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Council shoots down plan for $5 million temporary airport terminal

Friday, June 29, 2012 by Charles Boisseau

Saying it would cost too much and benefit too few, Austin City Council members rejected a proposal to build a $5 million temporary airport terminal in time for this November’s inaugural Formula 1 United States Grand Prix.


Council voted 7-0 Thursday night not to go forward with a proposal from officials with Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to contract with Siemens Industry Inc. to attach a modular building to the existing terminal to handle international travelers who would require screening through U.S. customs and immigration checkpoints.


Twenty people had signed up to speak during the public comment period, but just one, Juan Oyervides, executive director of the Hispanic Contractors Association of Austin, made it to the lectern to voice opposition. None of the other citizens spoke because Council Member Bill Spelman, noting the other 19 also opposed the plan, made a sudden motion to disapprove the proposal after he and Council Members Kathie Tovo and Chris Riley and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole raised a series of questions.


“This is a huge expenditure we are contemplating for a few people,” Tovo said. “It’s a huge expenditure of taxpayer dollars for international travelers.”


Patti Edwards, the city’s director of operations at ABIA, clarified that the money for the facility wouldn’t come from city taxpayers, but from parking, concession and other fees collected by the airport. But Spelman later indicated this was nitpicking, because most of those fees were paid by city residents one way or another.


Tovo asked if Circuit of Americas was approached to share in the cost of the terminal.


“We’ve not had any discussions with them about cost sharing,” Edwards said, adding that airport officials were motivated by improving the experience that international travelers have when coming to Austin. Without adding the modular terminal, international travelers flying directly to Austin on charter aircraft for the Formula 1 race may face several hour waits at peak times. That’s because Austin can handle just 90 to 120 passengers per hour through customs and immigration checkpoints. Airport officials said the temporary terminal, which would have a lifespan of five to 10 years, would be able to handle 400 passengers per hour.


A number of Council members questioned why international passengers couldn’t fly to airline hubs in Dallas and Houston, where they would clear customs and then fly a connecting domestic flight to Austin.


“We’re not providing the best customer service to customers in Austin. It’s an inconvenience,” Edwards said. “It’s generally a 12-hour trip from overseas. It’s adding an additional four hours” to fly a connecting flight here.


Leffingwell, who served as a Delta Air Lines’ pilot for more than 30 years before joining City Council, responded: “I’ve done it. I know exactly what you mean.”


Leffingwell also asked, “under whose initiative” did airport officials come up with the plan to build the temporary facility in which Siemens was preselected using a sole-source process. Edwards said airport staff, not Circuit of Americas, proposed the terminal after the airport began fielding inquiries about accommodating large international flights for the Nov. 16-18 race. Siemens was tapped because it is the only company that provides a “turn-key” terminal equipped with all the necessary facilities needed to clear international passengers through customs and handle their bags.

While no scheduled airlines plan to add international flights for the Formula 1 race, charter airlines do not need to notify the airport until 30 days before they intend to fly. That means the airport doesn’t know precisely how much international traffic will come here for the race, though they guessed it would be six to 11 flights with several hundred passengers on each, citing the experience of Indianapolis, which previously hosted the Formula 1 grand prix. However, Council members and their staff called this estimate into question, saying an independent check with Indianapolis indicated that these were mostly domestic charter flights.


Nevertheless, Edwards, citing figures stated at an airport advisory committee meeting earlier this week, said each charter might bring the airport $9,000 in landing fees and other revenue.


Spelman then made a quick calculation. “We’d need to have 606 charters to pay for this,” said Spelman. He indicated that no one expected the temporary terminal to draw more than a handful.


Edwards said that after the Formula 1 race was over, airport officials had planned to make use of the modular building to handle existing international flights (Austin has five international flights a week, all to Cancun) and other charter flights lured by future events at the Circuit of Americas. Also, airport officials had hoped the temporary building could fill a need the airport has to handle passengers while construction projects are underway, most immediately a plan to add much-needed additional space for security screening and more space for customs clearing in the existing terminal.


Saying he’s heard complaints from travelers about lengthy lines at security checkpoints, Riley shifted focus to what seemed a more vital near-term project of adding 12 more security screening stations. Edwards said the project would begin in January with completion slated in 18 to 24 months.

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