American Airlines overhauls CLT hub tower

Room with a view: American Airlines overhauls CLT hub tower

By  –  Senior Staff Writer, Charlotte Business Journal
In a dark, heavily air-conditioned tower above the main terminal at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, a few dozen American Airlines employees and representatives from cleaning and catering firms form a small group charged with making sure hundreds of airplanes run on time as much as possible. On Wednesday, airline and airport executives showed off the results of a four-month, $5 million overhaul of what is known as the hub command center — an operation center responsible for every plane from the taxiway to the boarding gate and back again.

The hub command center complements the work done by air traffic controllers in a separate tower. Those controllers, part of the Federal Aviation Administration, guide all flights in the air and for landings and take-offs. Getting the planes back and forth from the gate, calculating service time for food, fuel and maintenance, among other necessities, all falls to the hub command center. At CLT, American, which has 650 flights in and out of Charlotte each day, runs the hub command center — a center that directs all airlines, not just American.

Mike Bryant, American’s director of tower operations in Charlotte, described the renovated command center as “modern, up-to-date and technologically savvy” on Wednesday afternoon while taking reporters on a tour of the facility. Capacity for the newly renovated command center increased to 44 people from 32, creating room for an airport representative, regional carriers and other business partners who play a large role in averting or minimizing delays.

“It was time for a total refresh,” said Jack Christine, CLT chief operating officer. Bryant and Christine said upgraded technology and additional room in the command center will boost efficiency for American and all carriers at Charlotte Douglas. The hub command center opened here in 1994 and American predecessor US Airways spent $860,000 on the project.

The airport is going through a major expansion phase after a decade of nearly uninterrupted growth in passenger traffic. The interruption came last year, when 44.4 million people traveled through Charlotte Douglas, a decline of 1% from 2015. That marked the first year the number of travelers had decreased since 2009.

Among the major projects in the works is a new $112 million air traffic tower scheduled to open in 2020. Two years ago, Charlotte Douglas launched a 10-year, $2.5 billion series of upgrades and expansion known as Destination CLT. The main terminal, curbside roadways and a fourth parallel runway are all part of the phased project schedule.

Terri Pope, American’s vice president of CLT hub operations, emphasized the out-sized role played by the command center to ensure customer satisfaction — and keep planes coming and going as fast as possible, a crucial factor in determining any airline’s financial health. American is the world’s largest airline. Revenue declined by 2% in 2016 to $40.2 billion with net profit of $2.7 billion, down from $7.6 billion the previous year. (Results in 2015 were skewed by $3 billion of non-cash income tax benefit, according to the company’s financial filings.)

American is headquartered in Fort Worth, but Charlotte is its second-largest hub. The airline has just under 11,000 employees here, making it one of the city’s largest employers. CLT and American have a major impact on the region, generating an estimated $16.2 billion worth of activity each year, according to a recent study commissioned by Charlotte Douglas.