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AIRPORT PROFILES Last modified on July 23, 2015

Orlando magic

Orlando International Airport’s Phil Brown talks to Joe Bates about his gateway’s $3.1 billion renovation and expansion programme and ambitious route development plans.

The rumble of bulldozers and the pounding of pile drivers is almost as common a sound as the roar of aircraft engines at Orlando International Airport these days as the Florida gateway undergoes the biggest expansion and renovation project in its history.

The new additions to the airport sound track will be only temporary, of course, and are actually not within earshot of most visitors as the bulk of the projects involved in the $1.3 billion Capital Improvement Plan are taking place south of the airport’s main terminal. 

The key new developments are the simultaneous construction of the South Airport APM Complex and Intermodal Terminal Facility (ITF) to improve connections between its facilities, make the airport more easily accessible and cement its status as the one of the US’s few truly multi-modal gateways.

In addition to the new state-of-the-art facilities, the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority (GOAA) is carrying out a package of improvements to the central North Terminal Complex.

They will include the capacity-enhancing expansion of the ticketing lobbies in Terminals A & B; baggage system and security improvements; the renovation of kerbside canopies; construction of a new central energy plant; and construction of a new north cell phone lot with restrooms.

Airside improvements include expanding the terminal’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities; adding four international gates at Airside 4 capable of accommodating new large aircraft; and renovating restrooms.

While a new $90 million Automated People Mover (APM) train is to replace the existing one operating between Airsides 1 and 3.

GOAA believes the combination of new infrastructure and the renovation of its existing facilities – all set for completion by June 2017 – will “change the face” of Orlando International Airport and enhance its economic impact on Central Florida, where it already generates an estimated $31 billion annually.

It will also effectively equip the airport to handle up to 45mppa with the bulk of international travellers, on transatlantic flights, passing through a bigger and better Airside 4 courtesy of the new gates and expanded Federal Inspection Services (FIS) facility.

GOAA’s executive director, Phil Brown, has no doubt that the upgrade is vital to keep Orlando International Airport (MCO) ahead of demand. 

“We are ready to make the next step,” says Brown. “Today’s travellers expect a higher level of service, so it is essential that we strive to stay at the forefront of innovation and customer care.

“Our goal is to identify, develop and implement projects that meet the needs of the community and provide an optimal travel experience.

“The ticket counters haven’t been updated since the terminal opened in 1981, for example, but this is all about to change with the $100 million plus modification of the ticketing lobbies. 

“This means a whole new look and designs based on the modular instead of a linear concept and incorporating new technology that will give us some additional capacity and reduce busy peak-time congestion. 

“We will also be adding new retail and F&B facilities as we revamp our concessions programme as current contracts expire.

“In one of our airsides, for instance, we are in the process of taking proposals for the food court concession while the landside retail developer, Westfield, continues to open a number of fresh new outlets and attract more brand names.”

He adds that the airport is considering creating new retail opportunities by taking out some moving sidewalks and replacing them with “kiosk-type” retail/F&B concepts.

Hensel Phelps (South Terminal APM Complex), a Turner/Kiewit joint venture (ITF) and Mitsubishi (APM system) are among dozens of companies working on the airport’s $1.3 billion upgrade.


Next on the agenda

“We are changing, but this is only the beginning in terms of our terminal facilities because the real change will come when we reach 38.5 million passengers on a rolling 12 month basis as this will trigger the development of a new South Terminal,” states Brown.

And with a total of 35.7 million passengers passing through MCO in 2014 and 36.4 million on a rolling 12 months basis, the day GOAA has to start work on the South Terminal might not actually be too far away.

At the moment it looks like the South Terminal will have between 16 and 24 “swing” gates that could be used for either or both domestic or international services, but Brown admits that its exact design will be determined by the traffic mix at the time the decision is made to build it.

Brown reveals that the estimated cost of an environmentally-friendly LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified 16-gate terminal is around $1.8 billion.

