Airport executives across Florida are getting top billing these days at civic and business community luncheons and breakfasts — and for good reason: bulging passenger growth counts have forced airports to double as construction zones, with billions of dollars of projects in the works in the region alone.
One of the the latest airport leaders to get in front of a crowd was Ben Siegel, executive director of the Lee County Port Authority. The airport Siegel oversees, Southwest Florida International, had a record-setting 10.34 million passengers in 2022 — up 0.2% from the previous record set in 2021. Siegel was the keynote speaker at a Real Estate Investment Society luncheon Feb. 14, where he highlighted the expansion projects underway, and ones to come in the future, at Southwest Florida International Airport. “It’s our job to deliver an incredible experience everyday,” Siegel says.
By one major account, the airport, under the call letters RSW, is coming through on that promise: Online travel publication Travel Lens, in a report released Feb. 9., ranked Southwest Florida International Airport the No. 1 airport in the country. It gave the airport an overall ranking of 8.06/10, and noted it had a Google rating of 4.5/5.
The Travel Lens report, according to CNBC, ranked the 50 busiest airports in the country and ranked them on several factors, including wait times, passenger satisfaction and Google reviews. It used data from the FAA, J.D. Power, AWT, Google Maps and Airport tracker, too. (Tampa International was the only other Florida airport, coming at No. 4, with the highest score for passenger satisfaction, 846/1,000.)
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The report points out something Siegel addressed as one of RSW’s biggest challenges: its reliance on only having one runway. The airport is the second-busiest single runway airport in the country, behind San Diego.
Siegel addressed the runway issue at the REIS event, noting his team of data-crunchers and safety experts say the airport has until roughly 2043 to build a second runway — a major expense. “We look at what we can afford, and when we can do it,” he says, adding that the airport “has contingencies in place” if there are runway issues.
Multiple other projects will bec coming to fruition much sooner than a new runway at RSW. The list includes:
A new airport control traffic tower. The old one, says Siegel, dates back to 1983, when the airport first opened. It doesn’t meet current building codes and must be evacuated during storms with sustained winds of 30 knots. It’s also too small for “the significant increase in flight operations from 1983 to 2022,” according to a report Siegel presented at the REIS luncheon. That’s a jump of 135%, from 43,000 annual flights to 101,000 flights.
Phase one of the new tower was completed in December 2021, Siegel says. Expected to open in the second quarter this year, the tower has state-of-the-art systems and technology and is designed to meet current hurricane codes, including up to 170 mph winds. The $80 million project, Siegel says, was the first traffic control tower in the U.S. to be built without federal funds. Money instead came from the Florida Dept. of Transportation and RSW user fees.
The other big project at RSW is the terminal expansion to meet the current surge in passenger traffic that shows few signs of abating. The $331 million project will deliver a consolidated, single TSA checkpoint. It also includes 164,000 square feet of remodeled space with 117,000 square feet of new walkways and concession space, and passengers will be able to walk between concourses. The three-year project, with an estimated 1,000 jobs and average of 200 daily workers, according to an RSW spokeswoman, is scheduled to be completed in late 2024.
After Siegel showed a video at the REIS event of what the future RSW will look like, the audience nodded with approval. “It’s amazing what you could do with the $331 million,” Siegel quipped.
Siegel notes one of the interesting dynamics of the overall airport expansion is the seasonality of it. The passenger count, for example, balloons by 4.25 times in March at RSW over September, he says. But from a budget and overall need, you have to plan for 12 months, not one. “We can’t do all these things (right now) just for March,” Siegel says. “That wouldn’t make any sense.”
Mark Gordon is the managing editor of the Business Observer. He has worked for the Business Observer since 2005. He previously worked for newspapers and magazines in upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia and Jacksonville.