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Navigating Through Construction at U.S. Airports


Somewhere in the bowels of the Minneapolis airport, a worker or two probably are doing some last-minute tinkering with the new passenger tram that's supposed to glide on air, beginning later this month.

In San Francisco, the tracks and machinery are being laid for the BART rail extension that will connect the city's airport with downtown next year.

In Detroit, a new $1.2-billion terminal will be unveiled in December.

Across the U.S., government and airline officials are spending tens of billions of dollars on airport expansions and improvements. Some of these projects are aimed at increasing traffic and reducing the delays that afflicted so many passengers last year, the tardiest year in U.S. air travel history. Other projects simply are efforts to make the airport experience less uncomfortable--adding skylights, restaurants and clubs for frequent fliers.

For the business traveler who struggles through these terminals, down these hallways and across these access roads, all this building activity is a two-edged sword: Soon we'll be counting on these shiny new amenities, but until they're up and running, we have scaffolding, tarpaulins and detours to contend with.

Here's a look at improvements, expansions, annoyances, replacements, upgrades and relocations travelers can expect at the busiest airports in the U.S. Many of these airports, such as New York's Kennedy International and Atlanta's Hartsfield International, are in the early stages of grand expansions that won't be done for several years. Others--most notably Los Angeles International--are handling far more passengers than they were built to serve, yet still await official decisions on whether to expand and how much.

ATL: At Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport (77.9 million passengers in 1999, the last year for which comparative statistics were available), a series of ground transportation improvements began in mid-January. Completion is expected by September.

Until then, peak construction hours are 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., but travelers are asked to arrive at the airport 45 minutes earlier than they ordinarily would.

The ground transport improvements, which carry a price tag of $6.4 million, are dwarfed by the work yet to come: a $5.4-billion redevelopment effort. A new rental car facility is scheduled for completion in 2003, and a new terminal for international flights, to be placed at the end of the existing Concourse E, is planned for completion in late 2004 or 2005.

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ORD: At Chicago's O'Hare International Airport (72.6 million passengers in 1999), a spokeswoman said the only project affecting travelers is construction along the departure-level roadway.

That work will reduce the number of available lanes from April to November. Though most of the work will be done 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., Chicago Department of Aviation spokeswoman Monique Bond recommends travelers arrive 90 minutes early for domestic flights (rather than the usual 60 minutes). Similar work on the arrivals level is expected to bring disruptions on a smaller scale.

Because the construction is clustered around the airport's domestic terminals, Bond said, passengers heading to Terminal 5 (which handles international flights) probably won't be affected.

At O'Hare's 25-gate Terminal G, American Airlines recently completed an $80-million renovation, adding skylights to brighten the facility and a new Admirals Club.

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LAX: Though Los Angeles city officials are busy sifting through a handful of long-term proposals to expand LAX (67.6 million passengers in 2000, up from 63.9 million in 1999), the decision isn't expected to reach the City Council until early 2002, and Federal Aviation Administration approval is required after that. In the meantime, LAX spokesman Scott Read said no major projects affecting travelers are planned in coming months.

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DFW: Officials at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (60 million passengers in 1999) said they have no major short-term projects, but plenty of larger, longer undertakings in the works.

In a $2.5-billion capital development campaign, the airport is adding a fifth international terminal, which will hold all international flights, and a new people-mover to circulate passengers among terminals. The airport-adjacent Hyatt West hotel is to be demolished in August and replaced by a new Hyatt Grand that will adjoin the new international terminal (which will be known as Terminal D).

Construction of the new terminal began last summer, and airport spokeswoman Tina Sharp said workers have raised the 50-foot-high pillars that will hold the new people-mover. Target completion date for all of these projects is 2005, Sharp said.

The new train-like people-mover system will replace the airport's existing rail shuttle, and is expected to reduce passage time between buildings.

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