Major Changes Set For Airports in West

Western airports may spend more than $22 billion on construction projects that are among the most ambitious in the country.

By: R. Scott Macintosh

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 region.

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 plans.

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 catch up.”

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 LAX.”

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 officials.

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 two years.

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 in 2000.

And Oakland International now has become the second-fastest growing airport in the nation, according to a study from Pittsburgh International Airport.

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 ones.”

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 markets.

Las Vegas, Phoenix and Houston all are trying to expand into international markets.

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 Asia.

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.”