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New terminal at Armstrong Airportseeks to return NOLA to pre-K status

22nd April 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu joined the New Orleans Aviation Board last week to announce plans to build a brand new, state-of-the-art airport terminal on the north side of current airport property, near Loyola Drive.
The proposal comes less than two years after the mayor requested the Aviation Board to undertake an in-depth and robust analysis of four proposals for the future of the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (MSY) from the airport’s master plan. The $826 Million Project is projected to “create over 13,000 one-time impact construction-related jobs” but anticipates that at least 584 new permanent jobs will result from the north terminal and the redeveloped south facilities by 2018, and that an estimated 1,264 new permanent jobs are expected to result from the total program.

MSY-Long-Term-Development-i“The Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport serves as a gateway to millions of tourists and business travelers each year and is a critical driver for the creation of jobs and economic development,” said Mayor Landrieu. “Creating a new, modern airport is integral to our success as a world-class travel destination and hub for commerce. It makes economic sense and will create over 13,000 jobs in construction. Recently, significant progress has been made to improve the air service, facilities and customer experience at Armstrong International. But this option provides us the ability to build on these improvements and create the world-class airport that this city deserves.”

Landrieu continued, “This project is about investing in our future. As the 300th anniversary of New Orleans approaches in 2018, my vision is to create a world-class, international airport that will continue the economic vitality of our region. We cannot afford to let another 30 years go by without a clear path forward. The north side option is financially feasible and delivers a strong return on investment for our region.”

According the results of a comprehensive analysis of available options, the north alternative provides the best opportunities for revenue growth and sustainable operating costs, in addition to giving the Airport and region the best job and economic development potential.

“The Northside Alternative’s average annual operations impact on sustained jobs in the regional economy is 7.7 percent greater than the Refurbishment Alternative at 7,034 jobs,” said Landrieu spokesperson Ryan Berni in an email. “This does not consider the potential of a repurposed south side. This impact also does not include the economic impact of tourism that is attributable to the airport, which is projected to add 34,449 jobs. The new jobs generated by the plan is one of its highlights.”

Past Aviation Board member David Campbell in an interview with The Louisiana Weekly said that this new, state-of-the-art terminal that far from the Veterans Blvd and Loyola Drive side of the runways would “allow us to design a facility that could easily compete with Atlanta and Houston.”

The north side terminal project will cost approximately $650 million with possible additions including a $72 million power plant project, $87 million for a flyover addition from I-10 to improve access to the airport, and $17 million for a potential on-site hotel. The total cost is estimated at $826 million. Pending completion of environmental reviews, which will include extensive community engagement, construction is expected to commence in 2014, with completion in 2018.

Funding for the new terminal project will come from various airport self-generated funds along with federal and state aviation grants. The City of New Orleans will not be funding any part of the new terminal project. Additionally, by law, airport funding cannot be used for non-airport improvements.

To streamline the remaining design and construction process, the City and Aviation Board are seeking approval from the state legislature to use the Construction Manager At Risk method (SB 65 by Senator Ed Murray).

“For decades, the Aviation Board has studied the possibility of building a world class airport. We are now moving into action. This plan will create jobs and economic development for our community and will make our airport more competitive. Perhaps most importantly, we will have an airport worthy of our city,” said Nolan Rollins, chairman of the New Orleans Aviation Board.

“This strategic planning effort was the result of a great team. Now, we will do everything possible to deliver an airport facility that mirrors the greatness of this city,” said Iftikhar Ahmad, Director of Aviation.

Sitting for an interview with this newspaper, he noted that by early 2010, the Louis Armstrong International Airport had fallen into what many of its employees feared would be its final decline. Ahmad explained that the Kenner-based facility only had “one-third of the necessary staff available” to provide the basic services of the airport. More dangerously, construction projects were taking place, “that did not have contracts behind them,” leaving little guarantee that the public dollars invested would actually render an improved airport infrastructure.

Today, Armstrong has managed to stabilize his staffing and construction bidding processes. But, such moves are only the beginning, Ahmad maintained, if New Orleans wants to return to pre-Katrina visitor levels. The Aviation Director and his allies in the Tourism Industry have called for massive infrastructure investments and improvements at Armstrong, capital improvements that could carry huge costs, but promise to reap strong rewards for the local economy, such as the new terminal.

