What’s NEXT at SDF
How Louisville is using its capital program to increase its impact in economic development, sustainability and passenger experience
By Brian J. Sinnwell | Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport
The Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport (SDF) is one of the most active regional airports in the nation. We are the third largest U.S. airport in cargo volumes (and fifth in the world) as well as the front door to Louisville, Kentucky, a top tourist destination for big-scale events and attractions, such as the Kentucky Derby and the nearby Kentucky Bourbon Trail. To provide best-in-class experiences for our cargo and commercial carriers and passengers, the Louisville Regional Airport Authority has undertaken a $400-plus million capital improvement program to modernize our 30-year-old airport. Under the capital program, dubbed SDF NEXT, we are expanding the impact of our airport in three key areas:
- Economic development
- Passenger experience
Our airfield is home to UPS’s Worldport, the world’s largest automated package handling facility and the center point of the carrier’s worldwide air network. The sorting facility occupies 5.2 million square feet between Runways 17L-35R and 17R-35L south of Runway 11-29 on our airfield.
Because of our airport’s relationship with UPS, we play a significant role in both the regional and national economies. Never was that role more evident than during the pandemic. While passenger air travel experienced historic declines, our cargo volumes soared. As UPS was rushing COVID-19 vaccines to hospitals and health facilities nationwide, through SDF they also were responding to a surge in online shopping and doorstep deliveries. As always, our airfield was operating 24/7.
Post-pandemic, UPS operates an average of 300 daily departures and arrivals. The number soars to 500 flights during the holiday season. We work hard to ensure that the tenant can efficiently use the airfield and deliver packages on time.
Always mindful of UPS’s operations, we continually solicit input from their chief pilots and operations staff on the value and priority of proposed airfield projects. Once a project is approved and implemented, we proactively share details and communicate phasing to ensure closures do not greatly impede their operations.
Under SDF NEXT, we have collaborated on plans for several airside efficiency improvements that will extend existing taxiways and add a major connector taxiway to ease congestion on the airfield.
These airfield investments will help us elevate our airport’s role as an economic engine for our city and region and as a vital link in the nation’s supply chain.
The Airport Authority Board wanted the SDF NEXT campaign to also advance the organization’s core value of sustainability. As part of the program, we are replacing the terminal’s HVAC system with the largest geothermal system in the U.S. aviation industry. The $21.7 million geothermal wellfield system comprises 648, each 12-inch-wide, 500-foot-deep wells covering nine acres east of the passenger terminal located on the airfield.
Today, our 24-gate, two-concourse terminal is partially heated and cooled by our new geothermal technology, with more of the building coming online soon. When SDF’s geothermal system is fully operational, it will:
- Cut carbon emissions by 80%
- Use 40% less energy than traditional systems
- Save $400,000 annually in heating and cooling operating costs
- Free up 100,000 square feet of former boiler and cooling tower space
- Operate two to three times longer than traditional HVAC systems
To maximize the ground above the geothermal wellfield, we constructed a nine-acre concrete airfield ramp in fall 2022, designed by HNTB. The ramp provides additional parking for about 20 small aircraft or up to six large aircraft and will be used as a central deicing apron to further reduce terminal ramp congestion. The new asset began generating revenue almost immediately and was critical to safe, efficient operations during the 2023 Derby weekend.
Also, as part of our SDF NEXT program, we are adding a central generator plant and a self-sufficient, microgrid project. Unlike a typical backup generator, the central generator plant’s solar-powered batteries will supply part of our daily operating power, reducing our morning peak electricity loads and energy costs.
A federal endorsement, VALE
The geothermal well project is the first SDF project to receive a U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Aviation Administration Voluntary Airport Low Emissions Grant, or VALE Grant. The funding covered the cost of designing and constructing the geothermal wellfield and the piping infrastructure connecting to the terminal building.
We also are redefining the passenger experience at Louisville by improving the terminal’s functionality. Under SDF NEXT, we have replaced 17 boarding bridges, 18 elevators, six escalators and two moving walkways. We added new wayfinding signage and built a new rental car facility accessible via covered walkways. We also upgraded the baggage handling system, made modest changes to gate hold areas, interior lighting and restrooms. We will update ticket counters and improve the terminal’s curbside pickup and drop-off areas. Back-of-the-house operations include a new personnel badging office, state-of-the-art cameras and security upgrades and a new operations command center.
In the next phases of our terminal capital program, we will add a new TSA checkpoint – doubling the size of our current checkpoint for faster processing. Further out on the planning horizon is a new parking garage, expanded surface parking and a Federal Inspection Station, allowing our airport to offer international passenger flights and welcome travelers from around the world.
Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport is breaking the mold of what passengers, tenants and the region expect from and experience at a regional airport. We are excelling in economic development, sustainability and passenger experience because, like our airport’s namesake, we aspire to be “The Greatest.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brian J. Sinnwell, CM
Senior Vice President, Chief Operating Officer
Louisville Regional Airport Authority
Brian Sinnwell is Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, overseeing the Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport and Bowman Field engineering, facilities, airfield maintenance, environmental and noise abatement. He has nearly 30 years of experience in strategic planning, engineering, construction and project management.