Some 41 years ago, The Wall Street Journal opined that the brand-new terminal Orlando International Airport (MCO) was about to open was just too big: ''The terminal is designed to accommodate 12 million passengers a year … but hardly anyone considers those expectations realistic.”
The airport handled 6 million people its first year and has been expanded and refined numerous times over the years as tourists flocked to Walt Disney World, Universal Studios Florida and a plethora of other attractions. Now, Orlando International is about to open its third terminal next month, just to the south of the existing two. Called Terminal C, it cost $2.8 billion.
Terminal C will act almost as a relief valve to the old terminal that opened in 1980 and is overrun with passengers. The new terminal is one of the most expensive public works projects in Orlando history.
Replete with the latest in technology, the terminal is the airport’s largest expansion yet, covering 300 acres and adding 15 gates that can take as many as 20 aircraft, including narrow body, jumbo and super-jumbo jets. With three levels, Terminal C is built for up to 12 million passengers a year. The existing airport is now at 48 million passengers, which is 8 million more than design capacity, officials say. More than 51 million people went through airport doors pre-COVID.
Airport Executive Director Kevin Thibault says his team is excited to open a new facility but adds, “More important is what we do next.” Thibault, who left his previous job as secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation to join the airport this spring, says Terminal C was built to be expandable – just as Terminal A begat Terminal B.
In fact, he says there is enough space around Terminal C to one day build a Terminal D. Those two terminals eventually could host 60 million passengers annually, he says.
The September opening, however, is several years behind schedule. The governing board of Orlando International voted in 2015 to pursue a third terminal, but the pandemic slowed the project. Traffic through the airport dropped from an average of 70,000 passengers a day to as little as 1,400 in April 2020. Orlando International was Florida’s busiest airport and the seventh busiest in the world during 2021, according to the Airports Council International.
Now, with the Orlando airport back to near-normal – think families wearing Mickey Mouse ears and carrying Harry Potter wands – Terminal C has to get up and running. The target date is Sept. 19. International carriers including Aer Lingus, Azul, Lufthansa, Norse, British Airway, Caribbean, Emirates, Gol and Icelandair will be the initial users. JetBlue Airways, one of the airport’s busiest carriers, also will switch to Terminal C later in September, making the airline the anchor tenant.
Terminal C will boast a robotic bag storage system that relies on radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to track luggage in real time. Thibault says it is much faster than conventional baggage conveyor systems and should invariably beat travelers to the baggage carousel. Passengers also will be able to check their bags much earlier – four hours before a flight – because of the system, which cost $110 million.
Thibault predicts the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints should run much smoother than the ones in Terminals A and B, both of which are hampered by cramped quarters. The TSA inspection posts were retrofitted to the terminals after 9/11 terrorist attacks. Terminal C will have more space for passengers, as well as automatic conveyor belts to continually feed bags through x-ray machines rather than the manual system in place at the older terminals.
The new terminal will have an airy and bright feel to it with interactive video displays in the ticket halls, plus concession hub and gate areas that will provide high definition visual experiences. The project carries a top LEED designation, meaning it is energy efficient and environmentally sound in its construction, maintenance and operation.
Customer service, Thibault says, was one of the primary concerns when designing Terminal C: “How do we continue to push safety and security through the facility while really streamlining operations?”
Dan Tracy was a reporter at the Orlando Sentinel for 35 years, covering numerous beats including transportation, City Hall, state and local politics, business and long-term projects, and is an expert on the Central Florida scene.