Taking D/FW to the skies: Airport prepares for growth, new terminal and more international traffic

Robert Francis rfrancis@bizpress.net New international flights, growing cargo traffic, an innovative customs facility and continuing improvements to terminals are a sign that the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport will continue to be a key component of the North Texas economy. That was the message delivered on Oct. 29 by Sean Donohue, D/FW Airport’s CEO, speaking at the Mayor’s International Luncheon at the Omni Fort Worth Hotel. According to estimates, the airport delivers $32 billion in economic impact annually to the region, about half of that in cargo. The now 40-year-old airport is in the midst of a $2.7 billion renovation, the Terminal Renovation and Improvement Program (TRIP) that will upgrade existing terminals to more closely resemble the airport’s Terminal E.

“The factory is 40 years old,” said Donohue. “You’ve got to update the factory.” The airport is busy, says Donohue and that has led to an increase in the TRIP budget that was originally $2.1 billion to $2.7 billion, he noted. “We originally planned to shut down seven or eight gates as we did construction, but we’re so busy we can’t shut but three or four at a time and that’s increased the costs of the project.” The airport has been focused on international travel in recent years and that too has paid off. International travel is up 39 percent in the past four years. Dallas/Fort Worth Airport recently added the world’s largest passenger jet, the Airbus A380 with both Qantas Airways and Emirates Airlines adding the jet to its routes to the airport.

The Qantas flight is 18 hours, but Donohue said the giant A380 makes it more comfortable. Price, who has traveled to Australia and China as mayor, noted the oddity of spending the day on a plane with business associates. “Nothing like getting on a plane and putting on pajamas – because they give everyone pajamas – with your business associates,” she said. “Sean was the first one to put his on, so everyone felt comfortable.” To make way for more international travelers, the airport has used technology to cut the amount of time international travelers have to wait at customs. “We have kiosks in the immigration hall and what that has led to is that 70 percent of our arriving customers use a kiosk,” said Donohue. “If you arrive without a checked bag, we’ll put you right through. We’re clearing them through in 20-25 minutes. It’s a great customer experience.”

“We primarily compete with Intercontinental in Houston, the Atlanta airport and Chicago for international travel,” Donohue said. To land those carriers, the airport has offered $50 million in incentives to airlines, primarily in the form of no landing fees and “other marketing benefits” for the first two years, he said. The payoff is great, with each added flight resulting in about $200 million in economic benefit for the area. “That’s a great return on investment,” he said. Part of that benefit directly translates to local commerce. Domestic visitors spend about $500 to $600 when they visit the area, but international travelers stay longer and spend between $2,000 and $3,000, Donohue said. Passenger traffic at the airport hit about 60.4 million in 2013 and is expected to increase to 70 million by 2020. To accommodate that increase, Donohue said airport officials will soon likely approve a sixth terminal. Earlier, airport officials indicated the new terminal will be south of Terminal D on the west side of the airport. Donohue also said Dallas/Fort Worth Airport carries 60 percent of the air cargo in the state. From Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, he noted, “within 24 hours you can reach about 50 percent of the country by truck and within 48 hours nearly 98 percent of the U.S.

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The airport has cargo service from Air China, China Air, and Singapore, Cathay Pacific, a new cargo service from Moscow and others. The challenge is, Donahue says, that “the imports are very strong, particularly from China, but in airline parlance, the airplane flies in pretty heavy, meaning there is lots of cargo coming in. “But our opportunity is in exports because the airlines are flying out pretty light.” Donohue has been serving as Dallas/Fort Worth Airport’s CEO for about a year. He was previously with Virgin Australia Airlines and United Airlines. A native of Massachusetts, he graduated from Boston College.

Price asked Donohue what his most interesting flying experience had been. Not surprisingly, it was when Donohue was with Virgin Australia. Virgin is led by crazy-like-a-fox billionaire Richard Branson. “When I was with Virgin Australia, we decided to have a concert on one of our airplanes,” he said. Branson decided to have the Black-Eyed Peas perform on a flight. So at 36,000 feet, Donohue found himself listening to a live performance of “I Got A Feeling,” in, he noted, a unique setting with poor acoustics. “I will tell you about half the customers liked it and about half didn’t,” he said.