Saturday, October 01, 2011

30 years later, Orlando International Airport (KMCO) modern vision still soars

Someone forgot to tell Orlando Mayor Carl Langford and his airport planners in the 1970s that they should run concepts through committees, consultants, political stakeholders and lobbyists until the most fiscally conservative and least-imaginative ideas emerged.

Instead Langford, John Wyckoff and Justus Hellmuth pushed through a concept for a new airport that was big, bright and so ambitious that The Wall Street Journal scoffed, a few weeks before it opened: "Hardly anyone considers those expectations realistic."

Thirty years ago today, Oct. 2, 1981, the $300 million first phase of the Orlando International terminal complex officially opened — and immediately began proving its doubters wrong.

Today, an airport that started as a shared runway at McCoy Air Force Base and a World War II-era converted missile-assembly building as a passenger terminal is the nation's 13th-busiest, handling nearly 36 million passengers a year, and is the country's second-most-popular final destination for fliers.

The terminal design, first tried in Tampa, was considered radical: a central "landside" terminal connected by rail to multiple "airside" gates. Today, OIA is recognized as one of the most efficient and passenger-friendly airports anywhere, and always ranks in the top five in airport-convenience surveys that J.D. Power and Associates conducts every few years.

And by carefully adhering to 41 design criteria that planners now revere as gospel, OIA has developed an enviable mix of revenue streams, with nearly 70 percent of its $385 million annual operating budget coming from a hotel, restaurants, concessions and other nonaviation sales. It requires no local tax subsidies.

"These people were long-term visionaries," said Cesar Calvet, current chairman of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority board. "A lot of those people [OIA planners] were looking at a crystal ball that was pretty clear at the time."

Clear to them, maybe. But even before it opened, there were complaints that the facility was too big, too fancy, too ahead of its time.

Langford, who died in July at age 92, developed an airport that opened with 48 gates, enough to handle 12 million passengers, though its predecessor handled just 4.5 million passengers in the late 1970s. And they bought enough land — OIA's 14,000 acres are more than New York's John F. Kennedy, Los Angeles and San Francisco combined — for expansion to increase capacity toward 30 million — now 40 million — passengers.

GOAA Executive Director Phillip Brown wonders whether such a plan could get approved today.

"If you go back to the inception [of OIA], that was, 'Build it and they will come,' " Brown said. "That's what The Wall Street Journal argued: that they're not going to come, and this will be a white elephant."

What Langford and his planners foresaw, however, was how theme parks would change Orlando. Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom had opened in 1971, and Epcot was under construction. SeaWorld opened in 1973. The Orlando-Orange County Convention Center was being developed.

And as the theme parks expanded, so did the airport. Disney opened its third theme park in 1989; Universal Studios Florida opened in 1990 — and the airport added its third airside, for $130 million, that same year. In 1992, the terminal was expanded with a hotel and parking garages, for $390 million. Disney added its fourth theme park in 1998; Universal opened its second in 1999 — and in 2000, the airport added a fourth airside, for $200 million.

"There's no question our success is directly linked to Orlando International Airport's success, and vice versa," said Gary Sain, president of Visit Orlando, the area's convention and visitors bureau.

What's more, said Rick Weddle, president of the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission, OIA — with its low-cost airfares and direct flights to 116 cities — is a major part of his pitch to businesses he's trying to persuade to locate in the Central Florida area.

He said such businesses have almost universally positive opinions of OIA.

"The most important part is cost and access. To companies, time is money. If I can fly there and back in a day, and I don't have to spend all day traveling, we're going to do very well," he said.

OIA's biggest drawback today has haunted it from the beginning: international service. Though foreign flights are its fastest-growing segment — more than 3 million passengers a year now fly to or from foreign cities, and Air France (Paris), Lufthansa (Germany) and TAM (Brazil) now fly regularly from here — accommodating these passengers remains difficult.

