With terminal and parking improvements, plus plans for a major solar project, Executive Director Ben Lesichner expects this to be a “year of change” for the Quad-City International Airport.
Leischner, who previously worked at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for 14 years, recently finished his first year as director of the airport in Moline. Despite dealing with harsh weather and a federal government shutdown in his first year, Leischner said he’s been focused on “building a foundation” for the airport to grow.
That’s included surrounding himself with an executive team, entering into an agreement with Uber and Lyft and “stabilizing” passenger numbers. John Malvik, chairman of the board, also boasted Leischner’s restructuring of the QCIA Airport Services, LLC, adding the LLC is now “profitable for the first time.”
“This first year was really looking at every business arrangement we had at the airport and being really focused on sustainable business practices,” he said. “This coming year, we’re going to be looking at capital projects and really get into what we want to do in the future.”
As the airport wraps up the fiscal year, and the Metropolitan Airport Authority of Rock Island County budgets for the next, Leischner said he has big plans for the coming year, much of them focused on helping the Quad-Cities region expand.
Solar project/parking upgrades
One major project for the airport in the coming year could be the development of covered parking outside of the terminal, doubling as a solar array system.
The airport authority board has discussed the potential for a solar project, which Leischner wants to use to bring a “higher level of service for passengers.” An engineer has been studying the feasibility of the project, he said, and a request for proposals will be sent to developers.
The solar system would be attached to the roof of the terminals, as well as new infrastructure to cover the parking lot, which the director hopes will accommodate passengers during snow, rain or heat.
“So it’s really two-fold — you have renewable energy, which is fantastic as a major energy user, and then the added benefit of covered parking,” he said. “We’re looking at how to tie it into the existing infrastructure of the terminal. The electrical engineer did the design, and it’s very feasible.”
The airport is looking to enter into a power purchase agreement with an independent developer who would fund, build and maintain the system at little to no cost for the airport, and then take advantage of solar incentives. The other option would be a lease, he said, expecting the construction of the project to cost between $3-4 million.
Eventually, Leischner would like to cover the entire drive outside of the terminals, including the roadway and walkways. He pointed to the tent-like covers outside the airport terminals in Rochester, New York, which are built to withstand any weather and are equipped with lighting.
In the meantime, he said the airport is looking to make facade improvements to the outside of the terminals, including replacing outdated signs and flooring.
“I really want to turn my attention to some kind of facelift at the front of the terminal,” he said.
The airport this past year has started making indoor improvements to boost customer service, Leischner said, from adding massage chairs to improving the coffee stand.
Starting off with small “tweaks,” Leischner wants to make more changes in the coming year. That could include adding a play area for children while parents wait to catch flights. He also wants to update the restrooms by adding new fixtures.
At the check-in, Leischner is looking to update flight information display systems, signage and way-finding.
And, following the addition of Caribou Coffee, he’s looking to attract more businesses to open up and serve customers at the airport.
“I like the idea of the airport being a reflection of the community we serve, so putting out a request for small businesses that want to be part of the airport,” he said. “Part of our job outside of air service is to stimulate commerce in the region, so we have to have businesses that are thriving.”
Regional growth approach
In the past year, Leischner said the airport has seen growing passenger numbers, recovering from 2017 where the number of enplanements dropped more than it had in several years.
“We’ve been seeing that decline since AirTran left the market, and that seemed like a really good challenge to me,” he said. “We’ve started to see an uptick, but I think it’s more of equalizing and flattening out. Where we go from here will really be based on what we do as a region and if we bring more businesses in the area.”
Working with the Quad-Cities Chamber of Commerce and Visit Quad-Cities, he said the area needs a regional action plan to determine how to market the Quad-Cities and attract more businesses and residents.
He’s also looking at attracting new air service — potentially a flight to Charlotte — and increasing flight activity to Denver.
Looking ahead at the budget, Leischner said he’s more focused on a fee structure to fund projects, charging the people who park and use the airport rather than taxing the entire community. Leischner and Malvik both said if other airports, such as in Peoria, again push for new legislation to expand their tax bases, the Moline airport could also join the initiative.
Malvik said he’s interested in expanding the taxing authority to include all of Rock Island County, while others have debated creating a bi-state tax base.
But Leischner said he’s more interested in focusing on growing the region so the airport’s growth can follow. He’s looking to lease out vacant space surrounding the airport in Moline, including the industrial park and area that could be taken over by new restaurants and retail.
He also wants to increase support of the general aviation industry. This past year, the airport has added a lounge and self-fueling system for general aviation pilots. And, Leischner wants to partner with a college to launch a training program for pilots.
“There’s this looming issue with the pilot shortage, and it’s going to start to hit the industry pretty hard in the next year, especially in small communities like the Quad-Cities,” Leischner said. “I want to make sure we’re doing what we can to support that pipeline for pilots. It’s a fantastic career choice.”