The under-construction New Orleans airport is a sight to behold, but logistical concerns beg the question: How well will it work for the planes?
The problems with the shiny new north terminal that is supposed to open later this year at New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong International Airport have been well documented by media outlets in the Crescent City.
The project, originally scheduled to open in May 2018, is now some 18 months behind schedule and its original price tag of $650 million has ballooned to more than $1.2 billion.
Faulty construction due to cost-saving short cuts—reportedly forewarned by a building permits official in Kenner—resulted in more than 100 cracks to the facility’s underground sewerage pipes, which had to be dug up and repaired.
The interstate flyover ramp off Interstate 10 at Loyola Drive that will connect to the new facility was not planned, funded or put out to bid until after the new terminal had already been approved and was well on its way to being developed. As a result, the key artery will not be completed until at least 2023, according to state transportation secretary Shawn Wilson.
And support services for the airport—hotels, offsite parking lots, the rental car garage, and the existing passenger parking garage, which will be utilized and marketed as a cheaper, economy garage—are on the south side of the airfield’s main east-west runway and, therefore, cannot be directly accessed from the new terminal.
But there are other logistical issues raising questions among some with knowledge of the airport’s operations that haven’t gotten as much attention—namely, potential delays caused by increased taxi times for both departing and arriving planes. Because the terminal was relocated but the existing runways and taxiways were not, takeoff and landing patterns will have to be reconfigured, which could add to congestion for planes as they taxi to and from the runway to the gate.
“There are going to be delays because they are going to have to reroute planes,” says an air traffic controller familiar with the New Orleans airport, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. “I’m not worried about safety issues. But is it a well-designed airport? No, and that is going to be rapidly evident.”
Officials at the airport dismiss questions about potential airfield delays and note that the Federal Aviation Administration has signed off on the project every step of the way.
“The FAA would flag it up if there was a capacity issue,” says Walter Krygowski, deputy director of aviation, operations and maintenance. “They do capacity and delay analyses for the entire country and they would flag it if there were any delays or any potential for delays and they have not.”
This is true. But it’s also true that modeling estimates buried deep in the airport’s more than 200-page environmental assessment from 2013 estimated relocating the terminal to the north side of the airfield would increase taxi times for outbound planes by 40% on average, and would lengthen by more than 70% the amount of time inbound planes spend taxiing to their gates.
What’s more, a key taxiway extension that the airport acknowledges in its own bid specifications has to be extended “to accommodate traffic on the north side of the airfield” won’t be ready for at least one year. How that and other factors might complicate things, if at all, isn’t clear and airport officials don’t offer much help.
“This strictly makes no sense. The job of an airport is to be functional and this airport is not functional. It’s all about aesthetics.”
FRANK STEWART, New Orleans businessman and airport critic
Rather, they decline to discuss the specifics of runway infrastructure, which they insist is adequate, and how that might impact landing and takeoff configurations, which they say is the responsibility of air traffic controllers, who declined to comment for this story. They also dismiss as insignificant the data from their own environmental assessment report, which they note is six years old.
The FAA also declines to comment on specifics about runway infrastructure and potential taxi time increases, saying requests for specific information have to come from a public records request, which the agency did not respond to in time for publication.
But one high-ranking official in Washington D.C., who is connected to the FAA and is familiar with the new terminal in New Orleans, says federal officials are closely monitoring the situation and are expecting at least minimal delays and other headaches when the terminal opens.
“The runway infrastructure is a big mess,” says this official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Does this configuration put lives at risk? No. But is it an efficient model for an airport? No, not at all.”
The new north terminal has generated a number of critics, many of whom, admittedly, have a bone to pick with former Democratic Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the driving force behind the project. They have spoken out on talk radio and social media, asking how—because of the well-documented issues—the costly new terminal could possibly be more efficient than the existing one.
It’s a legitimate question, even if those posing it are neither dispassionate nor objective.
New Orleans businessman Frank Stewart is among them. The chairman of investment firm Stewart Capital and former chairman of Stewart Enterprises, the publicly traded company he ran for decades until its $1.1 billion acquisition in 2013, recently bought a half-page ad in The New Orleans Advocate blasting the project and the former mayor.
“This strictly makes no sense,” Stewart tells Business Report. “The job of an airport is to be functional and this airport is not functional. It’s all about aesthetics.”
Officials with the airport and its many cheerleaders in New Orleans’ business and tourism community counter that the new terminal will be a vast improvement over the existing one, which they say is an embarrassment, outdated in its size and configuration, and lacking the amenities 21st century travelers have come to expect. They cite market research from the early 2010s, suggesting the city would have trouble attracting new nonstop air service without a major overhaul to its airport and say the new terminal will address many of those needs.
