Keeping Pace in Ft. Myers

FT. MYERS, FL — The dateline says Ft. Myers, but we actually met up with Robert ‘Bob’ M. Ball, A.A.E., executive director of the Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW), in front of a Hyatt hotel in Washington, D.C., at the AAAE convention. He was smoking a stogie — talking to him, he gave off an air of comfort. He was on his way to have lunch with a local legislator and former DOT Secretary Norm Mineta. We would have to reschedule. We did, and his insights about creating the newest airline terminal in the U.S. are worth sharing. His is a charmed market, some would say. Domestically, the air service calls are inbound; international, however, is a marketing opportunity. Such is life at one of the fastest growing airports in North America.

In today’s tight construction environment, it might be said that Bob Ball had less of a challenge building an entirely new terminal complex to serve a rapidly growing market. A consideration, however, is the 9/11 factor: Just as Southwest Florida International was preparing to redefine itself, the world — and the plans — changed.

Recalls Ball, “We had reached the point where we had all the permitting done and all the financing in place and were ready to proceed with the site clearing. Then 9/11 hit. With the subsequent creation of the TSA [Transportation Security Administration] and the numerous mandates which came out of Congress, I had to make some vital decisions. Do we stop the project? Do we not build the project? We had bids on the street.”

The goal from the beginning, says Ball, was to create a state-of-the-art facility that would meet the needs of the Ft. Myers region long term. What may come off as an obvious objective gains in significance when one adds the perspective which Ball and his port authority had; namely, that this was an airport just built in 1982. Yet, by the mid-1990s, the terminal building was handling more than twice the number of passengers than intended in the original design capacity.

Ball’s initial challenge was to build a terminal complex that would attempt to keep ahead of unbridled regional growth. Now he and his staff had to add in the 9/11 factor, and a key component of that was the addition of an in-line explosives detection system (EDS) for baggage screening.

Accommodating the post-9/11 world
Besides the installation of the in-line system, the new realities led to a reevaluation of the entire design of the new terminal complex. A bomb blast analysis led to some structural reinforcements, says Ball, and redoing all of the “glazing” in the facility to meet Department of Defense standards as well as Hurricane 4 category standards. The changes didn’t stop there.

Explains Ball, “We had to relocate the security checkpoints. We have a very large meeter and greeter group here, because of the tourist nature and the senior demographics. We did not want to hurt our own revenues by not having meeters and greeters having accessibility to all of our food and beverage and news and gift concessions.

“Along with that, we did not want to be in a situation where if there was a breach in security we would have to dump or evacuate the entire facility. So we widened the throats to each of the concourses to add additional space for the security checkpoints to meet the new TSA standards.

“That did two things: it virtually eliminated any lines; and it also allows us that if we have an occurrence at one of the checkpoints, then we can just deal with an individual concourse without affecting the other two.”

Not wanting to open a new terminal with imposing EDS machines cluttering the lobby areas, Ball and his staff added a 20,000-square foot addition to accommodate the in-line system, becoming only the sixth commercial airport in the U.S. to install such a system. The additional cost totaled some $30 million, which Ball says was funded with passenger facility charges and redirecting monies from some future capital projects.

“Because we were sixth, we had a six-time better opportunity [to be successful],” comments Ball. “As I explained to my board, this is not something that you necessarily want to be leaders on in the country. There (are) 429 commercial airports in the country; wouldn’t it be better to be like number 300?

“But now we’re really, really pleased that we have it in, because it does provide a secure environment. We’re tinkering with it, but it works extremely well. I’m pleased I’m not amongst the 400 other airports that haven’t thought through it or done it, or who have all those big machines in the lobbies.”

As other airports have discovered, recouping the up-front funding for the in-line system from TSA has proven to be a formidable task. Ball says that Southwest Florida International was close to getting a letter of intent (LOI) from TSA, but the agreement fell through when Congress failed to adequately fund the agency. “I remain persistent,” says Ball.

Controlling airline costs
Despite the increased challenges and costs brought on by 9/11, the new terminal complex opened in September, 2005. Total cost came in at $438 million and included a new roadway system, parking, and rental car facilities.