OIA's foreign gates, first added in 1984, have required awkward retrofits at two airside terminals. Arriving passengers have two unattractive choices. They can claim their bags and go through customs at the international-baggage carousel — but they then have to recheck those bags and pick them up a second time at the landside terminal's baggage carousels. Alternatively, they can lug the bags from customs hundreds of yards through the airport to get to the rental-car, bus or taxi stands.

Many international travelers come through New York, Atlanta, Miami, Houston or Los Angeles — and then fly to OIA on a domestic airline.

But accommodations for international traffic aren't likely to get better for years. The terminal complex essentially is built out now. And a proposed $2 billion second terminal complex, called the South Terminal, is seven to 10 years or more away.

Still, after 30 years, OIA still seems like a fresh and modern facility — and a tribute to its planners.

Perhaps their most novel design criteria called for the atmosphere to be defined by Florida and Orlando experiences. That began with the airfield, which was developed with lakes, swamps and forests, to give arriving visitors a first impression of natural Florida.

"Back then, if you went to New York, Chicago, St. Louis, you couldn't tell one airport from the other. We asked people what they thought Florida was like. Water. Trees. Birds. Palm trees. Flamingos. We got everything except the flamingos," said Wyckoff, 80, then GOAA's deputy executive director in charge of airport construction.

With Walter Taylor as lead architect, the terminal's interior borrowed from the theme parks' design features, with high ceilings, rounded corners and expansive, well-lit open spaces dotted with fountains and palm trees. Designated "art walls" display Orlando-centric works. Disney and other attractions were invited inside to add their touches and sell their wares.

"We wanted to make sure the family coming from Alaska or New Jersey in the winter, that they immediately knew that they had landed in Orlando, Florida," said Hellmuth, 72, then GOAA's airport planner.

Now, airports everywhere are attempting such theming, said Chris Oswald, a vice president with the airports trade group, Airports Council International-North America.

"They were very much ahead of their time," he said.

Weddle likens the effect to the old "Welcome to" billboards that greeted highway travelers driving into towns.

"We don't have those anymore. Our airports serve that purpose," Weddle said. "They are most people's primary point of entry into a community, and how they feel about that community or region is largely impacted by how they feel about that first and last experience."

OIA timeline

1928: Orlando Municipal Airport (later Herndon Municipal; now Orlando Executive) opens east of downtown Orlando.

1940: Orlando buys land near Pine Castle in south Orange County for second airport.

World War II (1939-1945)

1941-42: Army Air Forces takes over Orlando Municipal and Pine Castle airports during World War II. The Army keeps Pinecastle Airfield.

1957: Pinecastle Air Force Base renamed for Col. Michael McCoy, killed in crash. The resulting MCO designation remains the airport's call letters today.
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1962: First commercial air service begins at McCoy, from civilian terminal fashioned from a converted missile-assembly building.

1969: With Walt Disney World coming, Orlando decides to move service from Herndon and plan new airport.

1974: McCoy Air Force Base closes, and property is deeded to Orlando, including two 12,000-foot runways.

1976: Remaining commercial flights and airport operations move from Herndon to McCoy, renamed Orlando International Airport.

1978: Construction begins on permanent OIA terminal.

1980: Legal disputes over concessions contracts nearly halt construction; U.S. District Judge John C. Young orders resumption.

Oct. 2, 1981: New terminal opens with central "landside terminal" connected by rail to two "airside terminals" and 48 gates.

1984: International-arrivals concourse added.

1986: Airport tops 12 million passengers, the maximum the two original airsides were designed to handle.

1989: Third runway, 10,500 feet long, opens. Two terminal parking garages, with 7,000 spaces, open.

1990: Third airside terminal opens with 24 more gates.

1992: New 42,000-square-foot atrium and 446-room Hyatt Regency hotel open in terminal. Airport tops 20 million passengers.

2000: Fourth airside terminal opens with 16 more gates. Airport tops 30 million passengers.

2002: 345-foot air-traffic-control tower opens.

2003: Fourth runway, 9,000 feet long, opens.

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