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Orlando airport begins construction of $2.1 billion South Terminal

By Kevin Spear, Orlando Sentinel on

Published in Senior Living Features

As Orlando International Airport tries to keep up with passenger growth, its main project this year is construction of a new terminal that will rank as one of the most costly public-works projects ever in Central Florida.

The $2.1 billion job, which has recently begun, will employ a peak force of 2,200 workers for a scheduled completion in nearly three years. The expansion is narrowly eclipsed in cost by the $2.3 billion rebuilding of 21 miles of Interstate 4 through the Orlando area.

The inaugural, major tenant at the new South Terminal may be JetBlue. The New York-based airline calls Orlando one of its "focus cities" and supports the airport's plans for its first addition of gates and terminal space in more than a decade.

"We look forward to potentially moving to the South Terminal once it's completed," JetBlue spokeswoman Tamara Young said.

We look forward to potentially moving to the South Terminal. -- JetBlue spokeswoman.

With a crew lodge and training campus at the airport, JetBlue this year will have as many 74 flights daily from Orlando to 31 places.

The start of construction comes with the third attempt by Orlando International Airport to build a terminal. Earlier tries were derailed by the terror attacks in 2001 and by the recession a decade ago.

Now airports across the nation are trying to keep up with passenger growth pushing to record levels at many cities.

Jacob Langston / Orlando Sentinel

Construction at Orlando airport's new terminal begins in 2018.

Construction at Orlando airport's new terminal begins in 2018. (Jacob Langston / Orlando Sentinel)

Salt Lake City's airport, for example, is building a new terminal and related facilities at a cost of $3 billion, with completion set for 2020.

In Florida, Tampa International is in the midst of a $1 billion expansion of its main terminal, rental-car space and automated-shuttle capacity.

With a deadline of 2023, renovations of concourses and other terminal space at Miami International is costing $1.5 billion.

At Orlando International, the first of hundreds of foundation pilings are being installed amid more than 300 acres of raw, brown dirt.

Kevin Spear

Construction at the South Terminal

Construction at the South Terminal (Kevin Spear)

About 320,000 tons of fill was stockpiled last year at the site about a mile south of the existing and crowded terminal.

Airport officials say the South Terminal was designed to provide an iconic experience, drawing from sunny weather and sub-tropical greenery.

Kevin Spear

The Boulevard at the newly opened Garage C and train station will extend to the new terminal now under construction.

The Boulevard at the newly opened Garage C and train station will extend to the new terminal now under construction. (Kevin Spear)

Arriving passengers at the existing North Terminal are funneled to a lower, cavernous and mostly windowless floor to retrieve baggage. At the South Terminal, arriving travelers will remain on the top, or third floor, exposed to enormous skylights and windows of what has been dubbed as "The Boulevard."

The $2.1 billion price tag covers phase 1 of the South Terminal, which will have 16 gates when it goes into service.

Airport officials call that expansion critical for relieving crowding at the North Terminal.

Phase 1 also is seen as the first step toward the ultimate vision of the South Terminal in several decades having 120 gates, or as many as are now at the North Terminal.

At full expansion with 120 gates, we believe this airport could handle between 80 and 100 million passengers a year. That's the size of Atlanta. -- Davin Ruohomaki, director of planning and construction, Orlando International Airport

"At full expansion with 120 gates, we believe this airport could handle between 80 and 100 million passengers a year," said Davin Ruohomaki, the airport's senior director of planning and construction. "That's the size of Atlanta."

Atlanta's Hartsfield -- Jackson Atlanta International Airport now handles about 100 million passengers annually.

Late last year, Orlando's airport topped 44 million passengers annually. Airport officials say the airport was designed for 24 million passengers each year. Various renovations have pushed annual capacity to about 38 million passengers currently.

Kevin Spear

(Kevin Spear)

Further overhauls of the airport's airline ticketing and baggage-check lobbies to be completed this year are expected to boost capacity to 45 million passengers annually.

The opening of the South Terminal's first phase in 2020 will further increase capacity to 50 million annual passengers, according to airport officials.

Crowding at Orlando's airport was evident during the holidays, when airport officials urged travelers to arrive three hours before flights.

About 95 percent of our passengers cross the curb. -- Airport spokeswoman Carolyn Fennell.

By contrast, the Tampa and Miami international airports suggested arriving two hours prior to flight times during the holidays.

Much of the crowding stress at Orlando International occurs at the Transportation Security Administration checkpoints.

Airport spokeswoman Carolyn Fennell said nearly all passengers are arriving at or leaving Orlando International, while in Atlanta a high percentage of travelers pass through via connecting flights and already screened for security.

Kevin Spear

The existing North Terminal is crowded.

The existing North Terminal is crowded. (Kevin Spear)

"About 95 percent of our passengers cross the curb," Fennell said, meaning that they are renting cars, taking a taxi, walking to or from parked cars, claiming baggage or waiting at security stops.

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For Jodi Crosby, a Canadian with a warm-weather home in Osceola County, Orlando's airport is a mixed experience.

"I don't feel intimidated by it," she said of the overall effort of getting through Orlando's airport compared with those that are larger or more chaotic.

Kevin Spear

(Kevin Spear)

The frequently long waits at security checkpoints are another matter.

"That's the real downside," Crosby said. "It's hit or miss."

Kevin Spear

Waits are often long at Orlando airport security.

Waits are often long at Orlando airport security. (Kevin Spear)

Queen King, a Californian who traveled with her daughter recently from Los Angeles International Airport to Orlando for a Disney cruise, said she found her first venture through Orlando International to be disorienting.

It was confusing to get through the airports and through the crowds. -- A California traveler, speaking of Orlando's airport

"It was confusing to get through the airports and through the crowds," King said. "There weren't enough people I could ask, 'Hey, am I going in the right direction?'"

Ruohomaki, the director of planning, said the South Terminal will be better designed for security requirements, which were vastly expanded after the original terminal was built.

Jacob Langston / Orlando Sentinel

The newly opened shuttle station next to where the new terminal is being built.

The newly opened shuttle station next to where the new terminal is being built. (Jacob Langston / Orlando Sentinel)

As for navigating the new terminal, skylights and windows should help travelers have a better sense of direction as they walk from their gates to ground transportation.

"You will be able to see how to get there," Ruohomaki said. "It's easy way finding."

kspear@orlandosentinel.com

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kspear@orlandosentinel.com

(c)2018 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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