Besides its sleek glass design, the new terminal will have a centralized TSA checkpoint, state-of-the art baggage check system, smart parking garages, right-sized layout—the existing, aging terminal, perhaps surprisingly, has more, not fewer, gates than is needed—and world-class restaurants, to name some of the biggest improvements.
“The new terminal addresses the human scale, streamlines processing because how air travel and passenger processing is done now is more complex,” says James McCluskie, assistant aviation director for planning, design and construction.
Adds aviation director Kevin Dolliole: “It will be more effective, more efficient.”
Dolliole and his team also have answers for the problems that have plagued the project. The price tag has gone up, in large part, because the terminal has increased in size from two concourses with 30 gates to three concourses with 35. They also say New Orleans taxpayers won’t have to foot the bill for the project, as the FAA is helping pick up the tab. (Actually, less than 10% of the total price tag is being funded by the feds. The bulk of the money is coming from airport revenue bonds.)
As for the cracked pipes, they say those only represent a small portion of the total underground plumbing network. The repair work is nearly complete, they add, and has not further delayed the airport’s opening, scheduled for sometime this fall, possibly between Thanksgiving and Christmas, though maybe sooner.
As for the worries about traffic delays caused by the lack of an I-10 access ramp at Loyola Drive for the next four years, they maintain the recent addition of several new lanes to Loyola Drive in each direction at the intersection of Veterans Boulevard will adequately accommodate traffic volume on surface streets until the flyover is completed. DOTD’s Wilson, on the other hand, has warned motorists to expect delays while the I-10 flyover is under construction, telling Business Report as recently as Sept. 15 it would not be complete before 2023.
And while many support services remain located on the south side of the airfield, Dolliole dismisses reports that travelers will need to factor in any additional time when heading to the new airport facility.
Even if they have to take a ground-transport shuttle from a garage on the south side of the airport, which will use city streets for several blocks, to get to the new terminal on the north side of the airport?
“No more than five to seven minutes, which is really about average,” he says. “I think there is a misunderstanding of what is being developed … of what travel times will be. I’m not sure where it is coming from but there is a misunderstanding or lack of knowledge of what is going on over here.”
But there are other concerns connected to the new terminal that could affect travel plans. It’s difficult to determine how significant those issues might be because airport officials largely dismiss them. But as far back as 2013, the airport’s own environmental assessment report noted that relocating the terminal to the north side of the airfield would increase outbound taxi times for commercial carriers from 12.2 minutes on average to nearly 17 minutes, a nearly 40% increase. Inbound taxi times, meanwhile, would increase more than 70% from 4.7 minutes to more than 8 minutes.
For some airlines, the increases would be even greater, though for general aviation—private jets—taxi times would slightly decrease. Taxi times for cargo planes will remain relatively unchanged.
Granted, those are just averages from a computer model and they only amount to a few minutes here and there. But minutes add up, particularly during peak flying hours and especially when there are connections to make. Is a 5- or 10-minute increase enough to cause a disruption of flight patterns?
Airport officials say no, but they also decline to discuss the estimates in the report. “You’d want to get in behind just one page of numbers,” Dolliole says, when presented with a print out of the chart from the report.
Project manager Chris Spann points out that the number are six years old, suggesting the estimates are no longer relevant and noting that the modeling software used conservative data to begin with.
But FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro says the modeling software factors in future growth and that the data would be accurate for several years, not just 2013.
“They had to look ahead and forecast into the future,” Molinaro says. “They were not just looking at that moment in time.”
Perhaps more important than what the report said is why the potential for delays exists. There are several reasons, according to sources with whom Business Report spoke, including the official in Washington, the air traffic controller and an airport consulting engineer, all of whom decline to be identified.
“I think there is a misunderstanding of what is being developed … of what travel times will be. I’m not sure where it is coming from but there is a misunderstanding or lack of knowledge of what is going on over here.”
KEVIN DOLLIOLE, aviation director, Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport
For one, the main taxiway, G, which most planes will use to get between the terminal and both runways, needs to be extended some 1,500 feet. Airport officials acknowledge the FAA flagged the extension project several years ago as something the airport had to undertake and is helping pay for the project. But the design and construction contract wasn’t awarded until mid-August and airport officials say it will be at least late 2020 before it’s completed.
