2015: Rush to open new airport terminal
Homer Taylor needed to find the TV guy.
Taylor, a minority owner of Taylor Foodservice, was responsible for the design and construction of the six new food service options at the new Wichita Eisenhower National Airport, which was set to open in less than a week, and the TV deliveries were already an hour late.
“We are behind a little bit,” Taylor said. Just behind Taylor, about 20 new employees were being trained while sitting on passenger lounge seats because the tables and chairs in the airport restaurant had yet to be installed.
“Usually when operations comes in, I’ve got a small punch list, like little items to take care of,” Taylor said. “Usually I’m a little bit more ahead than where I’m at right now.”
There was a lot to do before the new airport could open. The only catch is that much of it will have to happen after the last plane lands on Tuesday at the old terminal and before the first plane departs from the new one in the wee hours of Wednesday. There will be less than a 10-hour window for the final push, and at this moment, even the preparations they could start ahead of time would have to carry over into the weekend to be ready in time.
Kevin McCune, who will manage the kitchen at the new River City Brewery airport franchise, sat on a nearby window ledge next to the just-opened boxes of Jose Cuervo and Jack Daniels, sipping on a bottle of Dasani and waiting for the new kitchen equipment to get up and running.
The owner of River City Brewing in Old Town, Chris Arnold, had another hoop to jump through. He was just getting used to wheeling his beer kegs a quarter mile from the airport loading dock, through security to the new restaurant, when he learned his new employees might not be able to learn how to taste the difference between a hoppy IPA appropriate for a seasoned beer lover passing through from Portland and the new specially brewed Aviation Pale Ale appropriate even for a craft beer newbie.
Arnold had heard that beer training might not be mandatory for all employees. He wanted it to be mandatory but MSE Branded Foods, which runs the daily operations of the six new food options at the airport, has a strict policy of no alcohol at work.
“I said, ‘What’s the big deal,’” said Arnold, explaining an earlier conversation to Ed Jones, the vice president of finance for MSE. “You work at the brewery.”
“We’ve had beer class at every other place,” Jones responded calmly, assuring Arnold that the company’s five other airport operations had allowed beer training.
A few hundred yards down the airport corridor, employees of Paradies, a separate company responsible for the new airport gift shops, were adding hooks to the walls and folding T-shirts, when the airport alarm went off.
“Attention, attention, an emergency has been reported,” a prerecorded voice blared over a loud, unending siren. “All occupants walk to the nearest stairway exit. … Do not use the elevator. Walk to the nearest stairway. … Attention, attention.”
“The fire alarms are being tested today,” said Wanda West, Paradies’ Wichita manager, who was poached off the floor of Dillard’s for her new job just a couple months before. “It’s something new every day, sometimes more exciting than others. Today they decided to go ‘secure’ in the airport. It’s not secure completely like it will be on the third (of June), but they have to test the system out.”
Employees of the new Dunkin’ Donuts slouched in their chairs, staring at the laptop next to their new team leader who gamely tried to continue his training over the blaring alarm, while a handful of cooks in the kitchen continued to chop onions as if nothing unusual was happening. Everyone was sweating profusely because a tube in the terminal’s air-conditioning unit was being fixed and the backup system was expensive to operate.
“This is normal,” said Jones. “At least we don’t have to evacuate. I’ve been some places where they make you evacuate.” MSE operates the food service in five other airports, from Flint, Mich., to Myrtle Beach, S.C. His company specializes in what he calls “regional airport markets” that typically serve fewer than a million passengers a year.
MSE would probably have one of the easiest transitions between the old terminal and the new one because it didn’t have to wait until the last flight out on Tuesday to put all its equipment in the new building. But that didn’t mean it would be easy.
“If the airport could say ‘we’ll just open when we’re ready,’ then that would be easier,” Jones said over the sound of the alarm. “But they have to have a date, everybody has to have a date to try and work towards. So it’s just a challenge.”
It turned out that, according to the technician who was adjusting the fire alarms in the front of the building, the alarm going off could be a sign that the building was on schedule. The fire alarm is one of the last components installed, he said, because it’s tied into all the other building systems, so when it goes off, for instance, only the correct doors unlock without jeopardizing safety and security.
Plus, the local furniture dealer finally showed up with seating for the new River City restaurant, and things were looking up.
