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Cooperation Key to Opening of New Louis Armstrong International Airport

by Anitra D. Brown

Leaders from across the region and state gathered Tuesday Nov. 5 to officially celebrate the opening of the new Louis Armstrong International Airport terminal—a project that, from planning to fruition, has been eight years in the making.

“It’s an honor to return to my hometown at this time as we deliver this very historic project for the region,” said Aviation Director Kevin Dolliole. Dolliole says airports are very important capital assets to regional development. He says he can recall instances when the old terminal, an aging building constructed 60 years ago, rated at the bottom among airports in the nation. He is proud to state that is no longer the case. 

The new airport sets “a tone and an image of our region as progressive and forward moving,” he says. “We are leading, not following.”

The new terminal officially opened for business with the first flight departing in the early morning of Wednesday, Nov. 6. And while things went smoothly the first day, a little turbulence was not too far behind.

By now, most New Orleanians have undoubtedly heard about them.

There was the baggage handling system that worked well the first day and then hit a bump on the next, causing some travelers to arrive at their destinations without their luggage.

“It was bad, but the system has been fixed and is functioning normally,” said Dolliole.

Then there were the long lines on the first Sunday of operation—a typically busy airport day with many people  preferring to return from vacations and business trips on Sunday to maximize their time away. Dolliole says the longer lines and waits were actually expected as only 10 of the 15 TSA check-in lines were up and running at the time because workers could not move all of the equipment from the south terminal, which had to remain functioning until the very last flight departed from there. Only after the south terminal officially closed could additional equipment be moved over. 

“We always knew there would be a gap in full capacity for the first few days,” Dolliole told The Tribune. “Some equipment was able to be set up in advance. The rest of the (TSA lanes) couldn’t be set up until the south terminal was closed.

He added, “It’s already worked out. It’s not a situation that prevailed for days. And now all 15 lanes are up and running. You hardly see any lines. That’s why we opened three weeks in advance of Thanksgiving, so we would have the time to work through any glitches before the holiday season.”

And while Louis Armstrong International Airport is the newest airport in the country, it is still an airport, meaning that even under the best circumstances, delays and lines can still happen from time to time.

“That’s not saying you won’t ever have to wait, because you will,” Dolliole says, “on busy days, during peak travel times. But those lines will move really well.” 

So, the first week of operation at the new MSY was not perfect. However, after eight years of planning, building and waiting, it’s going to take more than  a kink or two to keep those instrumental in the opening of the new airport from flying high.

The official ribbon cutting was replete with leaders and lawmakers congratulating each other and gushing—rightfully so—over the new, undeniably beautiful passenger terminal, with its open-spaced architectural design and massive windows that overlook the infinitely more massive sky.

The Spirit of Cooperation

Mayor LaToya Cantrell was on hand to revel in the moment, tipping her hat to her predecessor, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, under whose tenure the project began. 

“It all started with a great vision, and (Mayor Landrieu) had that. At the same time, we all understand that the vision is one piece. It’s the team and leadership who worked together to make that vision a reality; and each and everyone of you here today played a tremendous role in where we are today with the newest terminal in the United States of America. This is not just about the city of New Orleans, this is about our region and our state. And I am so proud to have shepherded this project over the last year and half, working through whatever it took to get it done. We are here and we got here together.”

Landrieu was there as well, pointing out that it was under two mayors, two governors, two presidents, several incarnations of city and parish councils representing New Orleans, Jefferson Parish and the city of Kenner, as well as different embodiments of the aviation board, state legislature and U.S. Congress that the new airport came to be.

“I have a great sense of  gratitude for everybody that put their hands together and put their feet in the soil and made this project happen. This is a beautiful spectacular state of the art, possibly the best airport in the country right now. The only way something like this happens, the only way New Orleans becomes an emblem for the rest of the world is to show people what you can produce when you work together. This thing was generated by the city of New Orleans, but it can’t happen without the partnership of all the people that have worked on it. The only way something like this happens is to show people what you can do when you work together. This is a beautiful gift.”

Current Aviation Board Chairman Michael Bagneris celebrated the event as well.

“This is a remarkable building. It is a masterpiece of architecture. And I hope everyone notices how the culture of New Orleans is weaved throughout this airport. This remarkable building came about at a cost. It was a long journey and it had some arduous difficulties we had to overcome. And we did. We had the cooperation of governmental officials, the corporate citizens, the airlines, obviously the aviation board, and the executive staff. The people of this city wanted this building to be here; and it is a gem.”

Although he was barely two weeks away from a gubernatorial primary, Gov. John Bel Edwards was also on hand to talk about how important the new airport is for the entire state. 

“The economic impact of Louisiana’s airports continues to grow. Today we celebrate a facility that is ready to meet that growth for many years to come” Gov. Edwards said. “They supply over 84,000 jobs. These jobs generate a payroll $2.6 billion each year. Louisiana’s airports generated over $9.3 billion in total economic input just in 2018. Over five million visitors passed through our airports last year; and of course the biggest player in that is the Louis Armstrong International Airport, where over 4.1 million passengers came through that airport in 2018—that’s 82 percent of all air travelers to the great state of Louisiana.”

And U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond was there as well, echoing Landrieu’s comments about the joint effort it took to get the new airport built, as well as speaking to what the new facility means for air travelers.

