New Orleans airport to receive major interior, exterior renovation

New Orleans airport to receive major interior, exterior renovation
June 24, 2009
Mary Sparacello
The Times-Picayune

Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport has launched the first of what will be $350 million in improvements that will modernize the facility and create about 7,000 construction jobs.

"There's a lot of development," Aviation Director Sean Hunter told a Kenner economic development committee on Wednesday, adding that many of the improvements have been in the works for years. "I think right now is the time to strike."

Most of the projects are slated to begin this year and next year, and construction should mostly be finished before Super Bowl 2013, according to a proposal Hunter presented at a luncheon in Rivertown's Heritage Hall.

The most expensive on the list is a $114 million rental-car facility with 1,800 parking spaces that should be finished by 2012. The aviation board is using tax-exempt Gulf Opportunity Zone bonds for the garage, which should create 2,600 jobs during construction.

"It will create a better experience for the traveling public," Hunter said.

The airport's exterior, which dates to the 1960s, will get a $9 million upgrade, while the interior will get a $21 million upgrade that includes improvements to the flight information display system. Interior and exterior renovations will both be financed by the passenger facility charge, the $4.50 fee levied on each person who boards a plane.

The improvements won't require any increase in the passenger fees, Hunter said.

"This is what a modern airport looks like," Hunter said, showing Kenner Mayor Ed Muniz and others a drawing of the proposed exterior, its currently gray exterior replaced largely with glass.

The airport also plans to widen concourses to allow for the wider planes the airline industry is beginning to introduce, Hunter said. Concourse D will be expanded by six gates, with new food and retail stores and restrooms, at a cost of $40.5 million. A west terminal expansion with five gates, ticket counters, security screening and baggage facilities will cost $34 million, mostly paid for by passenger fees.

Air travel in 2008 was 82 percent of its level before Hurricane Katrina, showing only moderate growth from the year before. Hunter said he expects the numbers to rebound by 2011.

Federal grants will cover most of the $10.5 million it will cost to build a new fire station at the airport, and local airport funds will pay for a $3 million administrative building, Hunter said.

The airport hopes to attract a private developer to build a new, 250-room hotel on Airline Drive.

"You want to be a first class airport, you need a hotel on your airport," Hunter said.

Passenger fees and federal grants will pay the $45 million to replace the baggage handling system in the east and west terminals, Hunter said.

The airport plans to spend $5.5 million of its own funds to add two lanes -- one in each direction -- to Aberdeen Street, which will give the airport a north entrance. Construction is planned for 2010.

The Kenner City Council agreed last November to expropriate the property needed for the street widening, a move that had been discussed for 14 years. Officials said the vote highlights an improved relationship between the New Orleans-owned airport and the city in which it is located.

"The gateway to metropolitan New Orleans is Kenner," Muniz said, calling the airport's plans part of "exciting times for the continued economic growth of our city."
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