Protecting the gateway: balancing explosive growth and travel demand in New Orleans

Todd Knuckey | 07 Mar 2017 | Comments

An American mecca for great cuisine, vibrant music, and fascinating history, New Orleans has been a favorite of tourists and business travelers for decades, lessened only by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But today, as the national economy improves and destination travel in the area explodes, our client, the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (MSY) faces a monumental task of upgrading its aging facilities while keeping up with skyrocketing passenger growth.

As part of the Crescent City Aviation Team (CCAT), Atkins played a key role in helping MSY adapt to these fast changing market conditions as it modernizes its 50-year-old airport facilities. Only three months after breaking ground on a new $800 million, 30-gate terminal in January 2016, ongoing analysis revealed travel to New Orleans was increasing at a much greater rate than shown in the original airport planning process. This was driven by increasing domestic passenger traffic combined with MSY’s success in attracting new non-stop international flights, including from Europe and Central America.

Under the direction of the Airport, CCAT was directed to conduct a study of the impact of the new demands. It was concluded that at least 35 gates were needed to accommodate the increased level of domestic flights and use of wide body aircraft for international routes. The airport conducted its own study and agreed that the new concourse needed to grow by five gates. Our challenge was to integrate the additional gates into the existing construction plans while the original construction was in progress to reduce impact to travelers.

The consequences of failing to meet passenger growth can be severe for an airport and the surrounding community. Not only do airports risk losing revenue brought in by the airlines themselves, but they also risk losing passengers to neighboring airports (in this case Baton Rouge), which can potentially impact the growth of the destination city, New Orleans.

But growth plans and costs must be decided prudently. As airlines work diligently to increase their financial viability, airports must carefully balance costs with the benefits of expanding amenities and services that meet traveler expectations.

As the saying goes, it pays to be prepared. What might have become a nightmare was a carefully planned possibility. During the initial design process, the CCAT team developed a plan to expand the selected 30-gate design to 42 gates over time. And once the expansion of gates was decided, we established a design sequence that would allow the construction contractor to maintain the schedule for the original 30-gate terminal, while allowing us to make design changes in real-time as the construction proceeded. To minimize disruption, the design documentation was not produced as a stand-alone set, but rather as a Design Supplemental Instruction (DSI) to the original set of construction documents. This allowed the design team to utilize existing design concepts, details, specifications and drawing submittals while maintaining flexibility.

Our strong relationship with our client also helped increase the pace of progress. Atkins employees co-located at the airport and served as an extension of airport staff, providing full design services for the concourse expansion, including landside and airside, geotechnical, structural, baggage handling, architectural, interior design and MAPS studies. By identifying the need for an expansion sooner rather than later, we ensured MSY could quickly accommodate the uptick in passenger traffic while still providing the amenities customers are looking for. Through this collaborative effort, we were able to successfully plan the expansion with minimal impact to the original construction schedule and the original estimated completion and opening date of October 2018 remains unchanged. The additional gates expected to open approximately six-to-eight months later.

Destination airports, such as MSY, serve a unique function in our societies. They are important gateways to the world and are often the very first and last impressions travelers have of a community. The challenge is to create a safe, pleasant and distinctive traveling experience that not only shapes the customer’s overall perception of the airport, but also the destination it serves.

Click here to learn more about how this gateway will welcome visitors to the city.