experience our ticketing and check-in area, that’s all facilities that were developed in 1985,” Leischner said. “We have that obnoxious brick floor that was designed and put in place prior to the rollerboard and wheeled luggage being a thing, and so it’s just it’s just not at what I would consider a future-proof facility today.”
The $20-million enlarged concourses (where planes meet the gates), done in 2001, reflect a much more modern airport, he said.
“It’s light and bright and airy, plenty of space,” Leischner said. “It could use some touch-up because that’ll probably be a little later – the latter part of our investment and by that point it will be 25 to 30 years old and needing to have some improvement, especially when it comes to passenger amenities.”
“This is the gateway to the community — when you come to the Quad Cities International Airport, and maybe this is your first trip to the Quad-Cities and we don’t want to feel like, OK. this is uneventful,” he said.
“We want you to get really excited about things like the concept of the indoor-outdoor garden space, that will feature an indoor water feature. That’s something that a lot of people don’t realize about being in the heart of the Midwest here, is we’re centered on the confluence of two major rivers,” Leischner said of the Mississippi and Rock. “It is a very big part of our heritage that when you’re local, you know that — but now if you’re a visitor, you can feel that as soon as you get to the airport.”
Next steps and new branding
There are many steps needed before any actual terminal work gets done, including identifying priorities, detailed cost analysis and applying for grants.
“Our timing is actually really good right now to start getting some of these projects rolling, so we could actually in reality start to see some improvements in the next year and a half,” Leischner said, noting federal grants may not be available for three years. “If something opens up through as part of this infrastructure package, then I think we’re prepared to pursue it aggressively and get stuff delivered sooner than we’d anticipate today,” he said. “But right now it would be probably a two- to three-year process of once construction gets going.”
The QCIA has enough facility room, compared to number of passengers, to have renovations underway without impacting travelers,
Leischner said. Also, as a 24-hour facility, a lot of work can be done at off-peak travel times, he noted. He also didn’t think passenger fees would be affected in funding the construction needed.
“I think we have the ability and we’re going to build a plan a finance to demonstrate that we can afford this and this is an improvement that the facility can be designed around,” Leischner said. “Obviously, a lot of airports go that route, that will pass it on in user fees. I’d say we’ve already leveraged user fees in the form of parking and things like that, to fund our infrastructure, so I wouldn’t look at increasing those as part of this.”
The airport website has also been completely revamped and refreshed to be more user-friendly, optimized for mobile use and ADA compliant. In mid-2020, the airport partnered with MindFire Communications in LeClaire to support its branding and marketing efforts.
Herrell of Visit Quad Cities said Wednesday the whole project presents a unique opportunity.
“Just to punch up that space, because I think if you go if you travel around the U.S. or around the world, I think the people that specialize in place branding — in particular on the airport side of things — are doing some amazing work,” he said. “I think this company, Alliiance in Minneapolis, I mean they’re really strong. They really get it.”
Herrell agrees that first impressions are crucial for visitors, and the Q-C should make a great one (whether at a hotel, restaurant or airport), that’s fun, vibrant and authentic to this area.
“When you’re creating places or you’re trying to invest thought into your assets, first impressions are critical,” he said. “It’s how you feel about that product experience. And it’s also about the people that are delivering that service level to you. And what does that look like? Do they have an attitude that represents the community in the best light?”
“I think the airport is a big piece of that,” Herrell said, praising Leischner for his forward, innovative thinking. “He’s great. He’s on our board of directors and I think he’s been a breath of fresh air — not only for the region, but in the community.”
Having this blank page or canvas to reimagine the airport is pretty special, Herrell said.
“It doesn’t come along very often and I think you need the right people at the table to be able to go down that path, and I think Ben is one of those guys,” he said. “It’s about the whole experience – whether you get dropped off or park your car. How do you feel about it?”
“When you think about our destination assets, we want people to feel prideful about them,” Herrell said. “We want to have an airport everyone’s proud of, so we can all talk about it, we can showcase, we can brag about it.”
To commemorate the occasion, and to thank the Q-C community for its support, the airport is launching a “Go For It Giveaway” where one lucky person will have a chance to win a $1,000 voucher, which can be used for any flight from Moline.
Visit Go For It Giveaway to enter and for information on rules and conditions.
You can track the progress of airport improvements at qcairport.com/qc-tomorrow.