Fifteen years in one night
The airport project has been in the works for so long that many of the 11 back offices designed for airlines such as Continental and Northwest won’t have a regular tenant due to airline mergers. Initially conceived before 2000, the master plans were approved in stages starting more than a decade ago, and construction began just under three years ago. It’s such a big, complicated project that its many parts had to be divided among multiple companies. For instance, the local Key Construction partnered with Walbridge Construction of Detroit for its expertise in airport projects. And that’s just $100 million of the $225 million that will have been spent.
A failure on day one at any project of this size would be a big deal, but for the airport in the Air Capital of the World it would look especially bad. Special exhibits on the mezzanine highlight the area’s aerospace history and expertise. A sweeping 330-foot art installation, which is meant to evoke the movement of flight, hangs in the main hall. The metal and glass materials were chosen to reflect the materials of planes. Even the skylights above the security entrance are supposed to remind travelers of clouds in the sky.
“The pressure is on for everybody,” said Rick McCafferty, general contractor for Key Construction, during what he called “crunch week” of the largest project his company has taken on to date, three times as large as its next biggest project. “The pressure is on for all the stakeholders because there are so many pieces and parts, things that have to be done.”
Pat McCollom – the project manager for the new airport terminal for the past four years and the person most responsible for the implementation of its construction – wanted experienced help to ensure that the transition between the old airport and the new one went smoothly. He was told no.
Victor White, director of the Wichita Airport Authority, wasn’t worried about the cost of more help, but he thought his staff could handle the transition on its own.
Then he called the other airports that in the past five years have made a similar transition – Denver, Austin, Kalamazoo, Indianapolis, Sacramento, San Jose – and they all told him the same thing: “Do not try to do it yourself,” White said. “You will be completely overwhelmed and it will not work well. You need someone who has done this before.”
That someone was Ann Thorvik of Chrysalis Aviation Solutions. Thorvik, whose father was a Green Beret and mother a former nun, grew up in a household where the red pens and the blue pens were kept in separate drawers with printed labels for each. Thorvick was brought on in October of 2014, although McCollom wouldn’t say how long he waited for the extra help.
The day before the fire alarms were tested, the new airport terminal was relatively calm, as Thorvick and McCollom walked through the rooms that would, in a week, be responsible for nearly a million lives a year.
McCollom, who trained as a civil engineer in college, learned how critical his work was soon after college when he was working on a project to put a waterline under Las Vegas Boulevard. It was a Friday when he finished the calculations that confirmed workers in a planned 30-foot trench would be safe when he realized that if he’d made a mistake, on Tuesday all the workers would be buried alive. On Monday he double-checked his numbers.
Thorvick had helped ensure that Indianapolis’ $1.1 billion airport transition went smoothly and most recently had guided Kalamazoo. But she had heard the story of the airport whose entire baggage system stopped working and the airport where the power had failed. The closest she had come was in Indianapolis. Just when she was about to send everyone home at 4 a.m. and was doing her final walk-through, she saw a room that was entirely empty. She tracked down a truck of neglected goods, and the mini-crisis was averted.
She isn’t the kind of person to leave it to chance. She and McCollom have been organizing the transition to the new building for months, holding at least weekly meetings with the 29 entities that will be part of the move.
They’ve also been running some official and unofficial tests. During the reception for the public in April they noticed a problem with the escalators. Everyone trying to ride them looked hesitant, as if they were trying to avoid being hit by two double-dutch jump ropes, so they’ve since slowed the escalators down. The location of the restrooms wasn’t as obvious as they’d hoped, so they had to improve the signs, but the restrooms managed to pass the “everyone flushing at once” test. Airport security has had people wandering the new airport to make sure that its more than 200 high-definition security cameras could reach everywhere they are supposed to.
Thorvick is moving everything from the old terminal to the new terminal in two stages. In the first stage they’ll move everything that isn’t “mission critical,” such as computers, safety equipment and ticket machines. The second stage begins on the final day at the old terminal: as the final passengers get their IDs checked, her moving team will follow right behind them and pack up the stanchions that separate security lines. As the passengers continue through security, Thorvick’s team will pick up the security equipment. After the final flight boards and departs, her team will be at the gate to pack up the computers, scanners, phones and even rolls of paper for tickets. In each location, one person will confirm that everything has been picked up and another will sign off in the new terminal once everything has been dropped off.
