Tulsa airports record strong post-pandemic growth in ‘22


By John Dobberstein, Editor

Both of Tulsa’s primary airports logged strong growth this year, with operations and passenger services seeing significant gains over 2021.

Passenger traffic at Tulsa International Airport (TUL) was up 27% year-over-year, on a capacity (total seats) increase of 22%, meaning passenger growth is outpacing the large increase in capacity, and airline load factors were strong.

Throughout the pandemic, TUL's passenger recovery numbers have been, on average, 10 percentage points stronger than the average U.S. airport, said the Tulsa Airports Improvements Trust (TAIT) in its year-end report.

Airport officials said passenger activity at Tulsa International Airport in the first quarter approached 90% of 2019. In July, TUL began to exceed its 2019 pre-pandemic passenger numbers every month. In September and October, TUL experienced the highest passenger volume since 2007.

TAIT attributed the recovery and growth in passengers and capacity to a strong local business community, airlines continuing to invest in new routes in Tulsa, and a strong leisure travel demand as COVID-19 concerns decreased.

In 2022, TAIT had over 30 air service development meetings with 10 different airlines to pitch new route opportunities from Tulsa.

Consequently, TUL greeted a number of new flight services including Southwest's new service to Austin and Chicago-Midway; new nonstop service on American Airlines to New York City; and additional service on Breeze and Southwest to Orlando. TUL now has 6 airlines providing service to 24 nonstop destinations.

As passenger numbers surged, so did the demand for parking at TUL, which would be no surprise to passengers greeted by parking lots that were jammed to capacity in 2022. During peak travel periods, parking staff were often required to direct customers to the Economy Lot for overflow parking.

TUL Parking Perks, the frequent parker program that launched in 2020, saw an 89% increase in new customers from January to October 2022.

TAIT launched an advertising campaign for Parking Perks from March through July that drove a “significant boost to program awareness and new member sign-ups,” officials said. Valet was also integrated into the program, allowing customers to earn and redeem across all three parking options at the airport.

In 2020 and 2021, the airport allowed terminal concessionaires to reduce their operating hours, since the demand for their services was much lower than normal.

Since the airport's passenger traffic returned to normal in 2022, TAIT required all retail shops and restaurants be fully-staffed and open during normal business hours in order to ensure passengers' needs were met.

This resulted in a large increase in revenue, with retail revenue increasing by 23%, and food and beverage revenue increasing by 56% over the past year.

In the fall, TAIT surveyed more than 250 TLA passengers and visitors and found the following:

  • 92% of passengers said the airport's services meet their needs, which was down from 97% in 2021 — likely due to concessions being closed due to staffing.
  • Passengers rated TUL a 9.3 out of 10 in overall satisfaction, up from 8.9 in 2021.
  • 91% of passengers think the terminal is a modern facility, slightly down from 92% in 2021
  • 99.6% of passengers thought the airport terminal was clean, the same as in 2001.

Some improvements are planned to the Lower Level Services Area in 2023 with the opening of two new family services areas in spring. On both the A & B Concourses, TUL will have entire areas dedicated to making the customer experience “more accessible and calming.”

New amenities will include a sensory room, quiet room, mother's nursing lounge, service animal relief area and family restrooms that are equipped with adult changing tables.

Some bigger projects are also in the works at TUL. TAIT said it made “significant progress” in fundraising for the new FAA Air Traffic Control Tower at TUL, securing $84 million of the total $97 million needed from multiple sources, including the airport's capital improvement plan budget along with contributions from the city of Tulsa, Tulsa County, state of Oklahoma and the federal government. Fundraising will continue in 2023 and airport officials will work with LEO A Daly and the FAA to finalize design plans.

Rendering of proposed new control tower at Tulsa International Airport.

Plans are also in the works to build a new federal inspection services facility at TUL. Renderings of the proposed new 40,000-square-toot area of the terminal have been presented, and the airport will work with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency and Selser Schaefer Architects to finalize details before putting the project out to bid for construction.

The facility will allow commercial airlines to offer nonstop international flights, most likely to popular destinations in Mexico, out of TUL. The $27.5 million project should be completed and ready for passengers in late 2025 or early 2026.

Rendering of proposed new customs facility for Tulsa International Airport.

Airport officials are also expected to review and approve final designs for completely new entryway and directional signage at the airport. They are working with Gresham Smith, an architecture, design and engineering firm, to completely redesign the signage around the entire airport property.

This includes a new entryway monument, roadway signage and all terminal directional signage. Construction and installation is expected in 2023 and will provide a “modern aesthetic” for the airport and help ease any confusion for new visitors, TAIT said.

Tulsa Riverside Airport experienced similar success, airport officials said. While the impact of the pandemic was not as dramatic at RVS, the level of activity at the state's busiest airport grew significantly in 2022.

Operations (takeoffs and landings) were up 21% compared to 2019, ranking the airport as the 11th busiest general aviation airport in the U.S.

Flight school training, combined with itinerant aircraft operations throughout the year — especially during key community events such as the PGA Championship — contributed to the additional activity.

The RVS master planning effort continued this year, with a focus on soliciting feedback from airport tenants, users, and surrounding communities regarding development plans that will prepare the airport for sustained operations and growth.

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