A new terminal at Orlando International Airport would partly be paid for by a passenger-facility charge travelers already pay when they book a flight there.
Phil Brown, the airport's executive director, said the fee has been federally authorized through about 2038. "I don't know how far it will extend it because we haven't done all the calculations yet," said Brown. "But it will be well into the mid-part of the century by my estimation."
Greater Orlando Aviation Authority is scheduled to vote this week and approve construction of the south-terminal project, if traffic numbers are met.
The new terminal would cost about $1.8 billion and include up to 120 new gates, bringing the airport's capacity as high as 80 million passengers annually. Parts of the terminal could open as soon as 2019, with the entire expansion expected to take about 25 years.
The airport's two biggest carriers, Southwest and Delta, have opposed the expansion, saying it is unnecessary and could drive up ticket prices. On Thursday, Southwest leaders continued to express concern that the airport was taking on too big a project.
"As plans proceed by (the airport authority) for the new South Terminal project, we continue to have concerns regarding the project because its construction will create excessive costs for the airport and the airlines," said Pete Houghton, senior manager of Airport Affairs for Southwest Airlines, in a statement.
Brown, however, said Southwest also is one of three airlines to show interest in using the new facility. "Some of the airlines that have opposed the projects … have indicated some interest, depending on what the cost of the project is and what they would have to pay to occupy space down there," said Brown. JetBlue and Delta also asked about the future project, he said.
The airport had 38.8 million passengers in 2015. Brown said the airport is on track to end 2016 with more than 41 million annual passengers. The existing facility was built to accommodate 24 million people annually.
The $4.50 fee, with a cap of $18 per round-trip flight, two fees each way, is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration. Orlando International averages an annual collection of $70 million via the fee, said Brown.
DT Minich, chief executive officer and president of Experience Kissimmee, Osceola County's marketing organization, said the fee is necessary for the end result. "I think it's one of those things where everyone wants the best possible experience when they're flying anywhere," he said.
Minich, who sits on the U.S. Travel Association's board of directors, said that organization has been pushing the federal government to help fund airport expansions and upgrades. Until that happens, airports need to independently find a way to raise money, he said. Minich doesn't think the fee is enough to make people stop flying: "It will enhance their arrival and departure experience and that's what we care about."
Other funding sources include the airport's own revenue and bonds issued for the project.
Brown did not rule out that other services offered at the airport, those not dictated by federal entities, increasing to cover the new terminal's overall cost. "We can always look at that," he said. "We haven't raised parking fees in a number of years." Central Floridians who treat OIA as their hometown airport said higher fees could change how often they use the airport.
Cory True said he might have been forced to revamp his business travel plans if the fee was too high. "That would definitely increase what I then have to charge my clients," said True, who flies out of OIA three to four times a month as a computer-network consultant. He said he could "schedule trips back-to-back, instead of going home," to avoid higher fees.
David Ruhe of Winter Springs, who has logged more than 25,000 air miles this year while selling truck parts, said he would look at flights out of Daytona Beach or Sanford if fees increase at OIA. Brown said airport leaders need to be careful about increasing prices because air service is a competitive business.
The airport in 2015 began a $1.3 billion project that includes expanding its tram system and building a train station. In 2015, board members authorized spending $100 million to start designing the new terminal.
Rapid growth had prompted OIA in December to set a threshold that would need to be met before the terminal could be built: six consecutive months of airport traffic totaling 38.5 million passengers on a rolling 12-month calendar.
In 2005, airport leaders had said they needed to reach 45 million annual passengers to initiate the construction of a new terminal. However, the airport's traffic is causing choke points in its 14 operating systems, Brown said, such as long lines at security checkpoints and overloads in the baggage system.
"We've got projects to give interim relief there," said Brown. "But on the trajectory that we're looking at right now, we're going to be at a level where you're going to have people scrunched together in the terminal."