The newest economic engine at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport is revving up for an Oct. 29 takeoff, and concessionaires are relieved.
After more than two painful months waiting for customers to walk through the newly built international terminal, shop owners are eager to hear their cash registers ring.
Most of the 63 retail spots were ready for business at the end of July. But their main source of income -- American Airlines and its 12,000-15,000 daily passengers -- has been noticeably absent from the terminal. For the past two months, six other international carriers have been flying from nine of the terminal's 28 gates, bringing in about 4,200 passengers a day. American left the remaining gates dormant while it worked with D/FW officials to fix some of the kinks in the terminal's $1.2 billion automated baggage system.
American announced Tuesday that it will start flying from Terminal D in late October -- 98 days late.
"It's better than Jan. 1," said Jeff Payne, a partner in the new Cousin's Bar-B-Q restaurant, which opened for five days in July but couldn't stay open. It will reopen by the time American is up and running.
"A lot of the damage is done, but this just minimizes it," he said. "I feel a lot better just knowing a date."
The announcement of a move-in date sets in motion a series of events that concessionaires were planning for months, including another round of hiring, staff training, final construction jobs, and applications for certificates of occupancy and alcohol sales.
"We'll have to staff back up," said Gina Puente-Brancato, whose family owns 15 shops at the airport, including five in Terminal D. Three are open now in the south end of the terminal. "We did hire up originally, but then we had to hire down."
Puente-Brancato plans to hire 15 to 20 workers over the next month.
Her husband and her father are also partners in a separate restaurant group that runs the Marché. Sitting at the south end of the terminal, the Marché is a collection of restaurants including Fuddruckers, Railhead Smokehouse, 360 Degree Gourmet Burrito and Einstein Bros. Bagels.
Concessionaires have been grouped into two 40,000-square-foot areas in the terminal: at the north end, where American will operate, and the south, where the other international airlines are.
Generally, concessionaires at the south end have been able to remain open while those at the north end remained closed. But even those in the south end have felt the pinch. Puente-Brancato estimates her family's shops there are generating about 33 percent of expected revenue.
"On any given time in the airport business, you will have the black sheep of the business," Puente-Brancato said. "There's always the strong ones and the weak ones. Unfortunately Terminal D has the weak ones, and we're living through it."
Concessionaires are getting by because the airport made it a point to choose business owners for the new terminal who were well-capitalized and could weather the ups and downs of airline traffic.
"We were looking for people who could bring in good products and had the financial capability to weather the storm," said Jeff Fegan, the airport's chief executive. There's risk associated with operating a shop in the airport. He added: "Just ask concessionaries who had space in Terminal E before and after Delta left."
Running a business anywhere inside the secured area of an airport means extra expenses such as badges and background checks for employees. That's in addition to the usual training that new hires must go through at any job. Owners were reluctant to lay off their new hires because of rehiring costs.
"Everybody that's out there has a lot of money at stake," said Gilbert Aranza, chief executive of Dallas-based Star Concessions, which will operate three upscale restaurants on the north end: Cantina Laredo, Champps and Cool River Café. "We have managers we've kept on the payroll because the opening date keeps moving."
D/FW officials are quietly asking American -- the dominant market-share leader -- to spread its flights more evenly across gates.
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After three quiet months of waiting, concessionaires are sweeping away frustrations and building up their staffs for a Saturday opening.