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With a jazzy fanfare, New Orleans' new airport terminal is open for business

Nov. 07, 2019
10 min read
With a jazzy fanfare, New Orleans' new airport terminal is open for business
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New Orleans' stunning new 35-gate, state-of-the-art terminal is open for business. Located on the north side of the airfield, the $1.3 billion, Cesar Pelli-designed facility replaces the dilapidated terminal on the south side that first opened in 1959.

The Wednesday opening of the new terminal was more than a decade in the making, coming only after a series of delays pushed back the expected date several times. Officials dedicated the new showpiece facility Tuesday with a ribbon-cutting, and several arrivals used the new terminal. But the terminal was feted with splashy, jazz-inflected ceremony on Wednesday.

It felt as if the entire city of New Orleans turned out for the ceremony, which at times had the air of an evangelical revival. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, one of a throng of dignitaries in attendance, drew one of the biggest laughs of the day when he said: “I always wanted to know what a billion dollars looks like."

But Edwards added that "with 82% of flying travelers coming to Louisiana through MSY, it's worth it. We’re the fifth-fastest-growing airport in America.”

The ceremony's crescendo came with a New Orleans-style jazz procession to the arrivals area that got everyone dancing.

The celebration also featured cakes emblazoned with "The New MSY" and vintage flight attendant costumes.

Goodbye, old MSY

New Orleans doesn't just hold a funeral. It holds a jazz funeral. A few hours before the final flights out of the old MSY, another traditional "second line" celebration sent the 60-year-old terminal off in style. Passengers snapped photos and selfies of the boisterous scene.

The last plane to pull into the old terminal was Southwest Flight 993, which arrived from Dallas at 8:40 p.m. Then the new terminal had a soft opening of sorts. All flights scheduled to arrive after 8 p.m. that were terminating at MSY for the night disembarked their passengers and their baggage at the new terminal. American Flight 4574 from Washington Reagan National was the first arrival. The aircraft that remained from earlier landings at the old terminal were repositioned to the new facility across the airfield for their first flights out. Concessions had yet to open, but the baggage claim and ground transportation links were operating. A harbinger of things to come, this went smoothly.

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The gate celebration for the "last flight out" was festive, with a cake made especially for the occasion.

When the last departure time neared, the final flight's passengers and agents erupted into song, belting out "When the Saints Go Marching In" and "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday."

With the simultaneous push-back times of 9:15 p.m., Southwest Flights 449 to Houston and Flight 993 to Tampa shared the distinction of being the last ones out. With that, the curtain came down on the old terminal.

Up all night preparing for the new arrival

While passengers and dignitaries enjoyed this slice of nostalgia, an armada of airline, airport, security and retail staff were conducting an overnight move to the new facility. When I visited and extensively documented the new terminal a week ago, many finishing touches remained, including stocking all the concessions and completing the TSA checkpoint.

When TPG's Benet Wilson visited the new terminal two months ago, there remained much significant work to do to get to Wednesday's first full day of operation.

Parts of the move had been underway for weeks. In waves, airlines had relocated offices, signage and check-in kiosks. Each airline had tested planes on their gates during the last month with their staff, training while still operating simultaneously at the old terminal.

Three simulated flights were run less than two weeks ago. A security sweep by TSA and the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office happened on Sunday, Nov. 3.

Kevin Dolliole, director of the New Orleans Aviation Board, said planning with the ORAT team (Operational Readiness Activation and Transition) spanned 18 months. He was remarkably calm, confessing to some "some angst" before adding, "but we're ready."

"We have tried to break the systems prior to going live. We have a good level of confidence for tomorrow, which is a full operation of 125-plus flights," he said Tuesday. "And if things go wrong, we have contingency plans in place."

He described his operation command center where specialists were ready to respond to a variety of issues that could occur: baggage, IT, elevators, baggage, ramp operations. Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to see the operation.

Kevin Dolliole, director of the New Orleans Aviation Board. Photo by Chris Sloan for TPG.

The finishing touches were being completed throughout the terminal just 24 hours before it went into service. The airport director and hundreds of others didn't sleep a wink as the final move — kiosks, ground equipment and TSA screening equipment — occurred overnight.

At 8 p.m., temporary tape over road signage was removed to direct people to the new terminal. Google, Waze, Lyft, and Apple Maps switched over as well, though there was still confusion.

First flight out

The first flight out Wednesday was scheduled for 5:05 a.m. The clock was ticking for a seamless cut-over from the old to the new. Previous airport and terminal switch-overs have been bedeviled with problems, especially lost bags. Who can forget Hong Kong in 1997, London Heathrow Terminal 5 in 2008. Would the new MSY be ready to fly?

Hours before dawn, at 3:30 a.m., the terminal officially opened with passengers lining up at the new check-in counters. These Southwest passengers were among the first.

The 10 TSA checkpoints opened on time at 3:30 a.m.. Fifteen more lanes will come on line this week. Throughout the day, security waits didn't exceed 10 minutes.

To christen the new terminal at the unholy hour of 4 a.m., another second-line band performance woke everybody up ahead of the inaugural flight.

Southwest's Flight 3238 was the first flight out: a 5:05 a.m. departure to Atlanta.

The first passenger ever to board a flight from the new MSY didn't realize immediately why the day was special.

Southwest Flight 3238 pushed back a few minutes late -- an ominous sign?

The new MSY takes off

As it turned out, operations ran smoothly throughout the morning.

Southwest dispatched six of its state "theme jets" for the grand opening, including "Louisiana One."

As the sun rose on MSY's first few hours of operation, everything was going smoothly. Only minor glitches — such as malfunctioning microphones — were reported.

The terminals, security and concessions were packed, offering hard proof that MSY is currently on track to break its record of 13 million annual passengers.

All the concessions were open, though some were struggling with their workflow and computer systems. Passengers didn't seem to notice, though.

Currently, MSY's only airport lounge is Delta's dazzling new Sky Club at the entrance to Concourse C, which we previewed yesterday. It opened promptly at 5 a.m. The staff took time out for a group photo and ribbon cutting when they weren't busy passing out hors d'oeuvres.

Historically, baggage systems have bedeviled new terminals, but that wasn't the case Wednesday. MSY's six-carousel, in-line system was not only performing well, but was delivering bags faster than at the old terminal.

People were even praising the ground transportation and ease of parking.

Speaking several hours after Wednesday's opening of the new terminal, Dolliole — MSY's airport director — noted how well things were going, especially given the history of rocky openings of airports elsewhere.

“So far, we've had no significant glitches," he said. "It’s almost spooky how well it’s going, but the day is young.”

All photos by the author.