Laissez Les Bon Temps Voler: An Exclusive Preview of New Orleans Airport's Amazing New Terminal
It’s the busiest day of the travel year, and at one major airport terminal, there isn't a a single passenger to be seen. Instead, the terminal is bustling with construction workers and a cacophony of drilling, welding, and banging.
But that’s all about to change. On May 15, 2019, New Orleans is about to finally fling open the gates to its new world-class terminal.
We took an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of Louis Armstrong International Airport’s new North Terminal that will take over all scheduled passenger flights from the current facility that first opened in in 1959. When it opens next spring, MSY’s glistening 35-gate, 927,000-square foot terminal will become one of only four major US airport projects in the 21st century that were switched on overnight and took over all traffic from a pre-existing facility. This exclusive club includes Wichita (ICT), Indianapolis (IND), and Panama City/Northwest Florida (ECP).
Since the Crescent City’s airport’s nadir as a shelter and staging area during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the city and its airport's fortunes have changed dramatically. Though New Orleans’ population has shrunk post-Katrina, the city has enjoyed a renaissance. It is reinventing itself via a diversifying economy as a center for high-tech, film and tv production, a bustling startup environment and a healthcare hub, coupled with the influx of a younger and even more diverse population.
After falling to record lows post-Katrina in 2006 to just over six million passengers a year, MSY’s traffic and service have not only recovered but grown fast ever since. Passenger enplanements have grown 35% since 2010, setting an all-time record with 12,009,512 total passengers served in 2017. In 2018, the airport is up 14 percent in total passengers year-to-date. The increase in new airlines and dots on the map added has been equally dramatic. In 2017, nonstop flights to Europe commenced for the first time since the early 1990s as British Airways and Condor launched direct flights to London and Frankfurt respectively.
Domestic growth has surged too, driven not only by leisure traffic but steadily increasing corporate travel. Kevin Dolliole, New Orleans’ Airport Director of Aviation rattles off an impressive list of stats off the top of his head: “The number of nonstop destinations has increased from 38 to 54 since 2008 with our airline partners growing to 16. Between 2007 and 2017, we’re the third fastest growing airport in the top 60 US airports. We’re the largest airport within 300 miles. In the state of Louisiana, we accommodate 83% of travelers who travel by air."
The current aging terminal, though hardly overwhelmed by passenger traffic except during events like The Super Bowl, Mardi Gras and New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest, has been showing its age and inefficiency for years.
Before hosting the Super Bowl in 2013, the city spent $305 million to update the terminal including adding gates, face-lifting restrooms and interiors, and adding operational offices, including a $24 million emergency response center.
In April 2013, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the New Orleans Aviation Board announced plans for a completely new terminal. Groundbreaking took place in January 2016. The initial opening date of May 2018 was to coincide with the Crescent City’s 300th anniversary year. The original cost was projected at $815 million.
Fast forward five and a half years later: Construction costs have increased to $1.029 billion. The opening date has been postponed three times, to to May 15, 2019.
The latest delay was caused by a 2,000-foot section of the main 12” sewage pipe sinking into the shifting Louisiana “gumbo soil”. This soil subsidence prompted an addition of another underground sewage pipe at a cost of $7.5 million.
Some say the date will slip again, but the airport director is absolutely steadfast that the facility will be “handed over (from the contractors) on April 30th and we will open May 15, 2019 as anticipated.” He is quick to remind that one of the major reasons the date moved is “because of the addition of the five-gate international concourse A (commissioned a year after groundbreaking) which was not part of the original project.”
Dolliole is buoyant on the revenue opportunities at MSY to offset the significant debt the Aviation Department is taking on to finance the project.The majority of the costs are being covered through airline-backed bonds and bonds backed by passenger charges. Other sources include grants, including $90 million from the FAA.
New revenue opportunities could come from attracting more flights and airlines, expanded concessions, the new 2,100-space parking garage, and the redevelopment of nearly 200 acres of the old terminal property. While most of the existing terminal will eventually be demolished, Concourse D may remain for use for charters and business and general aviation. The fate of the iconic "Parabola" built in 1959 is unknown, though Dolliole would be “heartbroken to see it go."
The existing parking garage will remain for long-term economy parking. The consolidated rental car center will remain standing as well, connected by a shuttle from the new terminal. The airport runways and airfield infrastructure remain unchanged.
Dolliole and the tenant airlines are especially pleased with how MSY has held the line on cost increases for CPE (Cost Per Emplaned Passenger), typically a sore spot with carriers: “We’ve been running in the $6-7 range. For a billion-dollar program, maybe it would’ve moved to $11-12 but we’re delivering in the $7-8 range, which is very reasonable.”
Touring the New Facility
The new terminal, designed by Argentinian star architect Cesar Pelli, soars over the flat Louisiana land. At an average elevation of 4.5 feet above seal level, MSY is the world’s second lowest international airport, behind only Amsterdam Schiphol. To prevent flooding, there is a pumping station on airport grounds. This area is also home to a diesel fuel storage / generator facility that will provide 48-hour backups in the case of a natural disaster.
For the first few years, ground access is likely to be tough for the new MSY, particularly for passengers coming from the cities of New Orleans, Metairie, Slidell, and points east. Although the new terminal is about three-quarters of a mile closer to I- 10, drivers will likely encounter traffic tie-ups arriving on the new four-lane access road off Loyola Drive in Kenner, where the airport is located. The planned flyovers from the interstate won’t be open until 2023-24. Incredibly, financing for the new flyovers wasn’t applied for until 18 months after the terminal project got the green light.