Consultants had spent 20 months studying four options to upgrade the airport and the New Orleans Aviation Board voted in favor of a new terminal on the north side of the airport footprint. The construction of a three-concourse terminal and 3,000-space parking garage could be completed by 2018.

Kenner Mayor Michael Yenni said the big changes at the airport should mean more flights and visitors and comes just a day before the Kenner City Council is set to vote on a bond refinancing plan that will free up $29 million for beautification improvements at 10 major corridors throughout the city.

“We couldn’t be more excited in Kenner for a new and improved airport to hopefully go along with $29 million in beautification improvements.” While the relationship between Kenner and New Orleans has been icy at times over the years—largely because of airport issues—Yenni and other Kenner officials said they appreciated Landrieu personally offering details of the big changes ahead for the airport.

In fact, Council President Jeannie Black, a 19-year veteran, said it was the first time she could ever recall seeing a New Orleans mayor in Kenner.

While the airport was one of the largest in the South when it opened to traffic in 1946, that is no longer the case. The terminal, 54 years old, is ancient in an industry when few terminals last 25 years without major renovations or a complete overhaul.

Studies at the airport had come up with four options for Landrieu. One included improvements to the facility without moving the terminal. Two others involved moving the terminal slightly to the west or just south of its current location. Landrieu has said for some time that he favored building a new terminal on the northern edge of the 1,700-acre airport.

According to Landrieu, the north option makes the most sense for a number of reasons: No land acquisition would be necessary by relocating to the north side of the airport. A new entrance near Loyola Drive at Aberdeen Street would provide excellent access to Interstate 10. Keeping the existing terminal in place while building a new facility to the north would minimize impact on the flying public and airport operations during construction. And, the location on the north side of the airport footprint would be best for creating new revenue and jobs for the community.

While Landrieu put the cost of the airport overhaul at $650 million, he said possible additions for the north side terminal project include $87 million for a flyover addition from I-10 for improved access to the airport; $17 million for a potential on-site hotel and $72 million for a power plant.

Yenni pointed out to The Louisiana Weekly that the terminal’s location near Aberdeen Street nearly cuts the city in half, making a side trip to Laketown, Rivertown or somewhere in between a real possibility for a passenger finding himself with a few hours to kill.

The new terminal is an attempt to reverse the steady decline of the airfield formally known as Moisant, which began long before the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina significantly reduced the number of in-bound flights and aero-carriers. For decades after its construction in an empty plot of land near the Mississippi River, New Orleans’ aerodrome could brag of being one of the largest commercial airports in the country.

The fact that MSY tags regularly hung on luggage arrivals from Honduras to Columbia to Cuba proved the boast that New Orleans International served as the “Gateway to Latin America.” Direct flights to non-U.S. destinations were the rule rather than the exception as visitors flocked to patronize the city’s internationally known medical services at Ochsner, educational destinations from Tulane to LSU (just to the north), culture, nightlife, music, food and Mardi Gras.

But, as the Crescent City maintained its lead in most of the above categories, it lost its prominence as an international and national hub in the wake of deregulation of the 1970s. According to Mark Romig, president and CEO of the New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corporation, New Orleans did not invest in Moisant the way Atlanta, Houston, or Dallas-Fort Worth did in their massive internationally focused airfields. As domestic airlines created the hub system, MSY (later renamed Armstrong) fell behind, risking New Orleans’ reputation as a “world-class city.”

Prior to the recent Superbowl cosmetic upgrades, Louis Armstrong Inter­national Airport had not undergone significant renovation since 1974. As Iftikar Ahmad pondered to The Louisiana Weekly, “What does a world-class airport look like? When everyone is treated like a VIP.” At the moment, it is difficult to think of the Louis Armstrong International Airport as a world-class facility that enhances the enthusiasm of returning residents or frequent tourists.

In fact, before sprucing up for this year’s Super Bowl, the baggage claim area had come to resemble an underground bunker. And, “direct flights have become more difficult to come by,” noted WWL news anchor Dennis Woltering.

