Exclusive: a look inside the Nashville International Airport renovation

Posted at 10:46 AM, Jun 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-13 19:54:00-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — When the Nashville airport first opened as Berry Field in 1937, it served less than 200,000 passengers in the first year.

Now, as Nashville International Airport celebrates its 85th birthday, two expansion projects will make way for a projected 30 million passengers per year by 2041.

Airport Officer Gary Polk is what you might call an old-timer. He remembers what BNA was like in his early days on the job 29 years ago.

"It was very slow, I mean after like 6 p.m. it would be dead," he said.

The airport, like the Nashville area, has since transformed.

"Now it's continuous there's never a dull moment... it's overwhelming today what's going on with the construction," Polk said.

Over the decades the airport has taken change in stride, reinventing itself during WWII, in the 60s, late 80s and again present day.

PHOTOS: Celebrating BNA decade by decade

"We're taking a 1987 building and bringing it up to 2020," said BNA President and CEO Doug Kreulen.

Kreulen brought NewsChannel 5 behind airport walls and up to new heights as the bones of the state-of-the-art airport take shape. This while the airport continues to function in separate terminals on either side.

The $1.5 billion dollar BNA Vision plan will finish in September 2023 with a massive new plaza, security checkpoint and international area currently underway.

"If you don’t need to go to a ticketing counter you'll come straight through this area," said Kreulen, indicating what will be the future heart of the airport with high ceilings and room for natural light, "and turn left or right... or go straight ahead if you're going on an international flight."

The new international facility will expand airport capacity for overseas jets from one to six, and Kreulen hopes will encourage more transatlantic flights to Europe plus a nonstop to Asia. The airport already boasts 98 nonstop destinations, which Kreulen says is double other airports in similar-sized cities.

A late add to the plan, a satellite concourse is also in the works, to accommodate more gates to service budget airlines, which will connect passengers via shuttle.

"As the city continues to bring in more businesses and entertainment venues we have to grow to keep up with that demand," said Kreulen.

Some 90 new businesses will land at BNA when all is said and done, changing the retail landscape with an emphasis on local. Kreulen says the plan will increase the percentage of local businesses from 13% to 50%.

"The new marketplace is basically a shopping mall," he said as he pointed to the area where passengers will be able to enjoy Acme Feed & Seed, the Titans Sportsbar, Goo Goo Clusters and burgers from The Pharmacy.

There's even a spot for a possible future train station if Metro leaders choose to build one.

"You'd get off the train and go in with your bag and go straight through security," Kreulen said, standing in what is now an outdoor plaza connecting the main airport to executive offices.

But the BNA Vision plan is only half of what's in the works.

Another $1.4 billion dollar project dubbed "New Horizons" will expand concourses A and D by 2028. Along with the satellite concourse, they will help BNA add 26 gates in the next six years.

Both projects are funded by the Metro Airport Authority with revenue generated by the airport. Borrowing bonds, it will pay back the debt with money from airlines, concessions and parking.

But the COVID downturn did not leave the airport unscathed. On April 8, 2020 passenger volume dropped from more than 50,000 passengers per day to just 545. Kreulen says they operated on an emergency level budget, removing $58 million from operating costs in order to avoid layoffs or salary cuts.

"We basically went on what we called our survival budget for a year and a half to make sure we could understand what was really going on in the country," he said.

And he says the bonds borrowed for the expansion project were secured just four months earlier.

Would a slight delay in the timing have changed the conversation about the future of the airport?

"I hope not, but you can imagine," Kreulen said, thankful for how it turned out.

While most of the project moves forward on time and within budget, there has been one delay. The Tennessee Department of Transportation plans to reconstruct the Interstate 40-Donelson Pike interchange and shift Donelson Pike east to allow the airport to expand its internal road. The oval within the airport will expand from two to six lanes and double in length to help with traffic and airport flow.

But in 2019, a TDOT crew hit the Colonial Pipeline that passes under airport property, which TDOT says was 70 feet away from where the airport's map indicated. Colonial sued the Metro Nashville Airport Authority and in November the MNAA board agreed to pay $4.7 million to settle the case. The airport will also cover the cost to clean up the subsequent spill.

"We've resolved all disputes that are out there and so TDOT is leading the way in moving Donelson Pike," said Kreulen.

The road project is now expected to finish in 2026.

As Officer Polk gets ready to change from active duty to retirement, he says he can't wait to come back and see the changes at BNA. The new on-site Hilton Hotel is one feature he's especially excited about.

"I'll be back," he smiled, "not in uniform, as a passenger."

It seems he'll have a lot of company. As growth continues with Nashville and its airport on the rise.