At the black-tie opening gala for the new terminal at T.F. Green Airport 10 years ago, promise mixed with champagne and views of the runway in a building this newspaper described as having "gravity-defying energy."
That night, the terminal was aglow, as Gov. Lincoln Almond and his predecessor, Bruce Sundlun, celebrated the culmination of a project they had rammed through over strong opposition and widespread skepticism, with promises that it could double passenger traffic in 10 years.
Underneath the glitz, however, those running the airport couldn't shake nagging doubts -- what if the gamble didn't work? Was it all too much?
The terminal project was Sundlun's baby and, ultimately, his legacy. The old terminal, built in 1961, was decrepit, a dark, moody, outdated building where the baggage claim smelled of the nearby trash area; nearly all agreed it needed replacement.
But there was little support for building a large, modern facility. Rhode Island had just emerged from the savings-and-loan scandal, and cost overruns on the Jamestown-Verrazzano Bridge had made the public mistrustful of large government projects. The airline industry was losing money and retrenching, and carriers openly doubted that Rhode Island had the demand to support such a large facility.
In 1988, voters had approved a $28.5-million bond to build a new terminal, money that would have been enough for a small terminal. Sundlun wanted more. " 'It's not going to work,' I said. 'We've got to have a two-story terminal.' That shook everybody up," Sundlun recalled last week. "They thought what we had was perfectly good. I knew the terminal we had was inadequate. I knew that air travel was increasing, and if we had a new terminal, we could tap into that."
Shortly after taking office in 1991, he threw out the existing plan and replaced it with designs for a two-story, 15-gate, 270,000-square-foot glass behemoth that would eventually cost $210 million, drawing anger from foes who thought Sundlun's plan was overly grand and his approach too unilateral.
Leading the opposition was former West Warwick Mayor and Sundlun gubernatorial opponent J. Michael Levesque, who in 1992, called the project a "boondoggle," and led protests outside the airport drawing attention to an endeavor he thought was doomed. Former Woonsocket Rep. Gerald Martineau said that he and many of his colleagues in the General Assembly thought that Sundlun had "lost it" and tried to halt the project.
Sundlun pushed his terminal through anyway, and as 10 years of crowds can attest, the doubters were wrong. The projections that the 2.4-million passenger load could double in 10 years turned out to be underestimations -- it took just a year to clear 4 million. Last year, the airport served close to 5.7 million passengers, and its operating revenue was $47 million. In 1996, half of the regional airport's 82 daily departures were propeller planes, and the rest small jets. Today, nearly all of the 108 departures are larger jets.
The problem, if anything, is that T.F. Green was too much of a success, too soon, creating long lines and more traffic than anticipated -- if that can be called a problem.
Today, Levesque laughs at his massive misjudgment.
"Oh boy, was I ever wrong on that - and let me tell you, Governor Sundlun doesn't let me forget it. I had to eat a little crow on that," Levesque said last week. "I've been wrong before -- but this one was a whopper."
In 1997, when the terminal was named for Sundlun to honor his foresight, Martineau also did an about face. "I wish to publicly acknowledge that I have never been so wrong on any issue in the 11 years that I have served in the Rhode Island General Assembly," he wrote in a letter to the editor.
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 traffic kept increasing, peaking last year. It has tailed off in the past year as airlines have cut routes nationwide, but at Green, the talk is all of future expansion. The airport is studying the impact of extending its runway to accommodate nonstop transcontinental routes. At the same time, the terminal is undergoing an $83.5-million renovation to expand concessions and security checkpoints and move unwieldy security equipment out of the main concourse, thus cutting down on congestion. The expansion to almost 450,000 square feet is on schedule, and expected to be completed toward the end of 2007.
The success of the terminal has even turned some of its staunchest foes into converts -- and now, has them spreading the faith.
By coincidence, former terminal opponent Levesque was reached for comment on his cell phone while in the T.F. Green terminal, after flying in from Washington.
"Irony has its place in political history," Levesque said, chuckling as he related how he now uses the size, beauty and convenience of the airport in business pitches in his current job, as outreach coordinator for Harrah's Entertainment.
"I just stepped off a plane . . . and I love the fact that out-of-staters brag about our airport. It was a wonderful idea," he said.
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