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Weekend edition October 13, 2023 | Katelyn Keenehan

McGhee Tyson Airport is flying high, economically speaking

The air transport industry has not returned to normalcy, but some small hub airports like TYS are seeing big wins.

The 10 years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic were the best 10 years in air transport history. The pandemic put a pin in that prosperity. Meaning, that for many airports and airlines across the country, it’s now a fly-or-fall situation.

The good news is that McGhee Tyson Airport (TYS) is flying high.

Industry expert and analyst, William Swelbar said McGhee Tyson has situated itself in the perfect spot to fully recover, grow, and thrive over the coming years. He has spent 40 years in the consulting world with a focus on issues related to air transport, air service development, and tracking data in the skies.

William “Bill” Swelbar with Swelbar-Zhong Consultancy

Changing Economics

“This industry can destroy balance sheets like no other,” Swelbar told a room full of Knoxville’s business leaders and professionals on Thursday afternoon.

The industry still has not returned to normalcy, and that’s largely due to changes made during the pandemic. Many businesses have become accustomed to employees working from home and taking calls via video chat. Swelbar said this led to a shift in the number of professionals flying for meetings.

However, leisure traffic is picking back up. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) data shows more than 90 percent of TSA passengers who flew in 2019 returned to the airport in 2022. More TSA passengers flew in September 2023, than they did in September 2019.

Despite the increased desire to travel, it’s not fully back to normal. According to Swelbar’s research, the market valued U.S. airlines at $128 billion in 2019. Today, the industry is valued at $74 billion.

What does this mean for McGhee Tyson Airport?

Someone in the audience asked if TYS is on its way to being an international airport. In short answer, no. It’s not quite there yet. That development could be decades down the line; however, TYS has positioned itself to see incremental growth year over year.

Swelbar shared numbers from 2022 and Quarter 1 of 2023, that McGhee Tyson Airport is outperforming other airports of its size.

There are about 80 other “small hub airports” across the U.S. Of the airports in that category, TYS ranked number 19. TYS also made it into the high absolute growth and growth-rate predictions for 2023.

“This is a badge of honor,” Swelbar said. “It’s pretty darn good and will only get better for Knoxville.”

In short, Knoxville is on the map.

Swelbar predicts some airlines will slowly get rid of small aircraft that seat fewer than 50 people. He said they will likely replace them with bigger planes that have the capacity and are more cost-efficient to operate. This means it could become easier to book flights from Knoxville to major hubs- and vice versa. This would grow the gateway to East Tennessee.

According to the TYS Strategic Business plan, in 2019 the airport saw visitors who arrived at TYS spend over $500 million in the community. If the airport grows, as expected, so will the potential for impact.


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