By Joe Brancatelli
May 15, 2014 --"They've Been Working on the Airport" doesn't have the lyrical bite or melodic charm of that old railroad folk song, but it has the benefit of being true. Tens of billions of dollars are being thrown at airports around the globe to improve amenities for travelers and facilities for the aircraft that transport us.
Yet for every nugget of good news--United Airlines' sleek new digs at Boston's Logan Airport or American Airlines' much-needed commuter gates at Dallas/Fort Worth--there is dirt and dust, delays and confusion. Airport construction throws a spanner into our carefully honed road routines. Nothing is more annoying, nothing seems as endless and nothing has the potential to unravel our tightly wound schedules.
Or, as a spokeswoman for always-under-construction Los Angeles International Airport almost giddily told the Associated Press earlier this month: "Now you're going to start to feel the pain."
How much pain? Your mileage will vary based on your travel patterns. But many of the nation's most important airports (and the ever-important Heathrow in London) will be in the throes of construction projects during the busy spring and summer travel seasons. Here's an airport-by-airport guide to what may most annoy and delay you in the months ahead.
Dallas' double whammy
Weeks of high drama over who gets a pair of not-yet-built gates at Dallas Love Field ended on Monday when city officials awarded them to Virgin America. Rights to use the gates were part of the merger settlement American Airlines struck last year with the Justice Department.
But the Texas soap opera only highlights the fact that Love Field, where Southwest Airlines rules the roost, has been physically messy for months. The payoff won't happen until late October when terminal construction at the close-in, in-town airport is completed and both Southwest and Virgin America initiate a slew of new routes.
On the other side of the so-called Metroplex, gargantuan Dallas/Fort Worth Airport has hit its 40th anniversary and is sprucing up to mask its age. There'll even be a light-rail station opening in August—although you have to wonder whether a minor rail-transport link makes much sense given the auto-centric nature of the sprawling metropolitan area.
Denver's delayed denouement
Twenty years after it opened, Denver International is finally getting an on-airport hotel, a mass-transit center and a "public space" for visitors. The hotel is due next year while the transit center won't arrive until at least 2016, but the diversions and detours are happening now. Watch out for roadway changes throughout the rest of the year. And beware of theconstruction around vehicular bridges and in Concourse C, where new gates are being added.
Dulles does rail the Washington way
A rail line linking the Washington Metro with far-out Dulles International Airport is a typical how-Washington-works saga. The so-called Silver Line is late, been frequently renamed, is well over budget and, when it's completed, won't actually reach Dulles Airport. The closest stop will be a football field away, meaning passengers will have to hoof it between the station and the terminal. Of course, that's years in the future because the first phase of the Silver Line, due to open later this year, will only connect East Falls Church, Tysons Corner and Reston. The second phase, the one that will actually get to within a hail-mary pass of Dulles, won't open until 2018. But there are plenty of road delays and reroutings to inconvenience you now.
London, the Queen's way
London's Heathrow Airport, the world's most important, seems to have been under continual construction since it opened in 1929 in what was then the hamlet of Heathrow. The last big project, Terminal 5, was a disaster for months after its 2008 debut. Heathrow's owners hope to do better when the rebuilt Terminal 2, now dubbed The Queen's Terminal, opens on June 4. Airlines slated to move into Terminal 2--primarily United Airlines and its Star Alliance allies--will switch in waves. United will go first, bringing its bifurcated Heathrow presence under once roof for the first time since its 2010 merger with Continental Airlines. But United did such a miserable job merging with Continental in 2012 that you might be wise to steer clear until the dust definitively settles. And as if to prove that no Heathrow unification goes unpunished, be aware that Delta Air Lines last month split its Heathrow operations. It now operates some flights out of Terminal 3 and some out of Terminal 4.
Los Angeles' long march
LAX claims that more people start there journey there than any other airport in the world, but it went decades after the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics without any upgrades. Now it is rushing to catch up. That has meant an ongoing series of new construction projects, infuriating delays and diversions, and piles of rubbish and debris everywhere. Construction continues on the recently renovated Tom Bradley International Terminal and there are projects underway at most other terminals, support buildings, walkways, baggage-handling systems and the congested airport roadways. And it's all exacerbated by the fact that LAX is one of the few airports where major carriers are trading competitive blows to establish hub supremacy. If the minutiae fascinates you, you can examine the operational blow-by-blow. Most of us will be more interested in the annoying delays and diversions that the projects are causing.
Newark goes off the rails
For an airline with a seemingly logical three-terminal layout, Newark Liberty International is an infuriating, only-in-New-York-even-if-it's-really-New-Jersey experience. The annoyance factor is currently magnified by the closure of the AirTrain, the airport's transportation backbone. The monorail usually handles as many as 30,000 people a day and connects terminals, parking lots, car-rental and airport-hotel shuttles and even a rail station serving Amtrak and local commuter trains. In place of the AirTrain, the airport is operating buses on an as-needed schedule, which strains the already gridlocked surface roads. There's also some runway work on tap and the closure of a major airport access road. Monorail repairs are due to continue until July 15. But it's New York (well, New Jersey) and nothing ever runs to schedule, so reschedule accordingly.
San Francisco's foggy future
A remake of parts of San Francisco International's terminal three went off without a major hitch earlier this year. We are not likely to be quite so lucky with the closure of two of the airport's four runways, scheduled to last through the summer. The airport insists that the shutdown won't seriously delay flights, but that claim is incredulous. SFO is one of the nation's most chronically delayed airports even when all four runways are operating. If you're headed for the Bay Area, consider alternatives such as Oakland or San Jose. If you use SFO as an Asia gateway, consider rerouting through another U.S. airport.