Airport to be modernized by 2013 Superbowl

January 24 2011 | Latest News

Louis Armstrong International Airport embarks on a major renovation, including a single security checkpoint and new amenities

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Times-Picayune

By David Hammer
Staff writer

With a drawn-out effort to privatize Louis Armstrong International Airport officially dead and a past aviation director headed to jail, the new man at the helm says it's full-speed ahead with a major modernization project that should be complete when the city hosts the 2013 Super Bowl.

New Aviation Director Iftikhar Ahmad has scaled back the sweeping $755 million modernization plan announced in late 2009, six months before his arrival, and replaced it with a $200 million effort that he expects to be done in plenty of time for New Orleans to host Super Bowl XLVII in two years.

The revised project involves shutting down Concourses A and B to the general public and using only Concourses C and D, the airport's newer departure wings, for all commercial travel. Ahmad says less will be more when the already-closed Concourse A becomes the home base for airport operations offices, the doors to Concourse B are closed to all except select charter flights, and the airport's tiled shopping area is converted into a single consolidated security checkpoint with up to 11 screening units.

Instead of the current setup, in which travelers must queue up to use no more than four Transportation Security Administration checkpoint units at Concourses B, C or D, the new system will allow passengers to pass through security where the Acme Oyster House is now and have plenty of shopping and concessions options available before heading to Concourse C and D gates on the other side.

"This is a convention city," Ahmad said. "So, let's say convention A is going on, and Southwest has (a sale on) tickets. All of them are going to show up in Concourse B at the same time. Then, later if we have convention B and Delta is having a fare special, (the crush) will be at Concourse D. This way, instead of four lanes there, three there and three there, we'll put 11 lanes all in one place. They may not have to be staffed all at one time, but then when there's a push, we can have full staffing -- and that's a big selling point for conventions."

When travelers emerge from the future screening hallway and put their shoes back on, they'll enter the spacious atrium on the newer west end of the terminal. That's the area that currently features a helix-shaped statue in the center and ticket counters for JetBlue, Continental and Delta. It helps the reconfiguration effort that some of the airlines there have merged with other carriers -- AirTran with Southwest and Continental with United -- making it easier to move those airline representatives back to the main bank of ticket counters in the old terminal's flag-draped central hallway.

Concourse E idea eliminated

Original plans to build a new Concourse E have been scrapped, said Ahmad, a licensed engineer and former airport leader in Dayton, Ohio, and Nashville, Tenn.

Instead, the plan is to take an outdated airport that has 39 gates but typically uses only 20 of them and shift all of the activity to two concourses that will, by the end of the year, offer a total of 26 gates. Part of that plan involves adding an octagonal pod to the end of Concourse D with more concessions and six new gates. Ahmad said the pod will be "substantially complete" by August.

The Aviation Board's decision a few months ago to not participate in a Federal Aviation Administration pilot program for privatizing airport operations changed the attitude at the airport about completing major upgrades, Chairman Nolan Rollins said.

"The privatization issue was something always looming heavy in the minds of the board when considering the best way to spend public dollars," Rollins said. "Had we started a huge capital program and then went ahead to privatize, we would have taken a significant hit for someone else to operate and make revenue from."

The other expensive new construction is a consolidated rental car facility that will connect to the terminal through a skyway at the far west end, similar to the two walkways that already connect to the fourth floor of the short-term parking garage. Travelers will have one place to go for all of the rental car providers, now scattered along Airline Highway. They won't have to take shuttle buses. The rental cars will be there in a four-level garage, with check-in counters in the front.

The rental car facility project launched in 2001 and was expected to cost $150 million. It was delayed by Hurricane Katrina, but now that construction has begun, with the foundation slab poured earlier this month, it's expected to cost about half as much as first anticipated, less than $75 million. Ahmad said it's on track to be complete by October 2012.

Bag scanner to vanish

The rest of the most visible improvements will involve sprucing up the existing terminal space and expanding concession options beyond the security checkpoint.

New curbside signage and flat-screen information monitors were put in place last year, and renovation of 33 restrooms is well under way. Six of them are scheduled to be done next month.

The main ticketing hallway should also use space better by moving the bulky TSA checked-baggage screening machines to behind the ticket counters.

"What we did after 9/11 (with baggage screening) kind of messed us up," Ahmad said. "Half the space is now taken by TSA. But if we put them behind the counters, it frees up space for Delta, Continental and JetBlue personnel to come back to the main ticketing area."

The offices that now line the front wall of that ticketing area will have to go, Ahmad said, allowing the airport to replace them with large windows that let the outside light shine in. The curbs on the upper-loop road will be moved farther out so a new, more stylish facade can go up. Decaying metal siding will be replaced with a strip of brick, he said, and the overhangs and bridges will be repainted. He wants the curbs to be painted with resin so they can be pressure-washed daily without the yellow paint chipping.

Inside, Ahmad is asking all full-service restaurant vendors to expand their hours to 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Acme Oyster House will move to where Legends New Orleans is now, near the entry to Concourse D. Instead of the metal statue at the center of the west terminal rotunda, Ahmad envisions an elevated bar there, with steps leading to it and a live music stage to the side. High-end shops and more restaurant options will line the sides of that space, Ahmad said.

The Aviation Board voted last week to hire URS Perez Architectural Alliance to design the specifics.

A new short hallway will replace the Concourse D ticket counters and take passengers from that central shopping area to Concourse C.

"This will also help us do transfer business, so you'll be able to land in C and fly out of D" without having to go through security again, Ahmad said.

'World-class' aspirations

Away from the terminal, the airport will work to expand two taxiways, build a new airfield lighting vault and move existing runway lights to meet Army Corps of Engineers requirements. On the site of the old DHL hangar and apron, the airport is a few months away from completing a $14 million aircraft rescue and firefighting station building.

By almost any account, Ahmad swept in a new attitude at the airport. He released a 100-day report in the fall that called airport management "dysfunctional," then released an unflattering audit on out-of-control credit-card usage among airport leaders and staff.

At his direction, a local accountant examined credit-card usage by former airport board Chairman Dan Packer, who used taxpayer dollars to fly to Jamaica, Hawaii, Dubai and elsewhere, often first-class; by former Aviation Director Sean Hunter, who also racked up big travel bills and in a separate scandal was convicted in federal court for his role in an insurance fraud cover-up; and by the board's staff as a whole, which in certain months rang up more than $20,000 in charges.

Almost immediately after Ahmad's arrival in May, the staff credit-card use fell by about two-thirds; Ahmad's spending has been far more modest than Hunter's. The board adopted new policies for credit-card use, and staffers will no longer have their own cards, Ahmad said.

Ahmad brazenly says he wants the public to hold him to his promises to make the airport "world-class" and something "the community can be proud of."

But he added that what he calls the "midterm" projects to prepare for the Super Bowl "won't get us all the way there" to world-class status. He said he's still considering longer-term improvements, like an on-airport hotel, that he hopes will bring the airport so much new investment and expanded interest from airlines that a new, third runway will be necessary to handle all of the traffic by 2048.