Still, it was in the midst of these recent Super Bowl improvements that Ahmad and the others foresaw that the obstacles to improving Armstrong field even went beyond just upgrading the current facilities. As he explained, the New Orleans Airport was “on pace to charge airlines three times more than Nashville” for flights. This trend could have proved disastrous for New Orleans, making it more expensive for airlines to provide service into New Orleans and more economically challenging for tourists to visit.

“The airport facilitated over $2.8 billion in spending to New Orleans area [in 2011]. The tourism industry supports 74,000 jobs,” explained Mark Romig. A properly functioning airport is not a concern for only those frequenting the airport, because many more people would be affected by deteriorating airplane service into New Orleans.

Recent renovations at Louis Armstrong International Airport have included a Dooky Chase’s restaurant, a New Orleans Saints-dedicated apparel store, and up to date arrival and departure monitors—standard in other airports across the country.

“In the last 3 years, the Airport has expanded air service including new airlines such as Spirit, Air Canada, and Frontier and new destinations including Kansas City, Milwaukee, San Francisco, Cancun and Toronto,” said Berni. “We have also received approval to operate charter flights to Cuba. And we have expanded our relationship with Southwest Airlines, which is increasing its flights by 35 percent.”

These kinds of capital investments at Armstrong, for shops to the new terminal, difficult though they may be in the current budgetary fiscal climate, are necessary if New Orleans has any chance of maintaining and rebuilding its tourism industry. “We would like to see pre-Katrina capacity,” Romig explained the goal of his membership in supporting improvements at Armstrong.

The airport served roughly 8.6 million passengers in 2012 compared to 10 million passengers before Katrina. To add capacity, New Orleans must make it more attractive for airlines to add direct routes to and from New Orleans. The new terminal is part one of this plan, but this task also involves implementing a long-term cost strategy.

“Keeping the price low” for airlines is paramount to making New Orleans more attractive for the addition of possible routes, maintained Armstrong’s Aviation Director. To do this, the airport must increase non-airline revenue the airport receives. The expected renovations will do just that: “Food and beverage concessions we think will go up $2 to $3 million,” Ahmad projected. The same increase is expected in Hudson Bookseller sales. Lower cost to airlines allows them to discuss adding more service, which may not have been feasible previously.

Decreased expenses may encourage some new carriers, but that alone will make little difference if the city does not join with the hospitality industry to promote tourism “awareness to offset those times of the year that really need it,” such as the summertime, when visitation falls drastically, according to Romig.

Moreover, the Crescent City continues to be seen by regular travelers as a weekend destination, and the flight schedules maintained by the airlines tend to reflect this fact. “We need to shift as much as we can to mid-week travel.” That shift requires giving people more ways to travel to New Orleans on a Sunday or Monday, and staying through the week.

Hence, his organization’s view of the fundamental role that improvements at Armstrong must play. Still, Romig remains optimistic. “Our tourism industry was still on the road to recovery in 2012.” To skeptics who question the need for more tax investment, he noted that for New Orleans to be a world-class city, all of its visitors need to be treated like VIPs.

Still, Campbell did reveal to this newspaper that fiscal worries can be put aside on one matter. The long discussion to build a new East-West runway into St. Charles Parish (and over part of the James Business Park) has been put on the proverbial backburner. Improved guidance technology, along with a change in flight numbers, means that a new terminal location alone may allow Armstrong to double its flight capacity without the greater noise activity that another runway might provide.

At least, that was the critique that Kenner and St. Charles residents had in opposing the East-West landing strip.

FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta was quick to “applaud the City of New Orleans and the New Orleans Aviation Board for their forward thinking to explore the best infrastructure development options to make the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport a world class facility for the traveling public”.

“The FAA looks forward to working with the city as they improve the operational efficiency of the airport,” he pledged.

Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport currently carries approximately 80% of the state’s enplanements, provides over 12,450 direct and indirect jobs, and facilitates over $2.6 billion in tourism spending. “One of the exciting things about choosing the north side alternative is that we have an economic development opportunity to convert the existing terminal into general aviation, cargo, multimodal and other commercial use,” said Ahmad.

(Reporters Chris Villere and David T. Baker contributed to this article.)

This article originally published in the April 22, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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