Central Florida’s Grand Central
By Carl Kotala
Orlando International Airport has always been one of the region’s most important transportation hubs, but over the next 10 years, thanks to a pair of extensive expansion projects, it is moving to a whole different level.
The first is the $1.1 billion plan just getting underway at the nation’s 13th busiest airport. It is expected to take up to five years to complete and will feature an enlargement of the people mover system as well as the creation of an intermodal transportation hub.
If all goes as planned, it could trigger the construction of a new South Terminal that could ultimately add another 120 gates to an airport that currently has 93 and welcomed more than 35.2 million passengers during the 2014 fiscal year.
“That’s the ultimate goal. We plan to focus on international travel. It’s about 10 percent of our business now. Given where the hospitality industry, as well as the health services and the high-tech industries are going, we expect to see a lot more international business here and that has a much larger economic impact.
“I think, aspirationally, we want to grow our international business to 25 percent of the total. And if we can go beyond that, we will.”
Expansion to Come
In order to reach the point where the airport’s capacity nearly doubles from its current state, there are a lot of smaller – though not necessarily inexpensive – steps that must be taken first.
There will be a $114 million renovation to Airside 4, which is used primarily by Delta Airlines, along with several long-haul transatlantic carriers. The federal inspection station space area, where customs and border protection agents do immigration and customs checks, will be increased. Some gates that have been used strictly for domestic travel will be converted for international use as well.
There are also plans to improve the baggage handling system and to modify all ticket lobbies.
“Our focus is to modernize the ticket experience,” Brown said. “More and more technology is involved. A lot of airlines are going to a modular concept instead of the linear ticket counters, so we’re trying to assess their needs and wants because they’re all different to some degree.”
Another part of the initial expansion includes the construction of a ground transportation center and people mover system that will connect a new parking garage being built south of the airport with the North Terminal, which will be roughly 1 ¼ miles away.
The garage is needed to help relieve some of the congestion on the roadways and at the curbs of the facility, which is known as an origin-and-destination airport, as opposed to a place such as Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport where many passengers change planes before heading to their next flight.
“Our capital needs and our infrastructure needs are different than a connecting airport,” Brown said. “We need more parking capacity because more people are coming here and parking. We need more curb because people have to access it. We need
a lot more security because people are getting checked as opposed to people who are changing flights in Atlanta, Charlotte or Miami.”
The garage is part of a $470 million project that also includes the people mover system. In addition, the airport received $200 million in the form of grants and loans from the state to build a facility in conjunction with the people mover complex that will be able to accommodate inter-city passenger rail.
Rail’s Critical Role
An agreement is already in place with All Aboard Florida, which recently had its environmental impact statement approved, and construction is expected to be complete in 2017 for the rail that will take passengers from Miami to Orlando in three hours, 15 minutes.
There is also the potential for agreements to be reached with SunRail and American Maglev Technology, which has plans for an elevated magnetic-levitation train system that would run from the airport to the Orange County Convention Center. In both of those cases, financing could be an issue.
“Some of the things we’re doing for All Aboard Florida, an intermodal transportation facility can accommodate SunRail as well,” Brown said. “But the capital cost of that has not been approved yet. It would be something the local community and/or the state would have to do, because under federal regulations, we can’t spend our money generated from airport activities on rail.”
Any deal with AMT would also require negotiations with the airport because that line could chip away from one of its major non-airline sources of revenue – rental car fees and payments.
The introduction of an intermodal facility will certainly make Orlando unique among national airports, but the way Brown described it, the idea isn’t exactly a new one.
“We’ve had it in the plans since 1988, but the United States has never totally embraced the train philosophy,” he said. “There’s really no airport that has a train connection to it. You can go to San Francisco and they’ve got BART, which is on the premises, but that’s more of a commuter train. There’s no long-distance train service.
“You go to Frankfurt, you go to Paris, or you go to London, and you can catch a train from any of those airports. That’s what most of the rest of the world deals with.”
International Visitation on the Rise
Visitors from places like England, France, Germany, China and Brazil are a big reason why Orlando’s numbers are up. While overall passenger traffic was up 1.25 percent, there was a 5.7 percent increase in international travelers over the past year. Those numbers, along with what is happening in Central Florida, should continue to help those numbers increase.
“The domestic market for Orlando has been pretty mature for a while, although the hospitality industry, including Disney, Universal, and SeaWorld, keep re-inventing themselves and drawing more people, continuing to grow their business,” Brown said.
“We’re starting to see some increase in the business markets with Medical City, which is really starting to get some traction with people from all over the world for the world-class medical research that’s going on at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute.”
Other draws to the Lake Nona area include the University of Central Florida College of Medicine and a $60 million national training center being built by the United States Tennis Association, which will feature more than 100 courts and is expected to open next year.
The more passengers Orlando can attract, the closer it will get to being able to build a new South Terminal. For now, however, the plans of the current $1.1 billion expansion project should start being noticed in the coming months and years. It’s an exciting time, not only to think about what’s coming with the current airport expansion project, but also for what may be coming down the road over the course of the next 10 years.
When it’s all said and done, flying to or from Orlando could be quite a ride. Brown commented, “You’re going to see construction here very soon, both external and internal, and we’re going to have to manage that because we’re still going to have to operate an airport.”