Update (June 9, 2022): Spirit Airlines has postponed its June 9 shareholders meeting to June 30. The board was expected to vote on a merger with Frontier Airlines.

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Mercer County is currently working on plans for the construction of a major expansion at the Trenton-Mercer Airport in Ewing Township that will increase the size of the current terminal by almost five times and allow for an increased number of flights from the facility.

Trenton mercer airport

The existing terminal at Trenton-Mercer Airport.

The terminal expansion passed a major hurdle recently when the federal government gave the county the green light to move forward with the design and construction of the new terminal and other improvements on the site.

"The county is hopeful to begin the design phase this summer and break ground for construction in late 2023," said Julie Willmot, director of communications for Mercer County. Once started, construction of the expansion is expected to take place over a 26-month time frame.

The project calls for replacing the current 28,000-square-foot terminal, which was built in the 1970s, with a new 125,000-square-foot facility to be located adjacent to the existing building. The current building will be demolished as part of the plan.

After the project is done, passengers will be able to board flights without ever setting foot on the tarmac. Currently, passengers must walk outside between the terminal building and their airplane when boarding and leaving their plane. They also need to walk outside from the plane to a separate building to pick up their checked baggage after landing.

In approving the project, The FAA issued a Finding of No Significant Impacts (FONSI), which documents the agency’s determination that the project does not have the potential for significant environmental impacts.

“This is great news for Trenton-Mercer Airport and the many thousands of travelers who pass through our passenger facility,” said Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes.

“The existing terminal at Trenton-Mercer Airport is about one-third the size it should be for the number of travelers currently using it,” Hughes said. “As we emerge from the coronavirus crisis, we expect an increasing demand for leisure travel, and nationwide and at Trenton-Mercer, we are seeing airlines adding new flights and reviving old ones.”

In its approval, the FAA forecasted a 51% increase in flights from Mercer County, rising from 316,665 to 476,507 by the year 2035.

Meanwhile, in February, Frontier Airlines—the company that flies out of Trenton-Mercer Airport—announced plans to merge with Spirit Airlines, which would create a massive discount airline, the fifth-largest carrier in the country.

The merger, which would likely create even more flight traffic from the airport, faces an uncertain future. The deal must receive approval from federal regulators. In addition, JetBlue Airways last month launched a hostile takeover bid of Spirit Airlines.

Spirit had previously rejected a $3.6-billion takeover offer from JetBlue in favor of the $2.9 billion deal with Frontier Airlines, citing regulatory concerns with the JetBlue offer. Spirit has set June 10 as the date for a shareholder vote on the merger.

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The new terminal will feature four passenger aircraft parking spots with boarding and hold room facilities and terminal apron improvements to facilitate the boarding and deboarding of aircraft. It will also include 10 ticket counters, three TSA screening lanes, expanded baggage make-up and claim facilities, passenger waiting areas, concession areas, passenger circulation and building support spaces.

Another major improvement on the site will be the construction of a parking garage within walking distance of the new terminal building in order to meet increased need resulting from the new terminal. The airport’s interior road network will be reconfigured to improve circulation throughout the site, and the existing parking lots will be reconfigured to replace spaces lost as a result of the construction of the new terminal.

There is no land acquisition involved with the project, which will be constructed in two areas within the airport’s existing 1,345-acre property. The new building, expanded aircraft apron (the area designated for the parking of aircraft and the loading and unloading of passengers) terminal access road, parking lot reconfiguration, and new parking garage are planned for development near the existing terminal building. The existing aircraft rescue and firefighting building will be relocated south of the Runway 24 end along Scotch Road.

According to county officials, the purpose of a new terminal is to better accommodate current airport users and to meet forecasted demands through the year 2035. A new terminal would address the needs of all aspects of airport functions such as baggage handling, TSA checkpoints and baggage screening, airline operations, and improved customer comforts such as concessions, waiting areas and restrooms. There is no plan or proposal for new or longer runways, and the airport size would remain exactly as it is today.

In its approval, the FAA detailed the limitations of the current airport. It said the existing terminal is in various stages of aging and disrepair. Examples it cited included: the heating, ventilation air conditioning systems; plumbing; roofing; and windows.

