Trains to Join Planes at Orlando International Airport
When Virgin Trains USA begins service in Central Florida three years from now, Orlando International will become the first airport in the nation where airline passengers can travel by rail directly to other cities. The rail line is expanding the former Brightline train operation from its base in Miami up the east coast, where it will head west from Cocoa into Orlando.
The train service is part of a growth strategy envisioned more than 40 years ago when the former McCoy Air Force Base became Orlando International and kept the airport code letters MCO. The airport’s master plan laid out four rail corridors, and the first will host the Miami route out of an Intermodal Terminal Facility that opened last year and connects to the airport’s new South Terminal opening in 2021 to link air traffic, rail lines and ground transportation.
“We think it’s going to be fantastic,” said Vicki Jaramillo, the airport’s senior director of air service development and marketing. “You can fly into MCO and take a train and be in Palm Beach in an hour and a half and in Fort Lauderdale a little bit later.”
Leisure travelers can also fly into Miami, make their way to the train station and head north to come to the theme parks. MCO will be the train’s only airport stop.
“For the local business community, the expectation is there will be 16 trains a day in each direction, and there will be wi-fi,” Jaramillo said. “It will be a very comfortable way to travel if you have to go to meetings, and you have that opportunity to continue to work.”
There is talk of eventually connecting SunRail commuter rail with the MCO intermodal facility to give passengers a direct connection to downtown Orlando and other stops on the train’s north-south route from from Volusia to Osceola counties. There’s also talk about extending the Virgin line to Tampa Bay.
The facility was designed along the distinct themes of two architectural landmarks in Central Florida: the Orange County Convention Center and the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center. It’s expected to become a landmark itself like Grand Central in New York and Gare du Nord in Paris, said Carolyn Fennell, the airport’s senior director of public affairs and community relations.
Tracking the Numbers
MCO has become one of the 10 busiest airports in the nation. It’s also the busiest in Florida, with passenger traffic surpassing that of Miami International Airport — and there is plenty of room for growth. In fact, Miami International, John F. Kennedy International in New York, and Los Angeles International would all fit inside the footprint of MCO, where only 20% of the 12,700 acres have been developed.
“If you look at the other three airports, they’re all landlocked,” Jaramillo said. “They cannot really grow from their footprint. But we do have the blessing of the land and the airspace to continue to build this airport out.”
Between May 2018 and May 2019, MCO recorded more than 49 million passengers, compared with almost 46 million flying in and out of Miami International. “Some locals still find it hard to believe we’re busier than Miami,” Fennell said.
Room for More
Jaramillo’s job is to persuade airlines worldwide to bring additional flight options to MCO. She also helps them determine which planes would be the most profitable for this market. For instance, seats in business class might make up 20% of a plane’s capacity but provide 50% of
“When we are presenting to an airline to look at service to Orlando, we present the whole picture of what the community is all about,” she said. “Most of the airlines are aware of the tourism opportunities in Central Florida. What they’re not aware of is the business side — the conventions, and the students at University of Central Florida, and all the international students who come to this area. We present the whole region, because there are so many reasons people fly here.”
Lufthansa, for instance, launched four weekly Frankfurt-to-MCO flights October 2007 with an Airbus 330-200 with 221 seats, partly to accommodate Siemens, which is based in Germany and has a large Central Florida presence. It took Jaramillo 14 years to get the airline to say yes. The new MCO nonstop exceeded Lufthansa’s expectations and continued to grow, and today it offers daily service with a Boeing 747-400 with 344 seats.
The reverse is true as well. The airport is a marketing tool for the Orlando Economic Partnership, Visit Orlando and other entities trying to bring people to the region for work or play. Jaramillo talks about a company that recently relocated to Orlando from Aspen, Colorado. One of the reasons it cited was accessibility to the airport. Stories like that one spur her to keep pushing for additional routes.
“We’re always working on more,” she said. “We’re always trying to get more service. We want to continue to grow.”