Transitioning from an old airport to a new terminal requires an incredible amount of detailed synchronization and infrastructure adjustments. The fact that the new (MSY) Louis Armstrong International Airport serving New Orleans and the surrounding region managed to do this smoothly, and overnight as planned, is a minor miracle. It took a lot of diligent work — and it happened.
There may be valid reasons to question parts of the process and long-term decisions involved in the construction of this massive project, but we should also pause to note the remarkable feat that was pulled off: to have moved all activities from one functioning terminal to another, in a matter of hours.
The communications team did an especially impressive job leading up to the changeover. The public open houses were a terrific opportunity for members of the community to see the new MSY firsthand. People could wander around the new terminal and actually appreciate the space without the pressures of missing a flight or finding their gate. The self-guided tour made the experience low-pressure and high-reward, as visitors gravitated to wherever their whims took them.
To be honest, I left the Oct. 24 open house feeling slightly underwhelmed. But looking back at it now that the airport is open, I think it was the perfect way to introduce community members to the new terminal. It was modest and honest — even to the point of parts of the project still being a shambles, at that point.
A few dark clouds looming over the new terminal are the absent flyover, the remote parking and rental car facilities, and the congested ground transportation handling. On the latter point, it’s worth remembering that the new terminal was designed before Uber and Lyft really took off and dramatically changed ground transportation patterns at airports nationwide. It will take a little time to straighten out how the new MSY coordinates rideshare flows.
But the MSY communications team seems to be taking all the bumps so far in stride, especially with regard to using social media to communicate with the public. I’ve been impressed to see the MSY Twitter feed, for instance, engaging with individual passengers who are confused by the transition or disgruntled about the new approach or parking logistics. Likewise, the email updates from the airport have been informative and comprehensive, without ever being confusing. In short, we can celebrate the airport for not only changing over to the new terminal, but also for communicating the process with grace and clarity.
There will most likely be occasional snafus involving getting to and from the airport. Access to the rental car lot is less than optimal. It’s inevitable that delays will happen, and that other surprises are in store for the new airport.
After all, airports are complex operations, and so many variables have to be in sync for it all to work. As much as people could sometimes deride the old airport, it was also the product of years and years of fine-tuning and careful management. We shouldn’t expect the new airport to be immediately perfect. And even after all the kinks get worked out, there will still be the inevitable hiccups now and then due to weather or airline computer systems. No amount of natural light and better restaurants can mitigate this reality.
The new terminal has opened, and it has a lot going for it. As former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu recently noted in this newspaper, it’s exciting to be one of the rare American cities that has undertaken a brand-new airport terminal project in the present moment. I hope that New Orleans can utilize its new terminal as a nexus for fresh ideas and creative solutions for our city and region. Now that the transition is complete, let’s see where we go from here.
Christopher Schaberg is Dorothy Harrell Brown Distinguished Professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans and the author of three books on airports, the most recent of which is "Airportness: The Nature of Flight."