“We have completed this project here of an entire new terminal facility, parking/roadway infrastructure, for under $438 million,” says Ball. “This is quite a monumental task. The total cost of this project is smaller than many of the change orders that other airports are endeavoring on. It’s comfortable; it reflects Florida; but it’s not overly designed or overly built.

“We’re anticipating with our new budget our cost per enplaned passenger will be $7.20.”

The latter point, he relates, is perhaps the most important. “We were committed to the airlines ... to really build a facility that is low-cost. I believe it’s important for airports to maintain a low cost structure to allow the airlines the opportunity to expand. We had an outstanding board [Lee County Port Authority] that allowed the staff to proceed without a lot of political management.”

The air carriers also played a major role in the decision making because Southwest Florida International Airport was in the midst of a residual lease agreement with the airlines, which expires in 2008.

Comments Ball, “We have a fully 100-percent residual agreement. Quite frankly, in those negotiations for the amendment to approve the project, in my opinion the airlines made a little error in that they did not address an additional term on the agreement. That means that we are beginning conversations relative to a new lease agreement. We as an airport certainly anticipate a different financial and structural arrangement.”

Does that infer moving to a compensatory agreement? “We can’t assume anything,” answers Ball. “We can assume that they’re going to say, ‘residual, residual’ in the first meeting; and I’ll say, ‘compensatory, compensatory.’ From there we’ll wind up with some kind of compromise.

“I have a reputation in the business of being very appreciative of our airlines. They know me. They also know my targeted goal is to maintain a very low-cost financial structure because that’s how we’ll have successful air service development.”

Regarding air service, Southwest Florida International continues to break passenger throughput records. In May, the airport recorded its tenth straight month of record-breaking traffic with some 604,000 passengers, a five percent increase from May 2006. The airport accommodated some 7.6 million passengers last year.

Built for growth
A visit to the Ft. Myers airport leaves the impression of a very open air, modern terminal that is inherently Florida in its flavor. At the end of the day, the Lee County Port Authority got what it needed — a terminal complex that was expandable.

The old terminal complex, now razed for future aeronautical development, was built to handle 1.5 million passengers annually. At the time of its early death, it was accommodating some 3.5 million.

According to Ball, the new facility is designed to ultimately handle some 10-12 million passengers. It’s 28 gates can be expanded to as many as 65, while the three-tier parking facility can structurally take on two more levels.

The airline has 41 daily non-stop destinations, 37 of which are domestic. It’s major carriers are Delta, Southwest, JetBlue, and Continental.

While domestically air service development at RSW is a matter of accommodation, international service is the current marketing challenge for the airport. “We’re attempting to get some Caribbean service,” explains Ball, “and also San Juan, which we think is an ideal hub to get into to open up Central and South America. We believe we have an excellent opportunity for Mexico service, due to the airport congestion and limited growth capacity of our East Coast airport friends. We have a very strong British market; we’ve been working on that for ten years — at least even on a scheduled charter basis.”

Other international prospects, says Ball, include the Netherlands and Germany. He says the addition of service by Air Berlin and LTU International Airways is helping to open up the European market for his airport. And, RSW is working closely with local Hispanic groups to study which markets may be the hottest south of the border.

Designing by example
Bob Ball came to Southwest Florida International in 1993 and was promoted to executive director in 1996. His resume includes management at South Bend, IN; Charlotte; and Jacksonville. He points out that when one looks around his new terminal complex, various components of other airports are evident. Just as he encourages other airports to contact his staff if they are looking to build, he says he learned from his experience at other airports and from watching what others have done.

“The main building is very similar to what we did at Jacksonville,” explains Ball, “with the two-level building. The upper/lower level roadway structure is very similar to the Charlotte project, and I had the benefit of being on that airport team.

“As it related to airside, we wanted to have a dual taxiing capability for airplanes pushing back, but at the same time we wanted to maintain very short walking distance, due to the demographics of our passengers. The airside is very similar to Reagan National Airport in D.C.

“We came up with a unique design where the rent-a-cars have their own building adjacent to the parking garage, which I believe is done at Buffalo, my hometown. Right behind that building, the first level of the parking garage is ready-return spaces. Then immediately behind that we kind of brought in the Tampa concept of a quick turnaround facility. It provides a tremendous customer service because it’s not in the baggage claim area.”

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