VOL. 124 | NO. 102 | Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Airport Projects Continue as Economy Improves
By Eric Smith
TOWERING EFFORT: The new air traffic control tower at Memphis International Airport, one of several improvement projects, has reached about half of its 336 feet so far. The tower is expected to be fully operational by 2011. -- PHOTO BY ERIC SMITH
Two of Memphis International Airport’s biggest construction projects are approaching their midway points and another is set to begin later this year, all of which will bring a new look and feel to the city’s economic engine.
The most visible project is the new air traffic control tower. It has reached 170 feet, about half of its final height of 336 feet, airport officials announced last week. The $55 million structure, funded by the Federal Aviation Administration, will be 150 feet taller than the current tower, offering more space and better visibility for air traffic controllers.
The tower should be operational in 2011; once construction is finished, the FAA will perform a lengthy equipment installation and certification process before it can be used.
Also, the $48 million reconstruction of Runway 9/27 – the airport’s lone east-west runway – will reach a milestone in two weeks, when a pair of crossing points are completed, easing traffic flow of aircraft from the FedEx hub to the main airfield.
Larry Cox, president and CEO of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, said the new tower and reconstructed runway are important enhancements for the airport, which pumps $28.6 billion into the local economy each year and provides one in three jobs.
“There’s no doubt that these projects are very much needed and will improve the efficiency and safety of the airport,” Cox said. “The control tower, which will be opened in late 2011, will be much taller and bigger than the existing tower and will give the FAA controllers a better vantage point in order to safely control airplanes in and out of the airport.”
Cox added that the runway project – which is replacing old asphalt with a sturdier concrete to withstand heavier loads – will improve the airport’s ability to handle multiple landing and takeoff patterns.
“It provides the only crosswind runway we have, but we also use it daily when the weather is good for arrivals and departures, so it’s very critical,” Cox said.
Both projects are essential to the airport’s future, but neither is to the scale of the $150 million facility that will house a parking garage and rental car facility, another massive project set to transform the airport.
Airport officials are in the final design phase, and construction should begin in November on the seven-story structure that will be built on the north side, or the front, of the airport.
Its lower two levels will serve as the operating area for the rental car companies, including their offices, ticket counters and parking spaces. There also will be a “quick turn” area where rental cars will be returned, cleaned and fueled for the next renter. The garage will contain up to 4,500 long-term parking spaces for travelers.
A new parking garage has been on the minds of airport officials since 2001, but the events of 9/11 delayed it. The original plan was to build a separate parking garage and rental car facility, but the souring economy forced the airport to combine those projects into one structure.
“Actually, this is better anyway, because it’s better customer service and nobody will have to get on busses to either go get their rental car or go to parking,” Cox said. “They’ll be able to walk and use moving sidewalks to get from the terminal building directly into that new facility.”
Because the new facility is so tall, it will partially conceal the front of the main terminal building, whose unique design is instantly recognizable. That means airport officials were adamant about a unique look to the garage.
“The front of the garage is going to be the signature front door to the building,” said John Greaud, the airport authority’s vice president of operations. “Because of the size of this garage and because it will substantially block, at least at certain angles, the existing terminal building with the classic ‘martini glass’ vision that we’ve had for years, we’re trying to create a new vision.”
The new vision will include an airfoil wall that will stand out in front of the parking garage, Greaud said. On the front of the airfoil will be the airport’s logo – an airplane whose contrail, or exhaust vapor, forms a musical note.
The appearance of the facility is important, because it will be so prominent to the airport’s entrance. The facility itself will serve as a key revenue generator, helping finance airport operations.
“It will definitely make us more competitive with other cities,” Cox said. “We anticipate that as the economy is starting to heat up again, it should be about the time the garage is finished. We expect the demand for parking is going to go through the roof.”
Ready for better times
That project isn’t the only one on the horizon. The airport will replace the apron surrounding the main terminal, basically the driveway for aircraft. Greaud said a study is under way to figure out how it can be done while allowing airline partners to function without disruption.
The apron replacement is prompting a terminal expansion to provide additional gates as a relief for airlines because the project will force some gates to close. The first terminal expansion is slated for the north end of the C Concourse (the concourse on the east side of the property), where a pair of cargo buildings will be razed.
The demolition of those two structures will allow for that terminal expansion, but that area will first be used as a temporary surface parking lot while the new parking/rental car structure is built.
A new, temporary “east” parking lot will be constructed on the site of former cargo buildings one and five.
All of this construction has Memphis International poised for even more growth as a cargo and passenger hub.
“It’s going to keep me busy for a few years,” Cox said with a laugh.