The design and construction period is expected to take four years once the 38.5 million figure is triggered. The airport is currently seeking RFPs and Statements of Qualification from architects and design teams interested in the project. 

He also tells Airport World that GOAA is looking at developing 25 acres of commercial developments or travel plaza on the airport site that would contain offices, hotels and retail outlets in a mini ‘aerotropolis’ type development designed to boost non-aeronautical revenues.

The airport occupies a 14,000-acre site and only about 20% of it has been developed, which according to Brown, leaves a lot of room for expansion and the addition of aeronautical and non-aeronautical facilities.

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Investing in Orlando

SSP has been awarded a seven-year $70 million contract by the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority (GOAA) to develop and manage four restaurant concepts in Airsides 1 and 3 at Orlando International Airport. 

According to GOAA, SSP America’s portfolio of highly customised, multiple award-winning proprietary brands are perfectly suited to the Orlando passenger demographic and are already proven, leading revenue drivers in San Diego, New York-JFK, Houston Intercontinental and Toronto Pearson international airports. 

Michael Svagdis, president and CEO of SSP America, commented: “Our win with MCO is a perfect example of how SSP America can specifically tailor a portfolio to meet the needs of the airport and work with it to achieve the best outcome for all stakeholders. 

“We believe that a strong capital investment always yields higher rewards, in that a better passenger experience draws a higher level of throughput and allows our spaces to maximise revenue for the airport. We have been operating with the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority since 2005 and look forward to building on that partnership with our newest concepts.”

The new concepts for MCO, which will open throughout 2016, include Le Grand Comptoir, Camden Food Co, and UrbanCrave, a brand that brought the first ‘street eats’ to the airport arena.


Route development

It is also an exciting time for Orlando when it comes to new air services, with the planned September 1 launch of daily Emirates services between Dubai and Orlando arguably being the pick of the bunch of its new routes.

Indeed, Brown describes the new service as a ‘landmark’ route for Orlando as for the first time the airport will be able to offer passengers non-stop flights to the high-growth Middle East region and quick and easy onward connections to India, China, Africa, and Southeast Asia.

“It is something we have worked very hard for and I believe can be a game changer for us in terms of opening up the world,” remarks Brown. “It effectively means that almost anywhere on the planet is reachable within one stop of Orlando.”

He is genuinely excited about the service, which will be operated by B777-200LR aircraft offering 266 seats in a First (8), Business (42) and Economy (216) class configuration.

And he is not alone in his enthusiasm as speaking about winning the new route earlier this year, GOAA chairman, Frank Kruppenbacher, called it “a great day for Orlando”. 

Kruppenbacher explained: “The benefits of this new service will be measured not only financially with a $100 million economic impact annually to the region, but also for decades to come as our business community takes advantage of efficient access to new destinations on several continents.” 

While Orlando Mayor, Buddy Dyer, said the new service would boost the airport’s status as an engine for economic growth and job creation in Central Florida. 

Orlando welcomed more than 1,000 new international passengers every day last year and Brown is confident that the new Emirates flight together with other new route launches this year to Brasilia and Lima in South America will lead to a healthy upturn in international passengers in 2015.

MCO’s list of global destinations actually increased by 9.6% in 2014 as international traffic accounted for 12% of all passengers, and Brown has high hopes that these figures will continue to rise going forward.

So what is the secret of MCO’s success when it comes to route development?

“It’s a team effort as we have a number of people who work on route development, including myself,” answers Brown.

“It is not a short-term process and it takes a lot of time and effort as routes sometimes take years to come to fruition, but the rewards are worth it.

“We first started talking to Emirates five years ago, for example. On the other hand Azul’s new non-stop service between Orlando and São Paulo happened quite quickly as the airline’s CEO David Neeleman, one of the co-founders of JetBlue, is very familiar Florida and the US market. You’ve just got to stick with it.”

The biggest of MCO’s 40 airlines in terms of market share is Southwest (28%) followed by Delta, JetBlue and American with around 15% each.

