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VOL. 122 | NO. 245 | Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Airport Makes Noise With $55M in Improvements

By Eric Smith

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FLYING HIGH: A new air traffic control tower at Memphis International Airport will break ground next month. -- Rendering Courtesy Of Federal Aviation Administration

Airplanes and shuttle buses aren't the only vehicles creating buzz at Memphis International Airport these days. Bulldozers and cranes have been contributing their share as well.

Memphis' airport - the world's busiest for cargo and a hub for Northwest Airlines - is in the midst of roughly $400 million in various capital improvements, ranging from easier access in and out of the facility to the construction a $55 million air traffic control tower.

Construction of the new tower, which is set to break ground in January, will take about two years. After it's built, the installation and testing of new equipment will take another year, meaning it won't be fully operational until 2011.

The new tower, funded by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), will stand 336 feet tall, about 150 feet taller than the current tower. It will offer more room up top for air traffic controllers, and its base will include a 25,000-square-foot radar and administrative facility.

"It's going to be the most modern, state-of-the-art control tower in the nation and maybe the world," said Larry Cox, president of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority (MSCAA). "Memphis has a lot of airplanes around the clock, so it's going to enhance safety and improve capacity and efficiency here for all the airlines."


Out of sight

Memphis' air traffic controllers are eager for the new digs, but they are also wary of how the new tower, to be placed southwest of the current tower, could obstruct their sightline as it rises.

"As this tower's being built, it's going to create a blind spot," said Pete Sufka, the Memphis tower representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "The tower shaft is going to obstruct our view of some of the movement areas."

Cox said he's aware of the situation, but that it's "going to have minimal effect."

"There won't be any noticeable effect on the airport, because we have four runways," he added. "And only one approach on one end of one runway will be affected."

Sufka said controllers and airport officials likely will explore the use of video cameras to provide live feeds to controllers as a substitute for their own visual capabilities, although that creates a wider error margin because of glitches.

"Controllers would have to learn how to incorporate this into their scans," Sufka said. "Then they're going to have to learn how to use the information they're getting from the camera perspective because it's not going to be the same perspective as we see it from the tower now.

"But at least everybody knows that this is something we're going to have to figure out. I cross my fingers that we'll work together and find a way to work around this."


Nips and tucks

In addition to the tower, the airport is overseeing a host of large-scale projects, most noticeably a $230 million Tennessee Air National Guard base, which is under construction.

When the Air National Guard moves to its new base, FedEx will take over the 100 acres the guard is departing. FedEx will "rework and reconstruct that area, and a lot of that will be to accommodate the company's new airplanes," Cox said.

Plans are also ramping up for a new seven-story parking garage on the north side of the existing main parking structure. Cox said the preliminary schematics on the structure are complete, and planners are now in the design phase.

The new parking garage will be built in either one phase or two, depending on funding. If it comes as a two-phase plan, the first will bring 4,000 spaces followed by a second phase with 2,000 spaces.

Since the new garage will be at the front of the airport, its "design is going to be attractive," Cox said. "It's not just going to be a piece of concrete. It's going to have urban art with it, and it's going to be an icon for the airport when it's completed."


Drive-thru window

For all the large-scale, high-profile projects under way, Cox is perhaps most excited about the airport's new "cell phone lot," a parking area designed to save time and reduce congestion and air pollution.

This designated spot near the airport entrance is for people picking up arriving passengers. They can wait in the cell phone area, and when the arriving passengers have retrieved their baggage, they can call the person waiting to pick them up so that person can be at the pick-up point in seconds

"A lot of airports are doing that, and building the new (entrance) road gave us the opportunity to put it in," Cox said. "You're seeing more and more of those, particularly at hub airports like Memphis that have a lot of arrivals come in all at once."


Work in progress

More changes lie ahead for the airport, Memphis' $21.7 billion economic engine. Airport officials are in the midst of updating the airport master plan, the last of which was created in 1986 and has almost been completed.

"It's a real involved, intensive process of working with the airport stakeholders - the airlines, the FAA, the Airport Authority, the tenants, as well as stakeholders in the community," Cox said. "It will take a couple of years, and then we'll have a blueprint for the next 20 years."

The master plan will take into account existing facilities as well as forecasts for future demands related to passenger and cargo traffic for the next 20 years.

"The airport never stops growing; the airport never stops serving the community," Cox said. "And that's going to continue."

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