And, just in case anything goes wrong, and it always does, there will be a half dozen people with phones in what she referred to as “The Command Center,” whose only job will be to field problems. Each problem will be logged and tracked, not because she expects anyone to be negligent, she said, but because of “Murphy’s Law.” So when American Airlines calls to complain that it’s 97 degrees in its new offices, the HVAC person knows to go fix it.
The general contractor will have on hand many of the 50 to 60 subcontractors who helped construct the building, so if there is an electric problem, an electrician will be on site to fix it immediately. The IT staffs of several companies will be there to make sure the computers and phones are all working. Airport command will be there to ensure that, after the final plane lands at the old terminal, the pilot can taxi the plane over to its new jet bridge for the next morning’s flight, without bumping into one of the moving trucks.
The need for extra hands the night of the move is so extreme that even Linda Turley, an airport administrator who graduated from Wichita State University in 1975, has been told to show up that night, without any details of what she would be doing, and be ready to stay “as long as it takes.” Thorvick, who will show up at 7 a.m. on Tuesday and stay until noon on Wednesday, does not drink coffee but pushes forward in the early morning with the thought that “It just has to be done.”
On one of his first projects, when McCollom was a mere contractor some 15 years ago, he had to fight so hard with the airport he worked for that he left the project feeling bitter. But he drove by the airport a couple of months later and thought, “Oh, I actually did that,” and realized that “the worst thing I could have ever done was not take pride in finishing it.”
McCollum proved his worth at Wichita’s new terminal to his employer, AECOM, and will soon begin shuttling back and forth to San Diego to start work on a new $3.1 billion to $3.6 billion airport project, more than 10 times the cost of Wichita’s new terminal.
At the far end of the new terminal, toward the end of what was one of the last of hundreds of tours McCollum would give, he gazed up at the ceiling, his head frozen in place as his feet pivoted around, and searched for another angle from which to admire his creation. “I don’t know why I love this ceiling right here,” McCollum said. “It’s the orientation, the layout, the joints. It’s little things like that that get me going.”
A new day, a new normal
After Wednesday, everything should start to settle into a new routine. “This is the worst that it ever is, so (my employees) have got it made,” said Wanda West, manager of the gift shops at the new airport. “If we can get through this week, we can get through anything.”
She will still have to train all the staff from the old terminal who will be working up to the last minute on Tuesday. Sarah Wesley, 23, one of those workers, is moving over from The Great American Bagel Bakery to one of the new gift shops, and her brother, Timothy, who also worked for the bakery, was hired as a ramp agent. Sarah will get a raise from $7.96 an hour to $8.55, but she said she’ll end up making about the same amount. She has been working six days a week recently, to make up for all the employees who left before the old terminal shut down.
Although many of the old employees found work at the new terminal, many did not. After praying about it for weeks, DeEtta Wert, a manager for the World Duty Free Group in Wichita for the past 14 years, decided to apply for a job with MSE. She wasn’t hired.
“I prayed about it a lot and I left it in God’s hands,” Wert said. “And obviously there is something else I’m supposed to be doing besides this.”
MSE sent some of its new food service employees to Chicago, Boston and Atlanta to train. Others trained at the Dunkin’ Donuts on the other side of town. Now MSE has brought in experts from Wisconsin and Des Moines to supervise its gift shop and to add breakfast to the River City menu that has never had breakfast before.
After 9:30 p.m., at the end of its first day at the new terminal, Jones, the VP for MSE, said he and his colleagues would have to find somewhere besides the airport to have a drink to celebrate because of the company’s strict alcohol policy. But because of their long day, which starts at 3 a.m., he said the celebration probably won’t last very long.
On Thursday morning, the second day of the new airport, as the sun rises over the runways and into the glass jetways at the new terminal, and as eager new passengers look up at what has been accomplished, and as the airline agents and TSA employees settle into their new normal, Wert will be in the old terminal helping her old company pack up on her last day. But that’s as much as she knows.
“With most jobs I’ve had, there’s always been a guiding force that has brought me to where I need to be, and I’m just sure that it will happen again,” Wert said. “But I really don’t know what that will be.”