The Des Moines airport is overdue for some big changes, which local residents will begin hearing about in February.

“Basically, we’ve got a 1948 vehicle here in terms of this passenger terminal,” said Don Smithey, executive director of Des Moines International Airport. “It was built for DC-3s, and we’re trying to handle Airbuses and 737s and the new generation of airplanes.” 

“And we’ve added dramatically to our number of passengers,” topping 2 million for a second year in a row, with totals expected to continue to climb now that Southwest Airlines serves Des Moines, Smithey said. 

The problem, he said, is the airport’s most recent strategic plan, developed in 2007, has become woefully out of date before many of its key proposals are even close to being achieved. 

That plan called for building a new $100 million runway to handle air traffic that no longer exists now that the Iowa Air National Guard has pulled its F-16 fighter jets from Des Moines and now that cargo carriers United Parcel Service Inc. and FedEx Corp. are moving more of their business to ground-based transportation.  

The 2007 plan also calls for what Smithey said would have been a very costly new passenger terminal to be built west of the current terminal with access from 63rd Street. 

In recognition of those and other problems, the Des Moines Airport Authority commissioned LeighFisher Inc. to prepare a new strategic plan, which the worldwide aviation consultant will present to the airport’s governing board on Feb. 11. 

Smithey isn’t sure exactly what the new plan will say, but he said it’s a good bet that the runway that was proposed in 2007 will continue to be deferred until needed and that the location of a proposed new terminal will change. 

The 2007 plan recommended a new terminal on the western side of the airport, a move that would have required creating a new lengthy entrance from 63rd Street. 

That no longer makes sense because it would require costly new infrastructure before the terminal could be built, Smithey said. 

The airport would have had to do extensive site work extending sewers, utilities and streets to the proposed site, Smithey said. 

A more logical location today for a new terminal is to the south of the current terminal in an area that has served as the hub of cargo operations, Smithey said.

Back in 2007, the airport’s cargo operations had been expected to grow. But they didn’t. In fact, they have scaled back in recent years as UPS and others shifted to a business strategy that relies more on trucks and trains. 

As a result, the cargo haulers need less, rather than more, space at the airport. 

In fact, the reduction has been so dramatic that UPS agreed to buy out a long-term lease it had for 45 acres at the airport. 

The original plan was to build a super-sort facility on that site. But the need for the facility disappeared when the cargo hauler’s business strategy changed.

As a result, Smithey said, UPS bought out its long-term lease, producing $7 million for the airport and $5 million for the city of Des Moines.

The move also freed up space for a new passenger terminal where much of the necessary infrastructure is either already in place or can be brought in at a much lower cost than if it came from 63rd Street.

The reality is that a new terminal is at least a decade away, Smithey said. 

But the LeighFisher plan that will be presented on Feb. 11 will give Central Iowans a realistic sense of what Des Moines International Airport could look like in the 21st century.