“For a person who lives in the airport—literally, once a week I am flying out, once a week I am flying home—this is a true blessing. The governor mentioned that the airport is the first thing that people see, but more importantly, it’s the last experience of New Orleans before they go back home. So no matter how great their weekend was, their experience at the airport is what they will remember.  And now their memory will be of a world class airport for a world class travel destination, really for a world-class people and a world class city.”

Leaders from across the area shared just how much they understood that while the airport is owned by the city of New Orleans and located in Jefferson Parish, the new terminal is jewel for the entire region.

“We know as New Orleans goes and the region goes, so does St. John, said St. John the Baptist Parish President Natalie Robottom, adding that she looks forward to having more visitors to New Orleans venturing to St. John and other nearby locales for day trips during their stays.

The new airport not only celebrates the culture of New Orleans and the surrounding region, but it will help boost the area economy for local workers, Bagneris told The Tribune.

“The new terminal will enhance the economic wellbeing of the region,” said Bagneris, adding that he was especially impressed by the increase in concession/retail jobs created as a result of the new MSY. “I think it’s going to catapult the city.”

Before the move, there were 344 concessions employees between three concessionaries, Delaware North, Hudson and Vino Volo. At the new terminal, there are now 955 employees—almost three times as many as before—between the four prime concessionaries: HMS Host (500 employees); Chase North (300 employees); Paradies Lagardere (120); and Stellar (75), according to data provided by Louis Armstrong International Airport.

As part of the contract with the new concessionaires, jobs are offered to employees from the previous concessionaires not relocating to the new terminal. 

From there on, the contract requires the new concessionaires to work with the City of New Orleans Office for Workforce Development’s (OWD) First Source program, which connects the local workforce to various employment opportunities throughout the City of New Orleans. The concessionaires will use OWD’s database of qualified job seekers as a first source for placement of all new hires before seeking employees through other traditional methods.

A Few Favorite Things

Now if the cross-section of officials, representing various jurisdictions, levels of government and eras of leadership that gathered for the celebration does not indicate just how highly-anticipated the new airport terminal has been and just how important it is, then the sheer size of the project should surely drive those points home.

The new $1 billion terminal spans 972,000 square feet and features three concourses, 35 gates, two new parking garages for short-term and long-term parking, a surface parking lot, and an economy garage with shuttle service at the old terminal.  Construction of the new terminal began January 2016 and created thousands of construction jobs as well as opportunities for local businesses and disadvantaged business enterprises (DBEs) in the region.

Concessions, located past security checkpoints, feature more than 40 food, beverage, news, gift and specialty retail options that were designed to distinctively promote New Orleans as an indulgent experience.

Among the dining and beverage options are: Emeril’s Table, Dook’s Place, Leah’s Kitchen, Munch Factory, Folse Market, Café Du Monde, Bar Sazerec and several coffee shops, including PJs and Community Coffee. Fleurty Girl, NOLA Couture and Parish Provisions are among retail options. 

And there is the open stage located on the first floor of the airport where local music and culture will be on display.

In fact, it is the manner in which the airport shows off the best of New Orleans that Aviation Board Chairman Bagneris says is his favorite thing about the new terminal.

“I said it at the ribbon cutting—you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression,” Bagneris told The Tribune. “Our city is very unique, and we want to showcase that.”

From architecture that has a “French Quarter feel” to New Orleans inspired art work throughout the airport’s concourses to the dining options, Bagneris says the taste of New Orleans that the airport will give travelers should only leave them wanting more.

“What other airport do you know that has a bandstand?” Bagneris said. “And local musicians will be playing there. That’s the kind of statement we want to make.”

For Dolliole, the overall design of the facility tops his list as its most prized feature.

“I appreciate the three-level split and how the design builds more functionality bu using more of the facility,” he says.

Throughout the airport’s three-level design, travelers will find  other amenities available at the new terminal include: free Wi-Fi, chargers available at 50 percent of the seats in the gate areas, water bottle refilling stations post-security, three Mothers Rooms (private areas where nursing mothers can breastfeed and pump breast milk), fully-automated restrooms with sanitary seat covers, a pet-relief area post security, music venues located in pre and post security areas, an in-line baggage screening system, and three curbside check-in locations with easy access to the Short Term Garage.

“The terminal was built with the passenger experience in mind,” Dolliole said, adding that he believes that the innovative customer services experiences will set the MSY apart.

Two experiences that he excitedly describes are the MSY guest pass and the economy parking option at the old south terminal.

For $12 a day, passengers can park their cars at the old airport’s garage, check-in curbside with skycaps, check their luggage, get their boarding pass and the catch one of the frequent shuttles that ferry passengers to the new terminal, where they can bypass the ticket counter and go straight to the TSA security check-in.

“It’s a good service, at a good price point,” said Dolliole. “Covered parking for $12 a day—not too shabby.”

Dolliole expects the MSY Guest Pass to make its debut shortly after Thanksgiving. Guest passes will allow non-travelling customers to have access to concourses beyond the secure check-in points.

A limited number of passes will be available for the pilot launch of the program, Dolliole said, adding that there will be 50 passes a day available each Monday thru Friday and 100 passes each day on Saturday and Sunday for customers that have been cleared by airport security and with advance reservations. As the program grows, Dolliole says the number of passes could increase.

The guest passes will allow locals to take advantage of all of the airport’s amenities, such as the restaurants and retailers that are on the concourses. They will also allow people to see their family members off or even watch planes take off.

“It’s a way of opening the facility up to the community,” Dolliole said. “This is one of the biggest infrastructure projects in this region, and the community should be able to enjoy it.”

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