Southwest Florida International Airport Enhances the Passenger Experience

Nov. 13, 2023

The Southwest Florida International Airport has been making significant advancements to meet the growing demands of air travel. In 2022, the airport completed the building of a new air traffic control tower and is currently undergoing a terminal expansion initiative set to transform the airport's passenger experience.

The Need for an Air Traffic Control Tower Building:

To accommodate current and future air traffic operations, the airport decided it was necessary to construct a second parallel runway.

However, the construction of this new runway would have obstructed the lines of sight from the existing control tower. To address this, a new, more central midfield control tower was deemed necessary.

Lee County Port Authority and Southwest Florida International Airport Deputy Executive Director for Development Emily Underhill said, "In addition, the old tower TRACON facility didn't meet current fire codes or hurricane codes and lacked space to adequately serve the airspace needs of RSW, which is the second busiest single runway airport behind San Diego.”

Challenges Faced During the Control Tower Project:

The project encountered a significant challenge when Hurricane Ian struck the region, making landfall in Fort Myers as a Category 4 hurricane with 150 mph winds.

The airport was forced to close to commercial traffic for approximately six days, with a full airport closure for two days.

Underhill said the storm resulted in interruptions and some damage to the construction, including the demobilization and remobilization of the project site.

“The storm did cause interruptions and some damage to our project construction, including FA had to demobilize and remobilize the site. Fortunately, the damages to our project weren't that extensive,” she said. “We had some losses to cameras and exterior lights, rooftop safety hatches, loss of power, and loss of landscaping, and obviously the need for lots of power washing because a lot of things needed to be cleaned."

Preparedness for Natural Disasters During Construction:

The airport’s experience highlights the importance of having emergency disaster plans in place before the onset of construction. Underhill said these plans should encompass essential elements such as emergency contact information, secure storage for construction equipment, and evacuation strategies for non-essential staff during storms.

"You need to make sure that your contractors have emergency disaster plans in place at the start of the project,” Underhill said.

She said having a network of vendors or partner airports for assistance during and after a natural disaster is crucial.

“Make sure that your organization has the necessary expedited emergency procurement practices in place that allow you to purchase goods and services in an emergency manner that may not follow the normal procurement paths,” Underhill said. 

Key Features of the New Control Tower:

The design of the new control tower incorporated several unique features. On the exterior, a glass elevator provides views of the terminal and airfield. Architectural fins enhance the tower's slender shape, and a curved roof wing design element adds visual interest.

The tower also boasts exterior uplighting with programmable light shows and an exterior catwalk on the upper level, offering a 360-degree walkway with panoramic outdoor views.

"From the exterior, we have a glass elevator that goes up the entire height of the tower that provides a stunning view of the terminal and the airfield on the ride up, from the ground level to the junction level,” Underhill said.

The Terminal Expansion Project:

Starting in 2017, the project began with the intention of expanding security checkpoints and related work. It evolved into Phase One, which consolidates security checkpoints into a central checkpoint and expands post-security concessions. Phase Two, slated to begin in October 2024, will introduce 14 new gates and a new concourse, named Concourse E.

The scope of the project includes the construction of a connector between the existing concourses B, C, and D. This post-security walkway will allow passengers to seamlessly move between all three concourses, enhancing convenience and efficiency.

The terminal expansion project is currently two-thirds of the way through its three-year timeline.

This phase of the project has presented challenges due to its proximity to public and security checkpoint locations and its extensive work within operational areas.

Underhill said the airport faces seasonal peaks in traffic, making the project's implementation even more complex.

"Right now, we just hit the two-year mark, which is two thirds of the way. It's a three-year project,” she said. “Right now, the project has a lot of challenges as far as it relates to implementing complex phasing due to its proximity to the public at security checkpoint locations and extensive work footprint within airside operational areas."

Atkins Project Director and principal in charge, Darin Larson said Phase One has presented unique challenges as it required creating a new checkpoint space within the operational terminal while minimizing disruption.

"We're trying to create a new checkpoint space in the middle of their terminal and construct it while the terminal remains in operation,” he said. “…"It's a very complex series of phases of work, all developed around making sure the airport continues to operate smoothly.”

A critical aspect of this complex project was coordination with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) due to evolving screening processes and equipment. Larson highlighted the necessity of flexibility in project planning to address these evolving factors.

"Planning for a range of possible solutions and creating the necessary infrastructure for emerging technologies is crucial," Larson stressed.

Underhill said the expanded terminal promises an open and inviting space for passengers, new food and retail concessions, restaurant facilities, and modern amenities.

"Just the expansiveness of the area... it's going to be very inviting and relaxing for our passengers to spend time in those areas before they head to their gates,” she said.

The expansion project will provide the airport with the flexibility to adapt its capital investment to match projected demand. Larson highlighted this adaptability, explaining, "The airport has the flexibility to decide six months from now which size of concourse they want to go ahead and invest in. It's an interesting aspect of giving the airport flexibility in balancing their capital investment with their projected growth demand."