Small airports have big economic impact

TML Communications Specialist

Whether its people or packages, flying the friendly skies has a massive economic impact on the state of Tennessee and nowhere is this more felt than in smaller and mid-size cities.
A recent Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) study on the economic impact of aviation found that the industry generates $40 billion worth of economic benefits to the state and employs more than 220,000 people. While the eight airports located in Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis, and Nashville spur billions of dollars in impact on their own, the bulk of the economic impact generated in the state – 51.25% – comes from the 70 airports operated in and by smaller municipalities.

These facilities generate $20.5 billion in economic impact, offering services for both major corporations and locally-owned small companies. As the economy becomes more globalized, access to a local airport is becoming a must have for many businesses of all sizes.

One of the biggest jobs for many of the state’s regional airports is cargo and freight shipping services. The TDOT study found the top commodities shipped via air in the state were pharmaceutical products, transportation equipment, precision instruments and apparatus, electronic equipment and components, and textiles and leather. Transportation and warehousing are the top aviation-reliant industry in the state followed by retail trade. Freight and cargo services from airports support an additional 82,000 jobs and $19 billion worth of economic impact.

The growth of cargo and freight aviation services can be best exemplified by the growth of the Millington-Memphis Airport (NQA), which has gone hand-in-hand with the growth of Memphis-based shipping giant FedEx. While Millington has a population of a little more than 11,000 residents, the city still manages to operate the airport with the third-biggest economic impact of any in West Tennessee.

Millington-Memphis Airport Executive Director Roy Remington said cargo is big business for the facility.
“The biggest user of our airport is FedEx,” he said. “They are the largest aviation user in the state of Tennessee. We fill a unique role in that we are the backup airport for their hub at the Memphis International Airport. We have an air traffic control services and have an aircraft rescue and firefighting station that is staffed with specially trained firefighters to respond to aircraft incidents. Those services help support the ability to take overflow aircraft or aircraft that can’t get into Memphis due to weather. We offer that redundancy so they can make their deliveries on schedule.”

After Chattanooga’s Lovell Field, the Tullahoma Regional Airport (THA) generates the most money of all the TDOT study’s Region 2 airports with an economic impact of more than $21 million. THA Manager Jon Glass said airport officials are often all hands-on deck at the drop of a hat whenever a local business needs cargo service.
“It’s sometimes hard to predict when we will receive cargo, but we handle quite a bit,” Glass said. “Mainly, we see a lot of use from the local auto part manufacturers. We usually receive cargo when a company gets behind or something breaks. We have received cargo 12 nights in a row and then have no cargo for a month. We are still on call 24/7, and I’ve been out there at 1 or 2 a.m. unloading cargo myself.”

The reason for this is that a cargo shipment – ranging from goods and services to parts – can mean big bucks for local business.
“It’s really important that we can support our local companies,” Glass said. “When a factory shuts down, it can cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost time. If they need a part from Texas, we can get it to them in two to three hours and get them back up and running.”

Located centrally between the cities of Bristol, Johnson City, and Kingsport, Tri-Cities Regional Airport (TRI) serves not only Tennessee but other states with two Tennessee counties as well as the cities of Kingsport, Johnson City, Bristol, and Bristol, Va., all appointing members to the airport’s board. Executive Director Gene Cossey said many are unaware that even commercial flights, like those that land at TRI, can also be used for cargo.

“There is a lot of freight shipped in and overnight type stuff through the commercial airlines,” he said. “A lot of people don’t realize these airlines have extra capacity beyond passengers and have extra cargo capacity. Itemscan be shipped via those airlines especially when they need to get here quickly or overnight. We see things like bank letters, real estate transfers, and all kinds of things that aren’t large cargo items.”

TRI also has the added benefit of allowing companies to bring in cargo from other countries directly to the region.
“We have a foreign trade zone and customs and border clearance station here that allows people to directly ship to the airport on charter services,” Cossey said. “Cargo gets chartered a lot too, so we can receive and ship directly here. This also allows corporate aircraft to fly in directly instead of having to stop first at another airport. That is very important for companies that do a lot of international travel.”

With the economy becoming even more globalized, ease of access to an airport is becoming a bigger need for national and international companies. As a result, corporate flights – both chartered and non-chartered – are a main focus of many of the state’s airports.

“We live in a global economy, and we need fast, easy, and convenient transportation to be a part of that economy,” Cossey said. “We are definitely a part of a much larger world, and when you think of it from a systems dynamic, we are one of the key links in a system that connects the world to the Tri-Cities region. Without that connection, it would be difficult for our area to function in that world.”

