Larger than John F. Kennedy International Airport, Los Angeles International Airport, and Miami International Airport combined, the Orlando International Airport (MCO) is the country's fourth largest, by acreage. But for all its land wealth, it struggles to move people efficiently. The current terminals can process between 40 and 45 million passengers each year—currently just under 43 million travelers fly into and out of MCO each year—and that limits what the facility can provide in terms of services. On some days, more travelers move through the current terminals than they are designed to accommodate, which leads to exceedingly long wait times and limits what the facilities can provide in terms of service.
Soon, however, the airport will break ground on South Terminal C, a $2.2 billion development set to open in 2020 and grow the airport's capacity to 55 million annual passengers. While the design by Fentress Architects integrates many future-focused elements, one of its touch points is something of a transportation relic: a passenger rail station. Brightline, a privately funded rail service, will soon begin its first leg between Miami and West Palm Beach. Eventually, it will extend north to Orlando and the airport.
As cities grow and traffic snarls roads, cities are focusing on building multimodal linkages to make car-free trips more tenable, including to and from airports. Orlando might not be the typical city that jumps to mind when you think of a hub for transportation innovation. MCO does, in fact, have the country's largest airport rental car fleet. Driving the 235 miles south to Miami, however, can take 5 hours in traffic compared to the 3-hour rail ride promised by Brightline. If successful, the rail integration might be a harbinger for greater intercity transit system integration across the country.
But it's not just the inclusion of rail travel that makes the new MCO terminal notable. While the design, per the airport's request, echoes the light- and flora-filled atmosphere of the existing terminal, it will also flip—both figuratively and literally—the conventional notion of how an airport terminal looks and feels, says Curtis Fentress, FAIA, president and CEO of Fentress Architects.
"When you arrive and go to bag claim, it's at the uppermost level, so you're bathed in daylight," he says. The topsy-turvy design approach will use baggage conveyance technology developed in Europe to move bags one floor up from plane level, rather than conventional gravity-fed systems that send them to a lower level after they've been unloaded. "So it's different than other airports, where you go to a basement to get your bags."
This immediately puts arriving passengers in a light-filled space. "When you're [departing], you're headed to your gate, you're not looking around. But when you're coming in, we want to keep you up in the light, where you can see the airport and can partake of amenities, whether that's food and drink, or retail," says Stan Thornton, chief operating officer of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority. "That [will make] a huge difference, especially for international visitors, as they go through the federal inspection system. Instead of [moving through] a sterile corridor, all walls and artificial light, you will be in natural light from the outside."
First impressions are paramount because the Orlando area is a major destination for leisure and business travelers, with 68 million visitors last year, according to Visit Orlando, outpacing Las Vegas as well as New York.
The Orlando Experience
Water features, live plants, and sunlight are the key design features of MCO's existing North Terminal and its trademarked theme: The Orlando Experience. The winning proposal for the South Terminal C needed to continue those themes, but what made Fentress Architects' submission stand out, says Thornton, was its success in doing so in a highly immersive manner, using technology.
The firm has become known for its airport designs, including those for the Denver International Airport and South Korea's Incheon International Airport. Dynamic electronic displays will serve multiple roles in the new MCO terminal, disseminating flight information, highlighting Orlando's many theme parks and outdoor recreation opportunities. Visitors will also be able to upload photos from their family vacations, turning the public displays into family scrapbooks for a few moments.
Thornton says the airport wants to personalize passengers' experiences. "So you're not one of the 70,000 people moving through [the South Terminal] on a given day, [but rather] so it's a personal journey that you'll remember, and want to return."
Personal and Profitable?
Passengers arriving via train or car will walk to the new terminal's ticketing area along a bright boulevard punctuated by restaurants and retail shops, through security, and then into a large palm-filled court where the bulk of the digital signage will be found.
Digital signage played an important, and profitable, role in a redesign of the Los Angeles International Airport, which Fentress completed in 2013. There, an 72-foot-tall elevator shaft is clad with a digital surface, and a series of 40-foot-tall panels cover a wall in a congregation space called the great hall.
The LAX airport authority's expectations that the redesign would make this space more compelling were exceeded, says Curtis Fentress. "They have found that people are spending time in that great hall space, and they're spending money, to the tune of about 33 percent more money than they originally estimated would be spent in that area of the airport," he says.
Travelers want the information and entertainment that the digital screens deliver, he says, "and mixing that with food and shopping makes it a more complete experience. So we're trying to capitalize on that kind of thing in Orlando, in the palm court."
Around the Rail
All Aboard Florida, the development company behind Brightline, has faced headwinds in its efforts to complete phase two—the northern leg from West Palm Beach to Miami. It has won lawsuits, focused on how the project was being financed, filed by opponents in the Treasure Coast region, which the railroad traverses.
A state senator introduced a bill earlier this year that would have forced Brightline to add new safety features that All Aboard Florida contends would have been duplicative and, in some cases, would have made the system less safe. The bill died in committee.
Ian Lockwood, the Orlando office director of planning, engineering and landscape architecture firm Toole Design Group (and former head of the Transportation Division for the City of West Palm Beach), says railways played a vital part in Florida's early development, and that "automobile-based expansions have failed Florida in terms of 'placemaking' and all aspects of sustainability." But, he believes that opposition to rail will be overcome and that "rail is fundamentally better suited to connect the major urban centers, between Orlando and Miami, compared to highways and airlines."
Brightline is still in the permitting process but spokesperson Ali Soule says it expects secure the permits it needs, including from the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Coast Guard, this year. When the train does eventually make its maiden voyage to Orlando, the station at MCO will have likely been completed long before. Its construction is already well underway.
SunRail, a commuter train system that serves the Orlando area, also plans to extend service to MCO. Rail transit integration is the fulfillment of a vision that Thornton says dates back to a master planning initiative that began in the late 1980s, and the two lines are far from afterthoughts in terms of design—they traverse through the center of the airport.
"This is the only terminal that I know of in the United States that said, 'Let's build multimodal in middle, ' " says Fentress.
The airport's board of directors recently issued the South Terminal's final green light, so groundbreaking will begin in January 2018.
The South Terminal is more than a decade in the making, says Thornton. Market forces, first following Sept. 11 and then the Great Recession, sidelined the project. But now, with the airport at near capacity in terms of the number of passengers it can serve, Thornton says: "We don't see anything—short of a disaster that no one has ever seen—to stop us from moving forward."