Uncertainties remain as airport preps for Formula One influx

Austin is no stranger to the global spotlight: In March the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference attracted several thousands of visitors from more than 70 nations.

But with less than four months until the city's first Formula One race, which is expected to draw 120,000 fans to Central Texas—42,000 of whom are expected to arrive via international flights—the full impact of an event of this scale will have on Austin-Bergstrom International Airport is unclear.

In 2011, the Circuit of The Americas signed a contract with the State of Texas to hold F1 events in Austin for the next 10 years, beginning with the Formula One United States Grand Prix on Nov. 18.

Rodney Gonzales, the city's deputy director of economic growth and redevelopment services, stressed the importance November's event during a June 14 update to City Council.

"We need this to be a successful event," he said. "Year one is going to be very impactful for whether or not years two through 10 will be successful."

Learning experience

Grand Prix fans are expected to begin arriving at the airport Nov. 15, and most race teams and fans are expected to depart Nov. 19.

According to ABIA figures, the airport saw a total of 829,642 passengers in May, while the airport saw 9.1 million total passengers last year.

But with this unprecedented event, ABIA spokesman Jim Halbrook said there are certain unknowns.

"The first year will be a bit of a learning experience," he said. "We have been working to ensure a minimal impact and make it as smooth as possible."

During the June 14 update, ABIA Executive Director Jim Smith issued a specific warning regarding departures.

"There's no way around the fact we're going to have long lines." Smith said. "It's a matter of trying to come up with ways of managing that person's [passenger's] experience while they are in the line to try to make it as pleasant as possible."

Preparations

ABIA currently has just one international direct flight—to Cancn, Mexico—but a master plan approved by the City Council June 28 includes construction of an updated permanent customs checkpoint within the next five years.

Until then, ABIA's current customs facility is able to process one 747 passenger jet at a time and 120 visitors an hour.

COTA President Steve Sexton said F1 not only draws many international attendees but also tends to draw a higher-end crowd with different aviation needs, including helicopter landing sites and space for private jets and large cargo.

"It's like a rock concert," he said.

Halbrook said he did not know how many helicopters will be operating during the race, but aviation officials are looking at potential landing and parking sites throughout Austin.

According to ABIA staff, when plans were originally made, airport officials assumed the majority of guests would fly commercial and clear customs in Dallas or Houston, as is usually the case.

However, Smith said the airport had received several inquiries regarding charter flights, though charters are only required to provide airports with 30 days notification.

"So we're not going to know until a month before the race how many charters will be showing up," Smith said. "We do know based on the experience of Indianapolis—who hosted Formula One in the past [2000–07]—they ended up with six to 11 charters depending on which year it was."

In order to accommodate passengers arriving by private and charter flights and large, international diversions from Houston or Dallas, ABIA suggested the construction of a nearly $5.5 million temporary customs facility to be paid for with airport revenue.

Council concerns

Mayor Lee Leffingwell asked about the benefits of passengers clearing customs in Austin and not other domestic cities, as is usually done.

"Ultimately, we are not providing the best customer service to our passengers in Austin," ABIA Chief Operations Officer Patti Edwards said. "We're asking them to go to another city, offload, go through a reloading process and add time to their trip. Generally, it's a 12-hour trip from overseas, and you're adding another four hours."

Edwards estimated the average charter flight for the F1 race would generate about $9,000 in landing fees and fuel purchases.

However, City Council unanimously rejected the temporary facility due to concerns of necessity and long-term economic benefit, especially with plans in the approved master plan to build a permanent one within the next five years.

"It would take 606 charters to pay for this building, and I don't think we're going to get 606 charters in the next two or three years," Councilman Bill Spelman said.

Halbrook said alternative options would be explored and that the airport still planned to accept charter flights.

Departure warnings

While the temporary facility addressed arrival concerns, Halbrook again stressed the concern about long wait times at security checkpoints for those departing.

In November 2011, ABIA began using the new advanced imaging technology security scanners, which Halbrook said has improved efficiency by 20 percent.

The Transportation Security Administration will have extra security staff for F1, but Smith recommended local residents avoid the airport Nov. 19, if possible.

"The most important message I can give everybody is don't come to the airport the Monday after Formula One," he said. "It's going to be a mess. There are going to be very long lines."

Joseph Olivieri contributed to this article



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