Orlando International Airport opened its first new terminal in more than 30 years this week. Aer Lingus inaugurated the $2.8 billion Terminal C, which will also soon house JetBlue Airways, with a departure to the UK on Tuesday.
The 15-gate facility comes as the airport is on the cusp of recovering to its 2019 passenger numbers with U.S. domestic ahead and only international lagging pre-pandemic levels, Greater Orlando Aviation Authority CEO Kevin Thibault said. He expects annual traffic numbers to surpass the 51 million passengers that Orlando handled three years ago early next year as international travel recovers further.
But that recovery comes with what few may realize: The current terminal complex was designed for about half the number of travelers that passed through its gates in 2019. Opened on September 20, 1981, the current terminal was built out in 1989 and its airsides completed in 2000. The airport has outgrown those facilities as the Orlando region has continued to grow as both a destination — Disney World, enough said — and origin market.
“If we were at that same [recovery] pace internationally [as domestically], we would be over 53 million passengers going through a terminal that was designed for 24 [million],” Thibault said. The airport has accommodated the traffic growth with tweaks and changes to its existing facilities but without the major capital expansion that Terminal C represents.
Terminal C, which cost $2.8 billion, increases the design capacity of the Orlando airport by about 12 million passengers annually. Its gates can serve both U.S. domestic and international flights, which gives the airport needed flexibility as international travel recovers and surpasses pre-Covid levels. And the facility is just the first phase of a much larger terminal complex that can be built out in future years as demand warrants.
U.S. airports will open more than $13 billion in new terminals and facilities this year as air travel surges back from the pandemic. Some highlights include a 16-gate concourse extension for Southwest Airlines in Denver, a new terminal for Delta Air Lines at Los Angeles (LAX), a new international arrivals facility at Seattle-Tacoma, and, coming later this year, a major new terminal at Newark Liberty.
All of these projects were planned before the pandemic and, despite the collapse in travel early in the crisis, continued with the foresight that passengers would return. And return they have: U.S. airlines carried just 11 percent fewer passengers, or 85 million people, in June compared to 2019, according to the latest Bureau of Transportation Statistics data. And, in early September, the Labor Day holiday weekend was the first time when U.S. Transportation Security Administration screenings surpassed 2019 numbers for an extended period since the pandemic began. In the early days of the Covid-19 crisis, many doubted air travel would fully recover before 2024 if not later.
Orlando is one airport where, at least domestic, travel has surged back. The market remains a seemingly “blackhole” — as some airport officials put it — of visitor demand with its theme parks, resorts, and other amenities. And, as one of the fastest growing areas in Florida, is increasingly an origin airport for the growing number of locals.
“Our airline partners that have been here for years, like the Deltas, tell us: ‘Your destination is still strong, and probably will always remain strong, but you’re increasing as an origin,'” Thibault said. “For them, it’s [where] is the greater Orlando area looking to travel to.”
The Orlando airport was the seventh busiest in North America in 2021, according to Airports Council International-North America data.
Terminal C is also a key piece in a multimodal vision for the Orlando airport. It will be the main Orlando station for rail operator Brightline when it begins running passenger trains to South Florida next year. The in-terminal station will facilitate air-rail connections for travelers, and make the airport something of the Union Station of intercity transportation for the Orlando area.
Brightline “is really going to be a gamechanger for this community,” Thibault said.
Before travelers begin catching trains at the airport, Orlando must finish opening Terminal C. Azul, British Airways, Emirates, and six more airlines will join Aer Lingus over the next few weeks. Anchor tenant JetBlue will move its roughly 50 daily departures on September 27.
Asked whether the airport was ready for the planned JetBlue and Spirit Airlines merger, Thibault said they are in active discussions with both airlines. The carriers are the sixth and second largest at the airport, respectively, by seats in September — and together the largest by seats — Diio by Cirium schedules show.
“At the end of the day, all I want to know is if it’s one-plus-one equals two? Because then I can plan for that,” he said of the merger.
As it is currently built, Terminal C cannot handle all of JetBlue and Spirit’s departures — about 125 daily flights — from Orlando. Thibault declined to comment on the airlines’ plans to consolidate operations at the airport if their merger successfully makes it through the regulatory approval process.
Orlando is already moving forward with an expansion of Terminal C. Four gates that were cut early the pandemic, as well as an improved connection between the terminal and Brightline station, are under construction.