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.
Airberlin is still the only airline to offer international transcontinental flights to RSW, carrying hundreds of tourists every year between Fort Myers and Dusseldorf.
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