Middle Tennessee’s rapid growth has increased demand for more and faster connections around the world from Nashville International Airport, which emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic as one of the nation’s fastest growing airports.
But the Metro Nashville Airport Authority’s efforts to add new direct international flights to Asia have been delayed by the Federal Aviation Administration’s denial of a 2021 runway expansion request and demand for more environmental studies, according to airport officials and documents obtained by The Tennessean.
Airport officials are actively working with the FAA on additional environmental reviews for ultimate approval of the extension, but FAA officials said they have yet to see justification for the project.
In letters to airport officials, Gov. Bill Lee and legislators have pleaded for direct flights between Nashville and Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing and other long-distance commutes in Europe and Asia.
“While blue-chip firms such as Nissan and Bridgestone are among our best-known corporate headquarters, they represent just a portion of the nearly 200 Japanese-based businesses employing more than 36,000 Tennesseans,” Lee wrote in a 2021 letter to BNA President and CEO Doug Kreulen. “Attracting increased tourism from Asia is seen as a substantial area for growth.”
Three independent engineering reviews determined that an 11,300- to 12,000-foot north-south runway would be necessary to travel between Nashville and Asia from Nashville International Airport.
FAA officials said they’re not convinced demand for the additional service exists. However, they are continuing discussions with the airport for further studies for ultimate approval.
“I’m stuck on go,” Kreulen said. “To fly 7,000 miles, you’ve got to have twice as much gas. And a longer runway helps them to take off safely without reducing cargo or passenger loads.”
Airport leaders commissioned an environmental assessment and have been buying land south of campus for years to extend runway 2L-20R from 7,704 feet to 12,000 feet.
Reports detail the safety benefits from the project, which includes reduced reliance on a crosswind east-west runway that is more cumbersome for long-distance pilots than a north-south path.
The extension would support safety improvements from reduced airspace congestion with nearby Smyrna airport and fewer potential obstacles in the path of heavy jets taking off and landing, according to engineering reports.
FAA Memphis Airport District Officer Manager Tommy Dupree reviewed the airport’s presentation in 2021 and rejected the environmental assessment.
“The Runway 2L-20R Justification Study did not provide data or rationale to support a major runway extension,” Dupree wrote in a 2021 email to airport officials. “The document did not show a demand that required a major extension.”
Hospital graveyard, antebellum mansion in runway-expansion path
Just this week, an FAA representative said that it considers the matter a dead issue for now, writing in an email that it “has not received or provided comment on any additional runway extension justification since Nashville International Airport’s 2021 submission.”
Before construction can begin, an area south of the airport campus abutting Murfreesboro Pike needs to be cleared.
The area includes 19 homes, the former Genesco World Headquarters site, an antebellum mansion that houses Monell’s at the Manor southern eatery and a graveyard for at least 137 unclaimed Central State Hospital patients buried in the early 1900s. The demolition of Genesco has begun but Monell’s will only be removed if the runway extension is approved.
The airport authority owns much of the land needed for a longer runway. But it must negotiate to buy the remaining homes in Airport Estates, which included about 200 homes when it was built in the early 1950’s, and relocate the graveyard according to state and federal laws before it can demolish the structures.
A community outreach process and additional environmental assessments would be the next steps if the project had FAA support.
“We’re trying to sign a (Memorandum of Understanding) with the FAA but, until they sign it, we’re just sitting here talking,” Kreulen said. “We need the FAA’s permission to allow us to do the engineering studies and estimate dirt and the impact.”
Airport officials are doing what they can to prepare for the expansion.
A demolition contract for the vacant 60-year-old, 50-acre former Genesco World Headquarters was awarded earlier this summer.
Monell’s at the Manor, housed in a 1930 colonial mansion on airport-owned property, is also set for demolition along Murfreesboro Pike.
“As part of the proposed project, MNAA would provide relocation assistance to owners/tenants displaced from their homes,” reads an airport environmental assessment.
Federal and state laws would guide the relocation process for those interred at the Central State Hospital graveyard. Airport records say burials took place there from 1916 to 1932, but officials suspect there could be older and younger graves. The hospital had segregated graveyards, and this one was for Black patients.
Tennessee requires developers to keep the graves and headstones intact, either by fencing them in or carefully relocating them. The airport would be responsible for ongoing maintenance of the new graveyard.
“A new location has not yet been determined,” airport officials wrote. “A site selection and feasibility study would have to be prepared.”
‘There’s a need’
A future with direct service between Asian cities and Nashville seems far afield.
But airport leaders continue to press forward with a wide range of growth plans, including preparations for the runway extension.
Meanwhile, state tourism and economic development leaders are aggressively courting more international business.
“As a Japanese-based global company, we understand the strong need for efficient and affordable air travel,” Denso Manufacturing wrote in a letter supporting the new runway. “With more than 6,000 associates in Tennessee and several hundred expatriates, our annual Asian destination air travel spend has exceeded $1.2 million on over 550 trips.”
British Airways sent a letter in support of the runway extension, saying they are limited from expanding their jet size in their direct service to London without a longer north-south runway.
“As it stands, any such potential growth may be constrained by current runway limitations,” wrote Ian Blackman, vice president of airports at British Airways. “British Airways can, of course, never guarantee that aircraft capacity would ever be increased, but it would be reassuring to know that the supporting runway infrastructure was available.”
Kreulen said airport officials will continue to study the project and pursue service commitments.
“There’s a need out there. There are 200 Japanese companies in Tennessee,” Kreulen said. “They’d sure like to go nonstop to their home country.”
Fast facts: Nashville airport runway extension
Metro Nashville Airport Authority, governing board of Nashville International Airport, is rebuilding its campus to keep up with rapid growth. About 21.9 million passengers traveled through BNA in the fiscal year ending June 30, up from 18.3 million in 2019. Growth has exceeded projections consistently since 2016, and airport officials are seeking more aggressive expansion plans with the Federal Aviation Administration.
- Expanding one of the airport’s four runways is critical to providing direct routes to Asia, where Tennessee has deep business connections.
- Airport leaders have sought to extend a runway to accommodate international commutes and cargo jets for several years. But the FAA disagrees that the extension is necessary and insists the airport do more studies before the agency reconsiders the application. The FAA’s Airport Improvement Program would cover eligible costs for the improvements if it approved the work.
- In January 2021, airport officials presented justification to the FAA for a 4,300-foot runway extension, from 7,704 feet to 12,000 feet. The 131-page environmental assessment and reports detailing the work involved were rejected by the FAA, which called for additional justification and environmental assessments. Airport leaders are seeking a memorandum-of-understanding with the FAA to move forward with the plans.
- Runway 2L-20R would be extended south of the campus past Murfreesboro Pike along with taxiways and an airfield bridge tunnel over the road. Nineteen residences at Airport Estates and several businesses would be razed, including the former Genesco headquarters, at 1415 Murfreesboro Pike, and a 1930s colonial mansion that houses Monell’s at the Manor restaurant.
- A graveyard for at least 137 unclaimed Central State Hospital patients buried in the early 1900s would be relocated.
- Direct flights to Tokyo, Seoul and other Asian cities are a priority for the region’s tourism leaders and legislators because of business demand. There are nearly 200 Japanese-based businesses employing more than 36,000 Tennesseans.
- BNA has four runways but none are capable of accommodating all aircraft operations. A 12,000-foot north-south runway would allow carriers to travel direct routes to Europe and Asia more safely and consistently, according to a Lean Engineering report.
- BNA airspace overlaps with Smyrna Airport, creating management challenges that would be alleviated.
Sandy Mazza can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, by calling 615-726-5962, or on Twitter @SandyMazza.