Orlando International Airport opened the new $2.8 billion Terminal C last week. The 15-gate facility adds much needed capacity to the airport that has not opened a new terminal since 1989 despite there being seemingly insatiable demand for the market in the decades since. Aer Lingus and Gol inaugurated the terminal, and will be joined by eight more airlines in the coming weeks, including anchor tenant JetBlue.
Work on the new terminal began before the pandemic and, despite the collapse in travel early in the crisis, continued with the expectation that passengers would return. And return they have: 2.23 million flyers boarded flights in Orlando in July, or 6 percent more than in July 2019, according to the latest airport data. Rolling 12-month numbers, however, are still slightly below levels seen last three years ago.
And, in September and October, Orlando is one of just eight large- and medium-sized U.S. airports where seats are scheduled to be up from pre-pandemic levels by double digits, Airlines for America data show. But this growth is already raising questions about what’s next for the Orlando airport; for one, where does Spirit Airlines go if its merger with JetBlue goes through.
Kevin Thibault, CEO of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, recently sat down with Airline Weekly Editor Edward Russell in the new terminal to discuss the facility and the airport’s recovery. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Airline Weekly: When do you expect annual traffic numbers to fully recover from the pandemic?
Kevin Thibault: One of the statistics that still impacts us is obviously international travel. So we continue to leverage the partnerships that we have, and seeing how we can resume some of that international travel. It’s literally on the cusp when you talk to those airlines, it’s like: “Yeah, I’m almost there.” Clearly, the Asian markets are obviously in a different ballpark, but European [markets] are getting there. And, domestically, it’s just amazing to see really the resiliency of this airport and region.
I think it’ll be probably a little bit into 2023 before we surpass 2019. Right now our rolling 12 months is about over 47 million passengers. Remember we were at 51 million. So, again, it’s all going to be dependent upon what happens with the international.
AW: Staffing issues have been a challenge for many airlines and airports this summer. What is the situation here?
KT: For now, what we’re seeing is concessionaires are able to provide the staff that’s needed to support the operations. Clearly, our airline partners, as you mentioned, are having the biggest challenge.
We have had to be proactive in our recruitment and retention. We’ve had to do some adjustments with salaries, some changes to some of our benefits, and to introduce a hybrid work policy, where possible. And, actually, we’ve seen increased interest in coming on board.
AW: Orlando recently received a $50 million Bipartisan Infrastructure Law grant. What are your thoughts on the airport terminal grant program?
KT: The positive is that they — the U.S. Congress and administration — said, “Hey, we need to invest in all of our infrastructure, including our airport terminals.” Prior to the law, that wasn’t part of the program. I get that it’s almost like bites to the elephant, you guys take a little bite. We would hope to see that the success of the program generates additional focus, and additional resources in future reauthorizations.
And there’s always a reauthorization. Like they’ve seen with TIFIA [Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act]. TIFIA is a really good example, when it came out it had a lower threshold, but they saw what it could do and they kept raising that threshold. The airport terminal program should be able to do the same.
AW: Switching gears, what does the planned JetBlue-Spirit merger mean for the airport?
KT: It’s all about how to prepare for what it ends up happening. I’ve had the opportunity to meet with representatives from both JetBlue as well as Spirit. And I’ve said: “I understand that this is a multi-year process. But at the end, all I want to know is, is it one plus one equals two or what is the outcome?” Then I can plan for them, clearly, at this new terminal. JetBlue will be the lead, they’ll be already here, so what do I need to do to accommodate them three years from now?
AW: The population of the Orlando region is one of the fastest growing in Florida. What does that mean for the airport?
KT: That’s one of the challenges we’ve got. Our airline partners that have been here for years, like the Deltas and all, have told us exactly that. They’ve said, “Your destination is still strong, and probably will always remain strong. But you’re increasing as an origin.” And, for them, it’s about where is Orlando looking to travel to? That changes the mix a little bit.
The other thing is what we provide as relates to amenities starts to change. What you see in some of the concession areas needs to change a little bit because what origin traffic is looking for is different than that of the destination traffic. The other challenge we have is parking. That’s a true indication of the origin increasing.
AW: Another big change is the arrival of Brightline passenger trains from South Florida next year. One could say the airport will become the Union Station, so to speak, of intercity transportation in the Orlando area.
KT: It’s really going to be a game changer for this community. I tell the team: “If Brightline is as wildly successful as they anticipate they are, we may be needing more parking than for somebody that never gets on a plane.”