Officials say they’re not concerned about what will happen for the next 12 or 18 months while work on the new taxiway is underway because the current airfield has adequate capacity to handle the number of planes that use the airport. The taxiway extension will only make things better.
“Every time you add a piece of pavement to the airfield it is going to help in some way,” Dolliole says. “You’re not necessarily correcting a flaw. You’re adding to the efficiency of the airfield.”
Still, there will be some larger jets that will not be able to take off from the east-west runway until the new taxiway is complete—unless those aircraft cross the active runway to come at it from the longer taxiway on the south side. While that may sound frightening to a lay person, it’s not uncommon, according to those familiar with the airport’s takeoff and landing configurations. It’s not optimal either, however, and may require greater spacing between planes.
It’s worth noting, the taxiway from the existing terminal is long enough to accommodate those larger planes.
Another issue is that most, though not all, planes at the new terminal will have to use taxiway G to access both the east-west and north-south runways. Because of where the access to the taxiway is located with respect to the new terminal, it may take more time for planes to clear that spot, creating a congestion issue on the apron that doesn’t presently exist.
Then, there’s the fact that there’s no exit ramp off the east-west runway connecting to the new terminal. Like the exit ramp off an interstate, a runway exit ramp enables a plane, as it slows, to quickly and efficiently clear the runway without having to come to a near complete stop and make a sharp right turn.
Because of the proximity of the new terminal and its B and C concourses to the runway, however, there isn’t enough space to build an exit ramp where it would optimally go. As a practical matter, this means planes will spend more time on the runway when they’re landing from the west, which means they won’t be able to land quite as frequently.
“They will have to slow planes down, put more of a gap between them, which could result in delays,” says the official in Washington. “They are mitigating risk but that will result in some timeliness issues.”
Airport officials say the FAA would have notified them if there was a problem and the agency hasn’t indicated any issues with the terminal design or lack of an exit ramp. They say they are not aware of any potential problems or delays that might result from the new configuration.
“The pavement as it exists with multiple access points can be used in different ways,” Dolliole says. “So there is not a set one way in one way out. They have all the pavement there at their disposal for their use in dispatching aircraft.”
But how, exactly, will it work?
When asked to drill down into the specifics of landing configurations at the new terminal, airport officials decline to say, adding that air traffic controllers in the tower are in charge of making those decisions, based on a variety of factors that change from day to day.
Business Report reached out to local air traffic controllers but they declined to comment, as did their union’s spokesperson in Washington D.C. He referred all questions to the FAA, which, again, declined to comment about any specifics related to the airfield’s configuration.
“We’re working with our partners,” McCluskie says. “We’re building according to the advisory circulars from the FAA. All we can react to is what we have from them and we haven’t had anything.”
‘Hugely important to us’
There has been scant criticism of the airport, outside of media reports that have not aggressively looked into many of the more questionable aspects of the project in any depth. Though some critics have taken to social media to air their concerns, they’ve been largely ignored by elected officials from the New Orleans and Kenner city councils, state Legislature and New Orleans Aviation Board.
Stewart is the most prominent of those asking questions. But some would dismiss him as having an axe to grind. In 2017, he targeted Landrieu over the then-mayor’s removal of several Confederate monuments around the city. Then, like now, he took out an ad in the newspaper to air his views.
But Stewart insists his criticism of the airport project is unrelated to any personal or political beef with Landrieu. It’s about wasted public dollars and misplaced priorities.
“An airport is a facility where the main function is to get you to your gate,” he says. “This could have been a really well-designed hub. Instead, it was all about aesthetics.”
Stewart believes it would have made more sense to upgrade and renovate the existing terminal on the south side of the airfield, where it could have, perhaps, been expanded into a multimodal facility, given its proximity to rail lines and the river. At the very least, the existing facility could have been renovated for a fraction of the cost of the new one, he says.
The airport’s environmental assessment report doesn’t actually support that thesis. It estimated the cost of renovation would be slightly more than the cost of building a new north terminal. But then, that was in 2013, when the estimated cost of the project was just $650 million, not more than $1.2 billion.
Whatever the arguments and criticism, much of it now amounts to water under the bridge. The new terminal is nearly complete and Dolliole insists it will be ready to open sometime this fall.
Business and tourism leaders, meanwhile, vigorously defend the project. While acknowledging it has had its share of hiccups along the way, they say it’s something New Orleans needs and will benefit from in the long run.
“We are aware some of the steps were a little bit out of sequence,” says Stephen Perry, president/CEO of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. “But the commitment of Mayor Landrieu to fast track and get this going has been hugely important to us.”