Louis Armstrong International Airport's move to a new terminal on the north side of the airfield will be delayed until May, or one year after the original plan, because of a faulty sewer line, a consultant told the Aviation Board on Thursday.
That means the transfer to the new terminal is now scheduled to occur on May 15, after the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival — a big tourist draw — ends on May 6.
Airport officials had been planning to open the new terminal on Feb. 20, before the Carnival season.
The latest postponement was caused by the need to install another underground sewage pipe at the new terminal after unsteady soils caused the original one to shift its position below ground.
The cost of the fix for the nearly half-mile of pipe will be $7.5 million, said Chris Spann, the consultant who spoke to the board Thursday.
He said that $35 million in extra funding obtained recently by the airport — including $19 million from the Federal Aviation Administration — will cover the extra sewer cost as well as a litany of small improvements.
Airport officials put a brave face on the development.
"The main thing is to get it right," said Doug Thornton, an Aviation Board member who runs the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. "We don’t want to have to do it again."
Spann said contractors discovered the problem before they covered the pipe in concrete.
"We’re very fortunate we found the sewer line issue when we did," he told the board. "If we had discovered it after opening, we would have no functioning bathrooms. … It allows us to address it before opening the terminal."
Soil subsidence also caused delays in the pouring of concrete to create the airfield’s new apron, but airport officials said they overcame that problem weeks ago.
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"It's gumbo soil in New Orleans," said Roger Ogden, a local developer and an Aviation Board member.
The new terminal, which was built on some 7,000 pilings, has remained firmly in place, according to Spann.
The sewage pipe issue marks the third time that airport officials have had to push back the planned opening of the new terminal, originally slated for May of this year but pushed back at one point to October and later to Feb. 20, 2019.
The new facility will have a wide, open feel and feature a broader array of restaurants, easier access to the gates, a modern baggage system and the latest technology. When it opens, the current terminal facing Airline Drive will close.
It’s become as much a staple of summer in New Orleans as mosquitoes and sweat stains: the dreaded “lot full” sign at Louis Armstrong Internati…
The cost of the repairs necessitated by the sewer problems is negligible in the context of the overall price tag — about $1.25 billion — of the new airport terminal and connecting roadways. Airlines and passengers will bear about 70 percent of the cost, with federal, state and local taxpayers covering the rest.
Then-New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the Aviation Board — most of whose members are appointed by the mayor — decided in April 2013 to build the new terminal instead of choosing one of three competing alternatives that would have kept the terminal on the south side of the airfield.
Airport officials were first publicly alerted to the sewer line problem at an Aviation Board meeting in May by Spann, who reported that subsidence had lifted up the 2,400-foot-long pipe in enough places that officials needed to construct a new line that would pump out the sewage. The original pipe had relied upon gravity.
“It goes from the terminal to the lift station,” Thornton said in a recent interview. “It’s the main sewer line. It’s good we found it out now.”
Contractors discovered the latest problem — by running a camera through the pipe — before paving over it. But rather than replace the existing pipe, they decided to build a new one over it.
The contracting team hired to build the new terminal, a joint venture called Hunt Gibbs Boh Metro, took great care to try to prevent any subsidence of the notoriously unstable soils around the airport.
Every night for 44 weeks, 500 times a night, a truck would dump a load of sand in the area planned for the new terminal and roadway.
Despite these measures, the ground subsided perceptibly once construction workers began pouring concrete on the terminal apron, where the airplanes will move about.
Construction underway, new terminal designs at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International airport
Addressing the problem slowed work on the apron, but airport officials believe they fixed it, at a cost of about $3 million.
Subsidence at the airport is not a new challenge.
The apron for the existing terminal has become unbalanced at times, requiring the replacement of some concrete panels, airport officials said.
Soil subsidence caused dips of several inches on the airport’s east-west runway at times in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, according to news accounts at the time.
Construction workers first noticed the sagging on the new terminal’s apron in late September 2017, according to a contractor who spoke at an Aviation Board meeting a month later.
“A lot of people got activated to deal with that issue,” contractor Jim Stievater told the board, “and we continue to have almost daily meetings addressing the impacts and what we do about it. One of the outcomes of those meetings is to re-sequence the paving, so that the paving can continue ... without being held up waiting for answers on those areas that have settled.”
Spann noted that unstable soils are common in south Louisiana.
“It's just a lot of things that we can't control, but it's certainly something that's manageable, and we're going to get it all resolved,” he told the board.
A month later, Charlie Prewitt, the construction boss for the joint venture, said workers had stopped pouring concrete for the 17-inch-thick apron while they studied the problem.
Spann chimed in that the construction team had done “a ton of (test) borings out there,” so he was surprised at the settling. “This is just a situation where it's just not performing like we thought it was going to,” he said.
In a recent interview, Spann said the construction team had finished the apron paving, and that the work won’t affect the timetable for opening the new terminal.
For a time, though, those problems were giving airport officials fits.
“There were manholes that rose up out of the concrete like a phoenix and were caddy-womped,” Ogden said a year ago, reflecting on the problem. “It sort of makes one appreciate Mother Nature and when we try to man-make it.”
But by April, the construction team was no longer expressing concern about the apron’s subsidence, board minutes show.
In a recent interview, Ogden was asked whether he thought the airport had seen the last of the subsidence at the new terminal.
“Whether there will be further indications of sinkage on the site ... I don’t know,” he replied. “I think we’ve gotten most of it, if not all of it. A lot of the airport is built on reclaimed land. Yes, we’ve got our arms around the issue, and hopefully any further extent of it will be minimal.”