Friday, August 19, 2011
Louis Armstrong International Airport is ready for a total makeover, Mayor Mitch Landrieu says
By Michelle Krupa
The New Orleans (LA) Times-Picayune
Aiming to improve the efficiency and aesthetic of Louis Armstrong International Airport and in turn bolster New Orleans' economy, top aides to Mayor Mitch Landrieu on Thursday pressed the airport's board of directors to get to work analyzing a pair of options that could result in more than a $1 billion initiative to build a brand-new airport or to expand the existing one.
The alternatives, already laid out in the airport's long-term strategic plan, include expanding the airfield by adding new terminals to the west, or constructing a new main terminal on airport-owned property between the current airport and Interstate 10.
While past discussions of an expansion to the west have sparked opposition, both from environmentalists concerned about impacts to wetlands and homeowners leery of more noise from aircraft, the westward alternative Landrieu wants to explore would not reach into wetlands and would not change flight routes. The airport already owns the land.
The second option, potentially more controversial because of its proximity to Kenner neighborhoods, could be more affordable because construction would occur outside the existing flight security zone, said Landrieu's chief administrative assistant, Andy Kopplin.
It also could set the stage for a lucrative reuse of the current terminal, perhaps as a cargo transit hub, he said.
Kopplin and the mayor's economic development chief, Aimee Quirk, cast a significant airport overhaul as critical for the New Orleans region to attract investors who want an airport that offers competitive service and reflects its hometown culture, something travelers for years have complained that Louis Armstrong does not.
"We think there's a direct correlation between air service we have at the airport and the type of business growth we see downtown," Quirk said. "We have to keep the facility competitive in order to lure the air service, and we think that by doing that, we'll create a better environment for bringing more businesses here and creating more jobs."
After three decades of public debate about the airport's fate, including proposals to turn over the facility to a private operator and to relocate it more centrally between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, officials can delay no longer, Kopplin said.
"Privatization has been rejected. A new airport at another location has been rejected. The time to seize the moment is now -- for this airport, on this property," he said.
Trying to depress costs
Central to the vision is making airport operations more cost-effective. At 52 years old, Louis Armstrong has proved to be expensive to run.
Officials said they need to drive down the departing passenger fees the airport charges to airlines. Known as enplanement fees, Louis Armstrong charges airlines about 50 percent more per passenger than the national average, and the price is projected to skyrocket in coming years. That trajectory, officials said, threatens the retention of current airlines and serves as a deterrent to new carriers and to new flights, particularly international ones.
"The key is to get the cost per enplanement down so we can stay competitive," mayoral spokesman Ryan Berni said.
Driving up the cost of running the airport is its outdated infrastructure, from luggage and gate operations to concessions, Kopplin said, adding that the outmoded atmosphere in itself can turn off travelers.
"All of those things look and feel different in a first-class airport," he said. "Business people may perceive a different level of service in a city for their company ... from their experience in the airport."
Aviation Director Iftikhar Ahmad said he, his board and staff have had "quite a bit of discussion" with Landrieu officials about the administration's goals. Narrowing down the mayor's proposed options, however, will not be simple. Preliminary steps, including environmental reviews, the crafting of architectural drafts and financial analyses for both sites, will take at least 18 months, he said.
Creating a 'sense of place'
Key to a successful final plan, Ahmad said, will be creating an airport that reflects the city's character.
"When you come to our airport, you do not get the sense of place that you're in New Orleans," he said. "You don't get it in the food, you don't see it in the ambiance. And I think that's going to be part of the design criteria as we move forward.
"At the end of the day, it's the intangibles that's going to make a difference, what makes a world-class airport," Ahmad said, noting that Denver International Airport, with its "tall ceilings, open concept and ... sense of place," is perhaps his favorite model.
As for the price tag, Ahmad estimated that a new Louis Armstrong, or a significantly renovated one, could cost more than $1 billion, with financing coming from a patchwork of federal money, local airline fees and other sources.
The investment would come on top of a $200 million effort now under way to modernize the airport in time for the 2013 Super Bowl. The project includes renovating restrooms, consolidating concourses and building a new rental car center.
Collaborating with Jefferson
New Orleans officials said they have discussed the long-range plans with their counterparts in Jefferson Parish and in Kenner, where the airport is located.
Asked Thursday about the proposals, Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni seemed to embrace the so-called "northside" option, which would develop the largely vacant site sandwiched between Aberdeen Drive, Albany Street and Canal No. 14.
"This has a chance to totally revitalize that area there," he said, adding that the development "makes sense because of the interstate" and would increase property values.
Yenni noted that the Kenner City Council would have to be on board with whatever plan airport officials back, but he said: "If it benefits Kenner, we're anxious and willing and ready to move on this."