These men and others may seem like Chicken Little now, but at the time, even those at the newly founded, quasi-public Rhode Island Airport Corporation were worried. There was no guarantee that a new terminal would bring in business or draw out-of-state travelers. And the Airport Corporation was in financial trouble -- a month before the airport's new terminal opened on Sept. 25, 1996, the airport corporation said that it did not think it could pay off $36 million in back debt, blaming poor passenger traffic, and tried to push the cost on to the taxpayers.
At first, the critics seemed vindicated. After the excitement of that opening gala died down, the first month in the new terminal seemed anticlimactic: the building was cavernous and empty as it drew no more passengers than the old terminal.
"The first month was kind of scary because we had this big new building and the same amount of traffic as before," said Patti Goldstein, at the time an assistant project manager on the terminal construction and now the airport's vice president of public relations.
Elaine Roberts had been named the first chairwoman of the recently created Airport Corporation in 1994, and the terminal project was hers to shepherd through. The night of the black-tie gala, she remembers feeling excitement, tinged with trepidation.
"I felt comfortable that the terminal was going to be a huge success in terms of public approval. It was hard not to walk through there and go, 'Wow, this is fantastic.' But . . . you can have a beautiful airport, but you still have to have the flights to succeed," Roberts said.
Southwest Airlines was the holy grail to the terminal's supporters. At the time, the Dallas-based, low-cost carrier was expanding nationwide, setting off price wars at every airport it touched by offering regular routes at smaller airports near major cities, at prices far lower than the existing carriers. It was a phenomenon known as the "Southwest Effect" in the industry, and the company, whose nearest stop was Baltimore, was looking to bring it to New England.
If T.F. Green could convince Southwest to make Providence its gateway into New England, airport officials felt certain their new terminal would succeed. Sundlun began courting Southwest's New Jersey-born cofounder, Herb Kelleher.
"He said that if we did it, Southwest would come. I told him to put it in writing. He told me to go to hell. He told me to build a terminal, and he'd be there," Sundlun said.
Airport corporation Chairwoman Roberts did the heavy lifting in wooing Southwest, trying to show the company that the demand existed. But with a month to go before the terminal was open, Southwest still had not committed.
"There was only one new gate unleased in the terminal. They wanted two gates. They were reluctant to do it; it was their first time coming into New England," she said. Then, a couple of weeks before the terminal opened, Southwest signed on, promising to start service on Oct. 27, 1996.
The day Southwest arrived, it was like the circus came to town, via the runway. Southwest's arrival sparked an immediate fare war, as the airport's existing carriers added flights and slashed prices to keep up with the discount airline. Travelers flocked to Warwick from the Boston area to take advantage of the low fares, and almost immediately the airport was building a four-gate expansion to let Southwest and other carriers grow, bringing the terminal to 340,000 square feet.
For Kelleher and his company, it was a defining experience that showed what his company was all about, as he related in an article in the June 2006 issue of Southwest's in-flight magazine, Spirit.
"You can do a lot of good for the American people just by the way you do business. Look at Southwest Airlines. If you don't think that going into Providence and increasing the air traffic in Providence, Rhode Island, 91 percent within three months is helping the American people, then you're wrong," he said.
For Green, it was a historic boom, and a moneymaker at that. The airline used its new revenues to pay off its debt, and became a favorite son of Rhode Island's business interests, which credit the airport with more than $1 billion annually in economic activity.
Roberts, who left in late 2000 to head the Columbus Regional Airport Authority, describes those heady early days as "Wild and crazy, absolutely."
"It was beyond our best hope or dream that [Southwest] would grow that fast or get that big that quickly. For the next two or three years, we were one of the three fastest-growing airports in the country. . . . It was certainly exciting," she said.
Passenger totals at T.F. Green Airport in Warwick trailed off 1.6 percent last month, the fourth consecutive monthly drop, according to a report from the Rhode Island Airport Corporation.
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