Airport making plans for its bustling future

Florida Today

To accommodate more and more air passengers who travel each year, Orlando International Airport has some big plans.

By 2020, things will be so advanced, passengers might be able to print out their own tickets and put their own bags on the conveyor belt to the planes.

“We’re constantly looking at ways to make things more efficient,” said Steve Gardner, executive director for Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, which operates Orlando International and Orlando Executive airports.

Orlando International is Florida’s busiest airport, as well as the airport most Brevard County air travelers use.

“Things have really changed over the years — for example, with printing boarding passes off your computer,” Gardner said. “We’re trying to look at trends 15 years from now. Someday, it will be like self-service. You’ll go find your gate and get on the airplane. Print your pass and put your bag on the belt to the plane.”

As more people fly — and more bags are checked — Orlando is trying to set itself up for the future with such things as improved baggage-handling and security clearances operations, as well as various terminal enhancements.

But in the meantime, upgrades and staff training are some of the big challenges to airport operation as things progress toward a self-service future.

Security challenges

Fin Bonsett, instructor of aeronautics, airport planning and airport design at Florida Tech, said security issues contribute to the congestion at Orlando International.

“A lot of the staff are learning to use the facilities, so there are going to be delays from that,” Bonsett said. “Also, there are a lot of challenges connected with volumes of people and the low-cost carriers that provide competition.”

Gardner said one of the top priorities is getting baggage X-ray machines behind the counter so they take up less operations space.

As the airport approaches 35 million passengers a year, projects that will accommodate those passengers include installing an in-line baggage security system, which means putting the X-ray machines that are sitting in the lobbies behind the scenes.

“What that does is it’s a quicker way to do security on the bags,” Gardner said. “Second, it frees up ticket counters we lost when the machines came in.”

Parking issues

Making the waiting time less of a waiting game — and reducing car traffic, too — is critical.

“It’s not just the airport,” said Dave Byers, professor of airport planning and finance for the College of Business at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “I noticed the other day, I usually use a remote parking lot, and it was full. People are traveling more. It’s nothing Orlando’s doing in particular. They’re just as susceptible as other airports.”

“We have curb issues, and you know we’ve constructed a ‘cell phone lot,’ the express pickup and added parking spaces,” Gardner said, referring to some of the recent innovations to ease traffic and parking congestion. “After 9-11, you were not allowed to abandon your car at the curb. What we’re doing is finding a place to park and wait.”

The good thing, Gardner said, is the airport has plenty of space to expand.

“We have not begun to approach airport capacity,” Gardner said. “If there are any delays, they’re coming from the northern airports. The only delays we have are in the summertime, when there’s lightning.”

Still, U.S. Department of Transportation data indicates that passengers using Orlando International have about a 1-in-5 chance of their flights arriving or taking off at least 15 minutes late.

Lots of luggage

“Our challenges are in the main terminal building,” Gardner said. “We have sufficient capacity to carry us quite a few years down the road. Land-side main terminal is where we have challenges. We need to free up ticket counter areas, get the machines behind the scenes.”

Since Orlando is one of the nation’s top family tourist destinations, its airport has special baggage-related challenges.

“We’re a high-baggage airport,” Gardner said. “We don’t do a lot of business traffic. The families that come here are loaded down.”

“Orlando’s unique in a number of ways, particularly in the type of traffic you have, which is tourism and then the business traveler,” Byers said. “And because of the low-fare carriers, you’re pulling people from other parts of the state.”

The mounting luggage issues led the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority to hire customer-service representatives to help handle the bags. These are not in the security areas, but rather are at the front door, near the ticket counter.

Arriving earlier

Gardner said passengers want to get to their gates quicker, and that means they’ll be waiting by the gates for a longer period than in the past.

“We’re spending more than $90 million on projects to create more space for circulation, seating and concessions,” Gardner said.

“We’re renovating the interior of the terminal to add seating,” he said. “The terminal was built to handle 24 million people, but, by the end of the year, annual passenger traffic will be close to 35 million. With more security involved, we’ve found that people want to get to the gate quicker. We need more seating area and space.”

Gardner said about 80 percent of concessions now are located before the gates. But the airport wants to open more retail and concessions operations in the departing gates areas.

“Airport growth is an ongoing process,” Gardner said. “It never stops.”

Traveling tips

Here are air travel tips and rules from Orlando International Airport and the Transportation Security Administration:
Liquid restrictions: When packing for a trip, know the 3-1-1 rule for easier security screening. The Transportation Security Administration allows 3-ounces-or-less-sized containers of liquid or gel; one quart-sized clear plastic, zip-top bag to comfortably hold the 3-ounce containers; and only one bag per traveler can be placed in the security bin for inspection.
Medications: Any amount of eyedrops, saline solution, prescription and nonprescription medicine and personal lubricants are allowed.
Baby formula: Baby formula is allowed if a child is traveling.
Airport purchases: Drinks, liquids and gels purchased in airport stores inside the security checkpoints can be carried into passenger cabins.

Parking changes

Parking innovations at Orlando International Airport include:
“Cell phone” parking lot: The new so-called cell phone lot is a free short-term parking area for passenger pickup adjacent to the Red Satellite Lot. The lot provides nearly 100 parking spaces for drivers picking up passengers from the airport. It provides a secure area with free access to wireless Internet services. Passengers can call their drivers’ cell phones after they’ve deplaned and collected the baggage for curbside pickup.
Express pickup: This new service allows E-Pass and SunPass users to have the closest short-term passenger pickup available. E-Pass and SunPass users access specially marked entrances to the inner curb of the main terminal building. All vehicles using the service are subject to security inspections.
Forty minutes free in garages: The amount of free parking in both the “A” and “B” garages has been raised from 30 minutes to 40 minutes. The goal is to reduce the number of cars circling airport property waiting for arriving passengers.
Originally published by Gannett Monday, November 20, 2006