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Tampa International Airport: An updated look inside the $1 billion construction project

Tampa International Airport is halfway through phase one of its $1 billion renovation, and things are starting to take shape.

Massive concrete pylons jut high into the air while construction workers continue to lay the foundation for a 1.4-mile people mover track. A new concrete garage adjacent to the economy parking garage looks nearly complete from the outside, but on any given day this summer more than 600 workers were building stairways and the interior of what will become the 2.6 million-square-foot rental car facility.

Ten new retailers and restaurants have opened so far, like Ducky’s, RumFish Grille and Gasparilla Bar in airside terminals. But the airport is poised to unveil what is perhaps the largest completed renovation to date in coming weeks when the P.F. Chang’s and Hard Rock Cafe restaurants open in the main terminal. Both are expected to open by August.

Airport officials refer to this new area of the main terminal as “Main Street” because it will become the gateway for travelers who take the people mover to the terminal from the economy parking garage or rental car facility. Sandwiched between the two restaurants is the train station for the people mover and an expansive outdoor terrace. All of this used to be just a smoking deck.

“We’re trying to take an existing building and make it look brand new,” said Al Illustrato, vice president of facilities and administration at the airport.

Earlier this month, workers had to cut a hole in the wall at the main terminal and use a crane to hoist the 8-foot-tall signature P.F. Chang’s horse statue two stories to place it in front of the restaurant space.

Upgraded escalators are replacing the old ones that lead to baggage claim in the main terminal. The new tech-savvy stairs slow down and stop when no one is on them.

Soon the entry ways that lead to the airside terminals from the main terminal will lose the white brick entrances that have been there since 1971. New, sleek glass panels will replace the brick. Construction crews are carefully moving the trams and the walls around them back 50 feet. This will add 55,000 square feet of space to the terminal.

In the parking garages, the payment terminals are being upgraded to digital screens. New software will allow the airport to offer parking reservations online.

“It’s very complicated to be working around the travelers,” Illustrato said. “We’re an airport first, so we have to keep everything working while we’re still under construction.

Despite the roadway changes and parking garage closures earlier this year, customer satisfaction is still high at the Tampa airport. Only 3.6 percent of travelers said they were moderately to highly impacted by the ongoing construction in July. That’s dipped since Jan. 13, when 5.6 percent said they were impacted, which is the airport’s all-time high since the project started a year and a half ago. The lowest recorded impact was 1.3 percent in December last year. Data is collected in a survey when travelers access the airport’s free Wi-Fi. Airport officials estimate that 2,500 passengers take the optional survey every day.

“This number has been consistently low despite increasing construction across the airport,” said airport spokeswoman Janet Zink.

There were more than 1,700 workers on site at the airport any given day in July, and more than 5,000 workers have worked there since construction began. A total of 68 construction-related injuries have been reported in that time frame with nearly 1.4 million man-hours worked. Most injuries were minor like cuts and strains, Illustrato said.

“Compared to industry benchmarks, we are performing very well — in the top category,” Zink added.

The airport is expected the stay under budget by the time the work is completed at the end of next year. Airport officials have budgeted up to $971.9 million for the project, and current estimates run around $956.4 million. That’s up from the $953 million estimate reported a few months ago.

“We do anticipate staying well within budget for this project,” Illustrato said. “We’re more than a year and a half into this project and don’t see any factors that would change that.”

More than 20 new restaurants and retailers will open in the airport by the end of the year, including local favorites like Goody Goody, Kahwa Coffee and the Cafe at Mise en Place. More will open next year and in early 2018. By then, the new people mover and rental car facility will be open, freeing up new parking space in the airport’s longterm parking garage and offering a wider array of rental companies for travelers to choose from. By moving the rental car companies out of the longterm garage, airport officials estimate it will take 2.7 million car trips off airport roads and eliminate congestion at the main terminal.

This is the first major renovation to the airport since the terminal was built in 1971. The improvements will help the airport accommodate 35 million passengers a year, or doubling the annual amount recorded in 2013. Part of that includes widening an airplane bridge that crosses over vehicle traffic so the airport can accommodate larger international airplanes. While the airport already has flights to Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, it’s not capable of hosting the largest Boeing 747 jets, which are primarily used by international carriers like Lufthansa and British Airways.

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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