The terminal’s dramatic glass façade makes quite an impression. It’s somewhat stark, an aesthetic that shares nothing with the Art Nouveau look typically associated with New Orleans and the French Quarter. The new terminal’s look could’ve been transplanted from anywhere in the world. This was intentional — the Airport Board wanted the airport to reflect “the next 300 years of New Orleans.”
“Instead of the traditional two-way split of traffic as you approach the terminal and go up or down," the airport director said, "we utilize two sides of the facility and we'll send certain traffic on one side and certain to the other side and have more of a four-way split. Departure side and arrival side are on different sides of the building and depending who you are, the commercial operators will approach one side or the other to stage and pick up your loads. We'll double the landside capacity we have here."
Inside the capacious terminal, it’s the day before Thanksgiving, but you’d never know it by the bustle of construction. Up to 1,000 people are working 10-hour shifts.
A week after our tour, fixtures and the first seats were being installed. Very little will be coming over from the old terminal save for airline owned equipment, six jet-bridges, and some seating.
The ticket hall’s design is bright and airy with dedicated and common-use check-in desks. There will be extensive kiosks and provisions for eventual new technologies like biometric check-in. Much like a sports arena, there will be wraparound “halo board” digital signage punctuating the rim over the ticket counters, with creative and marketing possibilities abounding.
New Orleans International Airport new checkin under construction (Photo by Chris Sloan/TPG)Similar to Denver, passengers will descend escalators into a centralized TSA checkpoint with up to 17 lanes in operation. This alone is a step-change upgrade from the three small TSA checkpoints at the current MSY terminal. Connecting passengers won’t have to exit and re-screen if transferring between concourses as they do now.
The new checkpoints’ backdrop is an uninterrupted massive glass curtain presenting a vista on to the airfield. One of the signature design features is a giant skylight towering over the TSA checkpoint and baggage claim that will allow natural light to flow in. The windows, like the entire facility, are built to withstand 150 mph hurricane-force winds. A huge, life-sized photo of a live oak tree will extend from the first level to the third level in the atrium.
Once past security, there are three concourses. Concourse A, the smaller, five-gate portion that extends from the left side of the main building, will handle mostly international flights. These gates will all be able to accommodate wide-body aircraft.
Southwest, American, Frontier, JetBlue, and other carriers will operate out of the 14 gates of Concourse B.
Delta, United, Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant are assigned to the 15 gates in Concourse C.
Delta will relocate its SkyClub to the new concourse while United will open its first club ever at New Orleans. There will eventually be another common use premium lounge as well.
Airport officials claim there will be more bathrooms per passenger than any airport in America with the exception of Houston George Bush Intercontinental. The bathrooms will have special monitoring technology and stepped up resources to ensure they are kept very clean — a feature that will surely be tested during Carnival season.
Additional amenities include refillable water bottle fountains, calming natural finishes on the walls, abundant USB and power charging built into seats — and live music, of course. Restaurants, bars, retail, and other concessionaires are located in an open floor plan down the spines of Concourses B and C.
For a city known for its culinary and imbibing delights, the current airport has woefully lacking dining options, especially those reflecting the local foodie culture. And even worse, many are located before TSA security. This too will change.
The upgraded concessions program will be include national chains such as Shake Shack, Chick-Fil-A, Chili’s, Starbucks, and New Orleans-based Smoothie King. But there will be many local names, including Cafe du Monde — world famous for beignets — the legendary Leah Chase’s Leah's Kitchen, Ye Olde College Inn, MoPho, Cure, Angelo Brocato Ice Cream, Sazerac, Lucky Dog, Community Coffee, and the Folse Food Market. With a lineup like this, a passenger can indulge in a New Orleans dining experience without ever leaving the airport.
The arrivals hall will likely be the most quintessentially Nawlins spot in the airport. The crowning touch is a jazz garden where local musicians will perform. And there will be a liquor store, to begin the party from the get-go.
The walls of the luggage conveyor belts will be a pattern echoing the twists and turns of the Mississippi River. For international arriving passengers, a greatly expanded US Customs and Border Protection immigration facility will be opened.
The New MSY Gets Ready to Fly
Beginning in 2019, MSY plans a massive PR and promotional blitz to educate the community. The Airport Director admits there’s confusion: “We need to carefully explain that this is not an addition, upgrade, or added wing to the current facility. It's a whole new ball of wax being built new on the opposite side of the airfield and people still don't quite get that.”
The airport is stepping up its marketing, social media, and community relations under Erin Burns, the head of communications. Beginning April 30, there will be open houses, passenger and baggage flow simulations and system checks.
The overnight switch will occur from Tuesday May 14 to Wednesday May 15. Aviation Director Dolliole is almost eerily calm, but can barely contain his enthusiasm for the airport where he began his career as a ticket agent for Eastern Airlines: “This will be one of the best facilities in the country. It shows the world how far we’ve recovered and thrived since Katrina. This region deserves it.” In the meantime, follow the airport's progress on Facebook and on Twitter @NO-Airport. We'll be on location covering the opening of the #NewMSY on May 14 and 15 — that's when it will be time to laissez le bon temps voler. Let the good times fly!