More passengers are flying out of the Casper/Natrona County International Airport, and while it’s good for business, airport officials are maintaining a cautious optimism about the trend.
Airport executive director Glenn Januska said the number of passengers over the past four months has been 18.7 percent higher than the same period last year. In August alone, more than 9,000 passengers boarded aircraft from the Casper terminal, up more than 15 percent from last August.
The trend holds across Wyoming — a Department of Transportation report showed an increase in nearly 70,000 passengers from last year across Wyoming.
Januska said it’s exciting to see that much growth, but without knowing exactly why the growth is happening, it’s hard to make long-term bets on such a short time period.
“We don’t really have a good way of tracking why people are flying (with us),” Januska said. “The best we can tell, besides a general uptick in the economy ... it seems a lot of this is what’s happening in Glenrock, Douglas, with the energy industry.”
But without concrete figures, that’s only a guess, Januska said. Wyoming Aeronautics is working on an economic impact study that Januska said should analyze some of these shifts, and the airport is looking at adopting surveys to gauge why passengers choose to fly out of the Casper airport. And knowing why people are choosing Casper is important, Januska explained, because whether the increases signal a trend or a fluke affects how the airport decides to invest in substantial capital projects.
Januska said if the trend holds, the five-person airport board could potentially decide to invest in expanding the airport facilities: everything from the square footage of holding areas to the number of bathrooms. While Januska said he’s still conservative about future planning based on recent figures, it could be something that tips the scale eventually.
“We could probably increase our passenger numbers 20-30 percent before they felt in on a facility level,” Januska said.
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But there are some outside factors that might expedite that growth — like airplanes getting bigger. Right now the average passenger aircraft flying out of the Casper airport carries 50 passengers; Januska said he’s seeing more 70-passenger airplanes.
The airport could also see added flights in the future. United Airlines added a flight earlier this year. If the airport’s 20-year master plan holds true, customers could be booking flights from Casper to Chicago, Las Vegas, Houston and more in coming years.
The airport board president, Kermit Wille, previously said there have been talks about adding an airline. Right now, only two — United Airlines and Delta Air Lines — serve Casper.
Already the airport has some expansion plans that officials have been looking to complete. In June, the airport was approved for a $2.5 million loan from the state for renovations. Those improvements will include an expanded holding gate from 5,000 to 7,000 square feet, a new passenger loading bridge, new furniture and updated bathrooms, among some other facility improvements.
The airport’s application for that loan hinted at some of the capacity problems Januska said could lead to future capital investment if the passenger growth holds.
In the last 12 years, according to the application, passenger airplanes coming into the airport have increased capacity from 30 people to 70, and in some cases even more. The airport crowds easily when more than one plane is in the terminal, the application says.
Adding the second bridge will create opportunities for more amenities, like food and beverage providers, restrooms, and seating. This is needed because of the increased Transportation Security Administration screening times caused by the increase in passengers, according to the loan application.
These increases could at some point go hand in hand with airport officials’ hopes to attract businesses into the foreign trade zone program, of which the airport is a federal grantee. That program offers tax incentives to some businesses in the zones (which technically includes all businesses in Natrona County).