"We don't know much about (the Port Authority's) feasibility study at this point, but look at our track record and look at what we have now," said Sam L. Donelson, acting executive director of the South Jersey Transportation Authority. "Year-to-date, we're up 3.5 percent in scheduled service passengers, and we've been up about 24 percent since 2008, when the big downturn started. Regardless of who runs the place, people understand the convenience of this airport, so whatever happens, I think it's going to grow."
Donelson said the airport has taken a significant step towards growth through the $27 million project, which added three gates, an expanded baggage-claim area and a federal customs facility to accommodate international flights.
According to Donelson, the airport had opened its runways to planes diverted from delays or problems at facilities in Newark and Philadelphia for years, but "we never had the facilities to appropriately handle and process deplaned passengers, and we had to use makeshift space to hold them."
"Now that we have the customs- and border-protection-approved facilities to handle them, we're already working with a major carrier to be their international diversionary airport," Donelson said. "It's our foot in the door to a lot of major carriers."
Currently, Atlantic City International Airport offers direct service to Boston, Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta through Spirit Airlines, and Donelson said the SJTA is "very hopeful that we can get direct service to the Caribbean islands next year" for the airport's first direct international flights, which it's equipped to handle through the completed expansion project.
Unlike most of the airport's improvement projects — which are usually funded by grants through the Federal Aviation Administration — Donelson said the $27 million project was "funded entirely through funds generated by the Atlantic City Expressway, and that's the beauty of being a transportation authority, in taking revenues from one facility to use on another."
Though the FAA has planned federal spending cuts that could impact the Egg Harbor Township airport, Donelson said it "might take away the amount of money we have for funding future projects, but it would not affect any operational expenses, including operational costs for this expansion."
While those cuts are set to take effect in January, Donelson said the SJTA is currently more concerned about "getting the message out that the Atlantic City area and our facilities had minimal damage from Hurricane Sandy and that we're back in business."
"Throughout our outer markets, people think the shore was wiped off the face of the map … but we actually only had 20 flights affected by the storm, and since that time, there has been a minimal impact that's nothing to be concerned over," Donelson said. "We haven't seen any dramatic impact on bookings, but they're slightly down based on past history, so we're keeping an eye on that and we're focused on letting everyone know that everything is fine."
According to the SJTA's annual report, Atlantic City International Airport processed 1.4 million passengers in 2010, and Donelson said he expects the airport to surpass 1.5 million passengers in 2012 and possibly see a bigger jump in 2013 if it attracts more carriers and direct service in the wake of its expansion.