Orlando Airport’s Spiffy $2.8 Billion Facelift

Orlando joins a growing list of cities spiffing up their airports, spending $100 billion through 2021, or about $20 billion a year.

Orlando International Airport South Terminal

  • Concept designed by Fentress Architects
  • Architect of record – HNTB
  • Landside contractor – Turner-Kiewit
  • Airside contractor – Hensel Phelps
  • Cost: $2.8 billion
  • Opening: mid-2021

Visitors to Disney World are aware of the Orlando International Airport’s unique configuration.  After checking in, travelers and their mouse ears are whisked on above-ground people movers to one of the four “Airside” gate locations.  That layout has served the airport well for more than three decades, but now it’s full and changes are afoot.

The airport’s new $2.8 billion South Terminal is currently under construction.  When it opens in 2021, travelers on some airlines will be greeted by a more traditional yet attractive layout.

orlando airport

The idea of expanding Orlando’s airport has been around for years.  Back in 2007, it served 36.4 million passengers, not far from the 40 million passenger capacity of the facility.  Traffic tumbled, however, after the Great Recession.  It bottomed out in 2009 at 33.7 million.

Since that time, there has been massive growth.  In 2017, the airport served 44.6 million passengers with 2018 predicted to be closer to 48 million.  The airports 93 gates are well-used, each averaging about 5 flights per day.  It has reached the point where Orlando has started putting flights from one airline on to the gates of another when there happens to be availability.

The growth spurt doesn’t show any signs of abating. Spirit has announced a big expansion in Orlando with both domestic and international flying.  Frontier has also seen phenomenal growth going from only 440,000 passengers to 4.4 million in a very short time.  It now serves more nonstop destinations from Orlando than any other airline.

JetBlue has likewise made a commitment to grow Orlando, and Southwest – the number 1 airline with 25 percent of total passengers — isn’t giving any ground.  That doesn’t even consider the big increase in international flying from a variety of airlines ranging from Emirates to LATAM.

Orlando is not alone.  Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NI) estimates that airports in the US need to spend $100 billion through 2021, or about $20 billion a year.  According to spokesperson Mimi Ryals, those airports spent only $12.7 billion in 2017.  Getting funding for airport projects is a challenge, and approval processes can be extremely long.  Orlando’s project is just one of many that need attention.

The airport originally looked at expanding its existing terminal complex but quickly realized it wasn’t cost-effective.  Greater Orlando Aviation Authority CEO Phil Brown explained that it was a matter of geometry.

“There are taxiways north and south and runways east and west.  [The current terminal] is hemmed in by concrete on all sides.  You get into movement area problems, concerns about having to extend runways. You spend a lot of money and you don’t get much for it.”

The airport began to look south of the existing facility.  A parking garage had been built there, and a people mover had already been added to bring travelers back and forth between the two.  There were also abandoned plans for a rail station that have been revived under the Intermodal Terminal moniker. That is already partially open.  Other than that, there was nothing but open space.  That’s where the South Terminal plan began to take shape.

“There are taxiways north and south and runways east and west. [The current terminal] is hemmed in by concrete on all sides,” says Phil Brown, CEO of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority.

When fully built out the South Terminal will be bigger than the current (soon-to-be-called North) terminal with 120 gates.  That will be built in phases, however, with the first phase having a tenth of those coming into service.

The $2.8 billion will construct a total of 19 gates on the west side of the airport’s access road.  Eight of those will be for narrow-body aircraft with 11 for widebodies.  Those 11 can accommodate multiple narrow-bodies instead, if needed, so the actual capacity is higher.

The concept was designed by Fentress Architects, but the architect of record is HNTB.  It is currently under construction with the landside having been awarded to the Turner-Kiewit joint venture and the airside being built by Hensel Phelps.  It is expected to be open in mid-2021.

One of the big questions for the airport was around which airlines to move to the new facility.  Mr. Brown explained that the airport had 14 criteria it used to evaluate options, including the willingness of airlines to have common-use gate facilities.  In the end, a lease was signed to make the building JetBlue’s new home.  The airline will leave its current location on Airside 1, and it will take partners including Emirates, Azul, and Silver Airways (among others) with it.

Once JetBlue moves, it is likely that Spirit will leave Airside 3 for the empty space in Airside 1.  There, it can coexist with Frontier in what will effectively be a ULCC terminal.  The downside is that Spirit will likely have to split its international operations.  The primary international facility today is Airside 4, but the South Terminal will also have a customs facility.  Though Airside 1 has a customs facility today, Orlando is not optimistic about getting additional Customs and Border Protection (CBP) staff it would need to operate all three locations.  Mr Brown says he is “hopeful we can convince CBP to maybe have partial day operation [on Airside 1],” but that may be overly optimistic.

Airside 2 will continue to be the home of Southwest while Airside 3 will still house American and United.

This expansion should increase the airport’s stated capacity up to 55 million.  It may not be long before a further expansion is being discussed.  The new facility is designed to be able to grow to 60 gates with another 60 in a mirror facility on the other side of the access road.

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