Mayor Mitch Landrieu, city officials, and officials from Jefferson and St. Charles parishes, as well as the staff at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, unveiled the results of the airport's $300 million renovations at an announcement and ribbon cutting today. A crowd gathered at the foot of a stage in the airport's renovated lobby, while travelers dodged the crowds and cameras snapping at the dramatic makeover inside MSY.
Floating art pieces hung above welcome banners announcing Super Bowl XLVII, and new seats, restaurants, carpeting, and coats of paint shed the airport's notoriously drab past. (Read about the city's Super Bowl transportation and readiness in this week's Gambit.)
"This is going to be the largest Super Bowl platform in history," Landrieu said. "It's going to be very different in scope and intensity than the one we did post-Sept. 11."
Landrieu said the city, both in the public and private sectors, spent $1.2 billion on the region's Super Bowl prep, including $77.5 million on street and highway projects, $336 million at the Superdome, $93 million at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, and an estimated $500 million among new restaurants, retailers and other private businesses. Landrieu also promised the readiness of the city's taxi fleet. "I have the scars to prove it," he said.
"The naysayers said it couldn't be done in time," Landrieu said. "Ladies and gentlemen, we're ready. We're Super Bowl ready."
Airport director Iftikhar Ahmad has led the airport's changes since 2010, when he replaced Sean Hunter, who resigned. Among the updates: new concessions, including include Zatarain's Kitchen, two Copeland's cafes, WOW Wingery, PJ's Coffee, and a full-service Dooky Chase restaurant; new upholstery and carpeting, color schemes, and bathrooms; retailers like Perlis and New Orleans Saints and Hornets merchandisers; and a $90 million rental car facility.
"We have had an unprecedented level of cooperation between the executive branch and the legislative branch in the last three years," Landrieu said. New Orleans City Council vice president Jackie Clarkson added, with a laugh, "We pushed this through faster legally than anything we've ever done. A fine line there, but we did it."
Ahmad anticipates more than 42,000 travelers through the airport during the Super Bowl, while 200 charter flights will also land at MSY, where lanes for taxiing planes will serve as parking lots for more than 200 aircraft.
Ahmad told Gambit the cooperation with City Hall has been "phenomenal," but wants to clarify that the airport's transformation is not just for the Super Bowl — and it's not yet a world class airport, he said. "I don't think we're there. We're far from it."
But since Ahmad took the reins in 2010, he and his staff, as well as City Hall (he has daily conversations and updates from Landrieu's office), have worked to make it one. What he inherited was an airport "in a really bad situation," he said. "It had lost its bearings. ... Most of the airports in the U.S., by ‘60s and ‘70s, had figured out their airports — what location, and what governance. In the 2000s, we were still struggling here in Louisiana."
Financially, the airport's bond ratings are ranked "positive" from Moody's and Fitch. Among Ahmad's other goals — like customer service and concessions overhauls — is expanding air service. It now carries airlines like Spirit and Air Canada, as well as charter flights to Cuba, and a 35 percent increase in service from Southwest Airlines. The airport also expanded retailer's hours of operation from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. (formerly 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
Among the interior improvements (more than $23 million), URS Perez architects added better lighting, plants, additional security checkpoint lanes, a customer relations center, and retro-futuristic furniture and designs. The $26 million expansion of Concourse D, designed by Sizeler Thompson Brown architects, adds six gates with concession space. The airport also updated roadway signage coming into and exiting the airport.
The airport has an annual impact of nearly $3 billion — it does 80 percent of air traffic in Louisiana. The state's six other airports share the remaining 20 percent. "We are the state’s airport," Ahmad said.
Ahmad recognizes that the impending traffic of the Super Bowl energized City Hall, but Ahmad hopes the city maintains its airport-centric momentum as it prepares for the city’s 300th anniversary, among other events. "We want to continue this pathway, and we see much more they should expect out of this airport in the coming years," he said. "There needs to be a vigorous and the same type of energy for those plans. ... For Super Bowl, people got off the dime for it. ... The Super Bowl itself didn’t change things, but there’s a lot of change in leadership, and some energy that walked into the room, and they used Super Bowl as a reason or rallying cry."