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Growing appeal of Orlando region

Brown attributes MCO’s slowly rising passenger numbers to a thriving local economy, the airport’s route network and, of course, the huge and ever growing appeal of the Florida market. 

“We are predominantly an O&D destination, which makes us very different to Atlanta, Charlotte and Miami and what drives the traffic here is the local economy,” explains Brown.

“A lot of it is leisure driven, the theme parks attracting huge numbers each year, although we are starting to see more business related traffic with an increasing number of conventions being held in the Orlando region and developments such as Medical City, a high-end health cluster, and a growing high-tech industry specialising in fibre optics, photonics and simulation. 

The University of Florida is also the second biggest university in the United States. 

“Leisure, however, remains the main draw and there is a lot of on-going investment in the hospitality industry. In fact, there are over 120,000 hotel rooms here now after some $6 billion worth of investment in infrastructure.”


Intermodal Orlando

Brown believes that it is difficult to understate the difference the new South Airport APM Complex and Intermodal Terminal Facility (ITF) will make to the airport in terms of its multi-modal connectivity, passenger convenience and operational efficiency.

Motorists will be pleased to learn that the $470 million South Airport APM Complex will have its own parking garage and the ITF is expected to be home to four different rail systems that should include an inter-city service between Miami and Orlando, commuter trains and a regional light rail system.

Brown reveals that the airport is currently in talks with a potential operator of the light rail system, although he is remaining tight lipped about the details.

GOAA already has state funding to build an inter-city train station at the airport while the new Orlando commuter rail line is set to open this year before eventually being extended to the gateway.  

It is hoped that the much talked about Miami-Orlando rail link operated by All Aboard Florida, a subsidiary of Florida East Coast Industries, could become reality by mid-2017 and guarantee three hour and fifteen minute journey times between the two cities.

“If all goes to plan by the summer of 2017 we will have trains, planes and automobiles,” jokes Brown, who says that the light rail system line would run from the gateway to Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center and the commuter rail would serve downtown as well as Orlando’s surrounding communities.


Baggage phenomenon

Its high mix of leisure travellers, fuelled by the close proximity of Disney World and a host of other theme parks and tourist attractions has led to somewhat of a baggage phenomenon at MCO, which arguably handles more luggage than any other airport in the world of a similar size.

Indeed, an incredible 16.4 million items of hold luggage and some 39.6 million pieces of hand luggage passes through the airport every year and the constant battle with bags is the driving force behind GOAA’s strategy of always looking to update its baggage screening system.  

“We are constantly exploring ways of how we can improve the baggage handling process as we are a very baggage intensive airport and handle a lot of bulky items such as oversize bags, strollers and golf clubs,” says Brown.

He quips that many Brazilian guests arrive with two bags, typically buy two more and ship them all back home when they return.

A separate, remote, baggage-sorting facility just for Walt Disney World hotel guests that sign up for its Disney Magical Express luggage service certainly helps MCO cope with such high demand.

Set up in 2005, the programme effectively means that once passengers check in for their flights to Orlando the next time they see their baggage is in their hotel room. 

At the last count the Disney facility was handling in excess of three million bags annually.

“The system does a couple of things,” states Brown. “It makes flying here very convenient for passengers but it also allows us to manage baggage more efficiently.” 

The new South Airport APM Complex should also help MCO’s baggage efficiency as well as ease kerbside congestion as the idea is that motorists will be able to drive to the complex, park their cars, drop off baggage and check-in remotely for their flights before being transported to the main terminal complex by a three minute APM ride.

Brown says that baggage dropped off at the facility will be transported to Orlando’s main baggage sorting facility where it will be screened and put on aircraft in a similar way to the remote check-in system already operated by a number of hotels across the region.

“Being able to quickly ingress and egress out of the airport is critical when you are a 95% origin and destination airport and that includes baggage,” says Brown.

Clearly Orlando is very much in demand from holidaymakers and is growing as a business destination. Fortunately, under Brown’s leadership, MCO appears more than ready for the all the opportunities and challenges this will bring in the future.

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