After years of debate and millions of dollars of construction, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport opened its south runway Thursday morning, a move that Broward County officials expect will alleviate flight delays and bring more tourists to the area.
The first flight to land on the new runway was a JetBlue charter hop with about 150 people on board, including a handful of journalists documenting the occasion. A crowd near the runway applauded and took photos as the plane touched down.
The $719 million, 8,000-foot runway is the first phase of an expansion project aiming to ease crowds and update terminals for the 23.5 million passengers who visit the airport annually for its budget-friendly flight options, said Greg Meyer, Broward County Aviation Department spokesman.
In the mid-’90s, Broward County and the Federal Aviation Administration noticed that flight after flight was delayed because of lack of space, Meyer said. The airport handles about 260,000 mostly domestic flights annually, a number that was tough to support with only one runway for large commercial jets.
“For every minute the plane sits on the ground idling, it’s money they’re losing,” Meyer said, “and it’s impacting the air space system throughout the country.”
The new runway would allow the airport to handle up to 425,000 flights annually. While the FAA doesn’t project the airport will hit that number, Meyer said, it will allow the airport to better accommodate the current number of flights and prepare it for growth down the line.
In the immediate future, the airport will see a slight increase in air traffic. JetBlue plans on increasing its number of flights from 60 to 100 per day out of a total of more than 600 per day, Meyer said. And Southwest Airlines has committed to building a concourse specifically for international flights in terminal one.
Vehicle traffic on U.S. 1 will pass under the new runway with three lanes in each direction instead of the previous two, helping to ease traffic, Meyer said.
As for the 1,800 homes — mostly in Dania Beach — that will be impacted by noise from the runway, Meyer said the aviation authority and Broward County agreed after a lawsuit to pay to insulate the homes with hurricane windows and doors as well as install central air-conditioning units for houses that depended on window units. The FAA is paying for 80 percent of the improvements, and the county is responsible for the remaining 20 percent, or about $175 million, funded in part by passenger facility charges. About 120 homes have been completed so far, and the rest will be handled in phases.
The rest of the $2.3 billion expansion — funded by a $250 million FAA grant, bonds and fees to airlines who lease space in the airport — includes restroom and concession upgrades as well as a total rebuilding of terminal four to make room for more international flights.
That project is split into two phases — the first on the west side to be completed in 2015 and the second on the east side to be completed in 2017 — to ensure the airport can continue to operate.
“It’s like remodeling your house while you’re living in it, only more complicated,” Meyer said.
Aside from the benefits to the airport, the expansion could benefit the county by bringing in more travelers.
Tourism is a huge part of the economy in Broward, which welcomed 13.4 million visitors last year. Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, home to a fleet that includes the world’s two largest cruise ships, had more than 1.8 million embarking passengers in 2013.
Nicki Grossman, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, said every 85 visitors to Broward County create one job in tourism.
“Every one of those airplanes that’s bringing us a visitor creates additional economic impact,” she said. “People that fly in tend to spend more than people who drive in. The more opportunity we give those airplanes to land, the greener our valley gets.”
While the full airport expansion project still has years to go before completion, Grossman said getting the runway portion out of the way is still significant.
“The statement that this runway makes is that Greater Fort Lauderdale is open for business and is encouraging more tourism business,” she said. “And there’s just not a better message.”