Airports contribute almost $3B to tri-county region’s economy, latest report shows

Wilmington International Airport (Port City Daily / File)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — A report by the North Carolina Department of Transportation shows the aviation industry contributes tens of billions to the bottom line, while also making up 11% of the state’s gross domestic product.

From the “North Carolina: The State of Aviation” report, 72 public airports add $72 billion to the economy and, altogether, provide 330,000 jobs. Conducted biennially, the latest data indicates North Carolina is now served by 17 airlines and includes connections to 43 U.S. states and territories and 25 foreign countries.

READ MORE: ILM welcomes new low-cost carrier, adds nonstop seasonal flight

When broken down in the tri-county region, Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender counties’ four airports add $2.9 billion to the economy, with almost 16,000 jobs and $955 million in state and local taxes.

A major boost to 2021’s “North Carolina: The State of Aviation” came in cargo transportation. It’s up 22% or 1.3 million tons from 2019. Increased passenger service to new markets and enhancing airport facilities also showed improvements.

Wilmington International Airport placed fourth across the state, outranked by the world’s fifth largest airport, Charlotte-Douglass International in Charlotte, followed by Raleigh-Durham and Piedmont Triad in Greensboro.

ILM has been undergoing a $76 million terminal expansion nearing completion by summer 2023. Three new gates and an additional 75,000 square feet of concourse space has been added, with more upgrades to parking and curb drop-off next on the agenda.

It also added new airlines, such as Avelo and Sun Country Airlines, both low-cost carriers. With the additions came more routes, including to New Haven, Connecticut; Orlando, Florida; Baltimore, Maryland; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota.

The airport contributed 13,350 jobs to the area and had a personal income of $822 million, while paying out $112 million in taxes. Its economic output is estimated at $2.5 billion.

Though commercial service made the largest impact on the economy, general aviation at county-owned airports also were prolific. The Cape Fear Regional Jetport/Howie Frankline Field in Oak Island ranked fifth among 62 county airports. It brings in more than 2,000 jobs and has a $378 million economic impact, with a $9 million tax boost.

Also on the list was the Odell Williamson Municipal airport in Ocean Isle, which adds 65 jobs to Brunswick County and $285,000 in taxes, with an overall $6.5 million impact on the economy.

In Pender County, Wallace’s Henderson Field adds 60 jobs and $464,000 in taxes, with a $13.3 million impact.

“It’s important to know that this report is generated from data collected in 2021 which was highly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Gage King, Henderson Field Airport manager in Pender County, said in a press release. “While many other industries and sectors struggled through the pandemic, it is clear that aviation was very resilient and played a major role in the economic recovery.”

Henderson Field’s economic impact over the 2019 report shows a 150% increase, which King associates to people traveling more privately during the pandemic to stick with social distancing mandates and less human interaction.

The airport will endure roughly $30 million in upgrades over the next five years.

“These investments will allow us to facilitate larger aircraft from further away, ultimately expanding access to our community for tourism, business, and industry,” King said in the release.

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at 

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