Major Western airports are expected to spend more than $22 billion
in coming years on construction projects that are among the most
ambitious in the country.
With six of the nation’s 10 busiest airports in the Western
United States, the projects are expected to expand capacity
significantly and to reshape travel experiences across the
Even though U.S. airlines have reduced flights since Sept. 11
and passenger traffic has declined, the Airports Council
International estimates that air travel in the United States will
see a resurgence and will nearly double by 2009.
The council estimates U.S. airports nationwide will need to
spend $15 billion annually on capital improvements over the next
three years to keep up with the growth.
So airports in the West have dusted off master plans and are
breaking ground on major projects.
Airports in Dallas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Houston, Las Vegas,
Seattle and Oakland are among those with multi-billion-dollar
Expansions to airport terminals and runways will account for 73
percent of all construction projects over the next three years,
according to the Airports Council International.
Denver International and Houston’s George Bush International
have opened new runways this year. Seattle-Tacoma International is
planning to build a new runway to reduce the weather-related delays
that now affect 20 percent of all the airport’s flights, according
to an airport spokesman.
Most construction, however, will center on terminal expansion
and overhauls, according to the airport council. “There were
tremendous airfield projects in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” said Leonard
Ginn, a senior vice president with the council. “Terminals need to
Many new terminals have features more like shopping malls than
airports, including live entertainment, shopping and
accommodations. San Francisco International added an aviation
museum and now boasts the world’s first fully accredited museum
inside an airport.
The Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport is undergoing an
expansion project partially funded by a $1.46 billion bond, one of
the largest airport bonds in U.S. history.
A new international terminal, considered the “crown jewel” of
the plan, will feature a 298-room Grand Hyatt hotel complete with a
spa and rooftop swimming pool.
Los Angeles International Airport has plans for a $9 billion
project, by far the most expensive of any Western airport, which is
centered on security issues.
The plan would direct travelers to off-site check-in centers and
then transport them to the gates via buses and rail, eliminating
vehicular traffic near the terminals. “One of our vulnerabilities
is of a vehicular bomb coming straight up to the curbside or
ramming itself into one of the terminals,” said Nancy Castles, a
spokeswoman for Los Angeles World Airports. “We’ve seen it in
Oklahoma City and with the embassy attacks overseas. And frankly
that is a vulnerability that all airports are subject to, not just
A parking terminal now in the center of the airport would be
turned into a meeting center to greet or see off travelers. It
would include restaurants, shops and lounge areas.
McCarran International in Las Vegas and Seattle-Tacoma
International also are working on plans to expand terminals, while
Phoenix Sky Harbor is considering expansion.
Despite the aggressive development plans, regaining flight
levels has been the biggest challenge for the airports over the
last few years.
Sept. 11, the war in Iraq and the SARS epidemic have combined to
affect major Western airports perhaps more severely than anywhere
else in the nation.
Los Angeles and San Francisco, the main gateways to Asia, were
hit especially hard by the SARS crisis, according to airport
Over the past two years, Los Angeles and San Francisco have had
the largest decreases in passenger traffic of any major
international airports in the country.
Los Angeles passenger levels dropped 8.7 percent from 2001 to
2002. Seattle, too, has seen a drop of 1.7 million passengers since
2000. And San Francisco loads have dropped 20 percent in the past
San Francisco’s problem has been compounded by the dot-com crash
and competition with Oakland International. It has fallen to the
15th busiest airport in the country this year, from fifth busiest
And Oakland International now has become the second-fastest
growing airport in the nation, according to a study from Pittsburgh
With an 11 percent increase in passenger traffic from 2001 to
2002, Oakland is the only airport in the West to have recorded
significant passenger gains since Sept. 11.
The airport is planning to spend about $1.6 billion on an
expansion project to create more gates for Southwest.
“We are bursting at the seams,” said airport spokeswoman
Rosemary Barnes. “We are currently designed to handle 7 million
passengers and we are pushing 13 million. Right now we’re more
concerned about keeping existing passengers than attracting new
To compete, San Francisco has promised one year of reduced
landing fees to any airlines that pick up new routes. So far, ATA,
America West and AirTran Airways have committed new services.
“We’re just trying to get back to the traffic levels of two
years ago,” said Michael McCarron, a spokesman for the airport.
Airports covet service to international markets and Asia is
expected to become increasingly important for the West.
Denver is using its new $166 million runway as a lure to foreign
carriers. It is promoted as the longest commercial runway in North
America and is capable of handling jumbo jets serving international
Las Vegas, Phoenix and Houston all are trying to expand into
Phoenix Sky Harbor is involved with a city marketing plan to
lure international travelers and businesses and is working with
public relations firms in Mexico, France, Italy and Germany.
International traffic to the airport grew 14 percent last year.
The airport eventually hopes to expand to European markets and to
Both Phoenix and Denver offer incentives for carriers, but Las
Vegas does not.
“We only go after the markets that are mature and can support
the service,” said Harry Kappap, a marketing director at McCarran
International. “Subsidies just don’t work. The flight has to stand
on its own.”