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Commission OKs building temporary airport terminal for F1

Wednesday, June 27, 2012 by Charles Boisseau

The Austin Airport Advisory Commission has endorsed a fast-track project to build a $5 million international terminal to accommodate the thousands of visitors expected to descend on Austin in mid-November for the Formula 1 United States Grand Prix.


The commission voted 3 to 1 last night to recommend the building of what would amount to a temporary modular building, a facility that could process more than four times as many international travelers through customs and immigration checkpoints per hour than the existing Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The airport currently has just two gates to handle international travelers and only one of these gates has a loading bridge.


The $5 million price tag for a temporary building seemed too steep for Commission Member D’Ann Johnson, who voted against the proposal.


It is “expensive . . . to spend this much money for a temporary facility to bring in what amounts to as many people who go to a UT football game,” Johnson said. Later Johnson told In Fact Daily that she would prefer that the city make do with the existing facilities and push ahead with a planned expansion of the airport to handle more international traffic.


Shane Harbinson, assistant director of the airport, said of the 120,000 visitors expected to come to Austin for the Nov.16-18 grand prix about 50,000 are expected to arrive via aircraft. Of these, about 6,000 would probably fly here from abroad, Harbinson told In Fact Daily.


Other commission members were convinced that the facility was necessary and would be useful after the grand prix because it could be used while the airport goes through a planned expansion in 2014 and 2015. Harbinson said this later expansion would add six gates, including two new international gates. Airport officials hope after the expansion is completed in 2015 to land Austin’s first transatlantic flight, possibly a nonstop flight to London.


“He’s convinced me. I understand why they want to do it,” said Ernest Saulmon, who made the motion to authorize the city to go ahead with the project. Commissioner George Farris seconded the motion and they were joined by Commissioner Steven Hart. Commission Chair Dale Murphy, a professional engineer, recused himself from the vote to avoid any potential conflict of interest; he said he sometimes works with an engineering company that may be involved in the project.


Specifically, airport officials want to hire Siemens Industry Inc. to create and service a 25,000-square-foot temporary customs and immigration facility adjacent to one end of the airport. The price tag is up to $5 million and includes a 24-month service contract; there will also be three 12-month extension options not to exceed $150,000 each year.


The facility would contain baggage carousels, check-in counters, and primary and secondary customs and immigration processing booths. Siemens was chosen because it is the sole provider of this type of modular building, which it calls “CapacityPlus” terminals. Siemens says that it has installed these terminals around the world, including in South Africa, which built several temporary terminals for use during the 2010 World Cup, and most recently in London, which is gearing up for the Olympic games.


Airport officials are unsure whether they would buy the building or would lease it from Siemens. “Staff will negotiate the best deal,” Harbinson told In Fact Daily.


The airport currently can process just 90 to 120 international passengers per hour. The new terminal would allow the processing of about 400 passengers per hour. If the expansion is not approved, Harbinson said passengers flying here at peak times could suffer four- to five-hour-long waits to clear customs and immigration processing. The airport currently doesn’t have a need to handle high-volume international passenger traffic; Austin has one regularly scheduled international flight, a three-times-a-week AirTran flight to Cancun, Mexico.


But come November, Austin airport officials expect they will need to accommodate numerous international charter flights during the grand prix: five to six large aircraft with perhaps 400 passengers each; about 25 aircraft with about 200 passengers, and about 100 general aviation aircraft with a handful of passengers each, Harbinson said.


“For us to deliver it on time we need to start construction in mid-July,” Harbinson said. 

Backed with the OK of the commission, the next step is Austin City Council, which will consider the project during its meeting on Thursday.


Contact Charles Boisseau with comments, questions and news tips at

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