The building also does not comply with standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The existing terminal was constructed in 1975 prior to implementation of current TSA requirements, and as such, the TSA checkpoint does not meet standards.

“The general building structure of the existing terminal building is undersized for current and forecast activity,” said the FAA. “Due to the under sizing, there is an external baggage facility and the airport leases space off airport property to house administrative offices and law enforcement.”

The FONSI also states that there is inadequate space for hold rooms, restrooms, concessions, airline offices and operations, TSA screening, baggage drop/screening, and baggage claims.

“The existing terminal consists of additions that were added over time, resulting in an inefficient

layout that impacts passenger flow and creates passenger congestion,” said the FAA. “The split-level design of the existing terminal building has different grade changes and there is no direct line of travel.”

Melinda Montgomery, the manager of the Trenton-Mercer Airport, has said that the airport’s current facility lacks a number of modern amenities including facial recognition technology so that passengers don’t have to hand over their identification documents, and a new interface for checked baggage drop-off.

“The current facility lacks the space requirements to perform these improvements,” she said. “The bathrooms are small. The entire terminal is small.”

“If we can just get the people of the region to the popular places they want to go with less trouble and more smiles, it will be perfect,” she said. “We are not Philly, we are not Newark. They are great airports for what they do, but what we have is convenient and nice.”

“It’s an economic powerhouse,” Montgomery added. “It’s a fascinating 1,345 acres of economic development, because if you look at a map, it is mostly green space, it’s mostly open space.”

Ewing Mayor Bert Steinmann said he’s looking forward to the project “going full steam ahead. I know that there’s a lot of demand for it.”

The mayor said that although some residents living near the airport are opposed to the expansion, he feels it will be a net positive for Ewing Township and Mercer County overall.

“It will be good, specifically more for the county, but in some instances also Ewing Township, because basically all the services that are being provided to Frontier have come from this area. The mechanical stuff, the food and anything else that is related to airport-type business have been impacted in a positive way from them being here. Whether it’s the hotels, restaurants or service organizations, like the food providers, and things like that have been very positive. It has helped our businesses quite bit.”

The approval by the FAA followed the preparation of an Environmental Assessment that included: data collection; development and analysis of alternatives; identification and analysis of environmental impacts of the proposed terminal; and several public hearings.

The purpose of the Environmental Assessment was to evaluate the potential direct, indirect and cumulative impacts of the terminal project, and to look for ways to minimize or avoid potential environmental impacts. The development of the proposed new terminal was arrived at by analyzing several terminal building alternatives along with a no-action alternative as they relate to environmental, social and economic impacts.

Environmental concerns are addressed in the FONSI by David Fish, director of the FAA Eastern Region Airports Division. “The FAA has determined that environmental and other relevant concerns presented by interested agencies and the general public have been addressed in the Environmental Assessment. The FAA believes that with respect to the proposed action, there are no outstanding environmental issues within FAA’s jurisdiction to be studied.”

Not everyone agrees with that assessment though. A group calling themselves Trenton Threatened Skies has been formed to oppose the expansion project.

“The FAA‘s suddenly issuing a FONSI, despite overwhelming evidence and serious community concern about environmental threats, clears the way for a massive five-fold increase in the size of the Trenton-Mercer Airport terminal,” said George Polgar of Trenton Threatened Skies in a prepared statement. “This is an example of the behind-the-scenes manipulation of the process that serves bureaucrats and political interests, while ignoring the most urgent priority to protect all citizens.”

Polgar said that according to government reports, PFAS (a forever chemical that has been found to cause cancer) contamination has been found on airport property threatening streams and runoff flowing directly into the Delaware River, which provides drinking water millions of million people. He said that there has been no commitment to clean up the airport property prior to construction and that a recent news report on PFAS contamination in Pennington might be linked to the airport as the source.

“There is no excuse for not doing the appropriate environmental studies,” Polgar said. “With millions in windfall federal infrastructure funds flowing to the airport, the cost of a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement is easily covered. What are Mercer County and TTN officials worried about?”

More information on the project and all associated documents, including the Environmental assessment and FONSI, can be found at ttnterminal.com.

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