Kingsport-headquartered Eastman is one such example of an international company that relies on air travel.
“Everyone – even if you don’t fly – gets a benefit from the economic impact here,” Cossey said. “Not only do you benefit from the dollars that come in from travelers and the people who work here and contribute to our economy, but it’s the businesses that couldn’t be here without an airport like that. Eastman is one of our largest companies in the whole Tri-Cities area, and it would be very difficult for them to continue their operations without an airport nearby. If you don’t have a way for people to travel, it’s hard to attract those types of businesses. When you think about it, everyone in one way or another benefits from having an airport in their community.”

Often serving as a “reliever” airport for Nashville’s busy BNA, Smyrna is actually the third largest airport in Tennessee and is the state’s busiest general aviation airport. John R. Black, executive director of the Smyrna Airport said Smyrna’s smaller size and proximity to Nashville has made it a choice for numerous corporations that want good service without the hassle of visiting a big international airport.

“Our primary service here is corporate aviation,” he said. “That’s how business America moves. We have an air traffic control tower and full service, which makes us very attractive to corporate aviation. There are a lot of good amenities here. A business can hit two or three stores in one day and then be back home. Airports are like a time machine for corporations. We have tripled our economic impact in the past nine years because corporate aviation is using the airport more and our facilities have grown here.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Remington said smaller airports have seen more corporate traffic through charter flights.

“They have been coming through those general aviation airports because they feel it is a safer environment,” he said. “They are less crowded, and there is less exposure. People have talked about the shift to Zoom and teleconferencing, and while I think that will be a part of business going forward, at the end of the day, you can’t replace the value of a face-to-face meeting. People who make deals and build trust need that. I think airports, especially community airports, fill that role now and will fill it in an even greater way in the future as larger carriers adjust their networks to the demand.”

Remington said airports are just as essential as other modes of transportation.
“Just like having a highway go through your town or having a rail line serve your town, airports are a way for people to access your community,” he said. “If you don’t have a way for people to get there, you aren’t in the game at all. We are economic drivers. You can have a manufacturing company based in your town that employs local residents that is headquartered globally. An airport provides an immediate touchpoint where they can come in, handle the business they need to, and then get back to other locations. They can meet with vendors and suppliers all from the reach of their local community airport.”

As a result, local airports are a valuable economic development tool.
“I work with the local chamber of commerce all the time about recruiting business, not just businesses locating in the airport,” Black said. “We help recruit businesses throughout Rutherford County and even throughout Middle Tennessee who choose to fly in here. We also work with the state economic development folks.”
Businesses are locating at airports as well. More than 60 business tenants employing around 750 people are located at Smyrna Airport, and not all tenants are part of the aviation industry.

Cossey said TRI is also developing its own aerospace park to draw related industries in the area.
“The park will be completely finished in the spring, and we expect as we start getting tenants in the park who are employing people and contributing to the aerospace industry, we will see an even larger economic impact than we’ve seen,” he said.

As business continues to grow in Tennessee, local airports expect to play a major role in that growth. Glass said Tennessee’s location makes it ideal for industries who use aviation.
“Aviation is such a large industry that moves people and material all around the country,” he said. “We live in the eastern part of the U.S. where about a third of the population is within a three- or four-hour flight from our airport. We knew we made a good economic impact and are very proud of that. Aviation is never going away. Airports will continue to play a very vital role in our nation’s economy.”

In addition to growing outside business, Black said Tennessee is also ideally situated to advance the aeronautics industry itself.
“In Middle Tennessee in particular, we have a sort of corridor of aviation talent and future growth,” he said. “You can start at Fort Campbell where there are a lot of folks with aviation experience. Austin Peay and TSU have aviation programs, and on the engineering side Vanderbilt and Middle Tennessee State University have programs. MTSU has one of the top programs in the country. You have the Arnold Engineering Development Center in Tullahoma with a lot of aviation-related talent there, and then across the border in Huntsville there is a lot of aerospace technology. I think in the future, this corridor is really going to play a big part in attracting new aerospace industry to Tennessee.”

Cossey said he hopes the TDOT study will show not only how much airports economically impact their local communities but also how important it is for communities to support those airports in turn.

“As the state continues to look at ways to support airports, grow airports, and grow regions around our state and in turn make the state stronger on a national and international scale, it is important to realize how each airport has an impact on its own region and the state as a whole,” Cossey said. “I’m very hopeful for the state of Tennessee, especially post-COVID. States like ours have more growth capacity, and I think a lot of people are looking at places to go where they can operate in a better business environment, pay less taxes, and have a place for their families. If we strengthen and build our airports, that will turn around and strengthen and build our economy. Having a strong, viable airport is just as important as having good internet, good healthcare, and good schools.”

For more information on the TDOT Airport Economic Impact study, visit