Coming Soon to an Airport Near You: Construction

The mini-boom in terminal expansions will eventually ease pressure on crowded facilities, but for now, it's a mess.

If your summer travel plans include taking to the air, don't be surprised if there's more turbulence in the airport than on the airplane.

There's a mini-boom in expansion and renovation at airports around the country, adding construction cranes and jackhammers to the usual frenzy of last-minute departures and misplaced baggage.

But with the added confusion comes the promise of better travel days ahead. At a number of airports, including San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and Detroit, as well as smaller facilities in Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas, serious money is being spent to create less-crowded roadways to the airport, less-crowded conditions once inside the terminal, and better shopping as passengers wait for a flight. In many cases, though, those improvements are several years away because of the scope and length of the projects.

Like the economy as a whole, business at airports is good. US airline domestic volume grew at an annual rate of about 3.6 percent from 1990 to 1997, and spurted 4.5 percent from 1997 to 1998.

When to expand

At most airports, significant expansion only comes every 10 or 20 years, given the cost and complexity of the process, says Dick Marchi of the Airports Council International. What's happening now is that a number of airports are hitting that point, somewhat coincidentally, having done all the "stretching" they can to meet rising demand, he says.

The international component of air travel is growing fastest and that's driving one of the nation's largest airport projects, the construction of a new terminal for foreign travel at San Francisco International. The $2.4 billion project, to be completed by mid-2000, will double terminal space at the airport.

A clear focus of airport expansions these days is to make the trip to and from the facility easier. In addition to larger terminal space, airports are including light rail or people-mover systems to get passengers around the airport as well as to parking or external bus or rail transit. The number of parking slots is being expanded and space for curbside drop-off and pickup is growing.

JFK in New York is about halfway through a multiyear rebuilding of its six terminal complexes. A central component of the project is improved roadway access and a $1.5 billion light-rail system that will link JFK with city transit. "It'll get you from Manhattan to the airport in 45 minutes, guaranteed," says Barry Abramowitz of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Last week, Detroit Metropolitan Airport made history by receiving $1 billion from the largest US airport bond sale ever. The money will go to construction of a 74-gate terminal and new people-mover system, all to be completed by 2001.

Growth in airline travel has pushed many airports well beyond what they were designed to handle. At Chicago's Midway Airport, construction is under way to expand the existing terminal space by 250 percent. "The existing building was built in 1947 to handle 2 million passengers. And we're putting 10 million through that facility each year now," says airport deputy commissioner Erin O'Donnell. "It's time to build for the future."

'Like a shopping mall'

With new or renovated facilities come upgraded food and retail concessions. "For international flights, they want you to be here two hours early, so we figure you have at least one hour of wait time," says Carlo Bianchi, concessions manager at JFK. "We want you to move around and make it a total experience, like at a shopping mall." At one of JFK's new international terminals, now under construction, you'll be able to use valet parking and get theater tickets from a concierge.

Down in Austin, Texas, all eyes are on May 1, 1999. That's when the Bergstrom military air base, closed six years ago, will become the new Austin/Bergstrom International Airport. Once in place, the new Austin airport will offer passengers plenty of down-home appeal. Instead of national food chains, it's emphasizing local restaurants, like Salt Lick Bar-b-que and Amy's Ice Cream. And in addition to the increasingly common high-tech airport amenities of Internet kiosks and cybercafes, the Austin terminal will include a stage where cowboy poets, mariachi bands, and other local entertainers can perform.

Behind all these expansions are increasingly difficult political issues. In many cases, space around the airports has become more populated and the neighborhood residents more resistant to added development and greater noise. "Although the planes are actually getting quieter and cleaner, the citizens are getting noisier," says Mr. Griffith.

See you in court

Legal battles are common, particularly expansions that include additional runways - a red flag to many critics who see them as attempts to encourage growth, rather than just accommodate it.

San Francisco's ambitious plans, for example, are looking for ways to go further and add a third runway by landfilling in San Francisco Bay. That's stirring environmentalists, though the airport is confident it can mitigate the environmental impact by promising to restore wetlands through land purchases elsewhere

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