Airport Counts on Meeting NFL Game's Huge Demands; Traveler Numbers Are Expected to Skyrocket in Hours after Super Bowl

Article excerpt

Byline: GREGORY RICHARDS, The Times-Union

It's not the Super Bowl that concerns Jacksonville Airport Authority officials.

It's the day after.

That's when legions of football fans, after having trickled into the First Coast the preceding week, are going to swarm the region's airports -- Jacksonville International in particular -- to begin their journeys home.

Tens of thousands of rental cars will need to be dropped off. Mountains of baggage will need to be moved. Armies of passengers will need to be ticketed, screened and loaded onto airplanes.

All at the smallest airport ever to host Super Bowl crowds: Between 35,000 and 45,000 fliers will want to depart JIA that Monday, Feb. 7, up from a more typical 8,000.

The hurdle becomes even higher when one realizes that this challenge must be met with swiftly moving lines and employees with radiating smiles -- never mind that they're working 18-hour days.

For the majority of Super Bowl travelers, the airport will be their final impression of Jacksonville, adding to or erasing memories of whatever happened during the previous few days.

Those charged with readying JIA -- and the National Football League that's overseeing them -- are confident they won't come up short, despite much work remaining. They're employing unique techniques for a Super Bowl airport, including running computer models to determine how many people can squeeze into JIA, attaching radio-frequency identification tags to checked bags and perhaps allowing luggage to be checked-in at hotels.

"We have a lot to do, but we know what we have to do," said Chip Snowden, chief operating officer for the airport authority. "We know where the gaps are and we know what to do to close those gaps."

Keep it moving

The challenges can be broken down into two areas: Getting people to the airport, and handling them once inside.

Allowing people to check luggage before they leave for JIA that Monday is a key concept of the airport authority's plan, though it still must be approved by the Transportation Security Administration. Stations would be set up at the large cruise ships docked along the St. Johns River for the big game and at the region's major hotels, allowing people to both hand over their bags and print out boarding passes -- just like from a home computer.

The luggage would be placed in a sealed truck and driven to one of JIA's cargo terminals off Pecan Park Road, where it would pass through a temporary screening station set up by the TSA. It's a technique used in Orlando to allow people to explore the theme parks after checking out of their hotels in the morning. It wasn't widely used in Houston and San Diego, the last two cities to host the Super Bowl, according to officials with both of those airport systems.

But capacity wasn't as much an issue in those cities as it will be in Jacksonville: Houston's two commercial airports together handled about 43 million passengers last year, while San Diego International Airport moved 15.3 million people. Approximately 5.1 million people passed through JIA last year.

"Remote check-in of bags is a big, big part of this plan," Snowden said, adding that it may become a permanent feature to better accommodate cruise ship passengers arriving from Jacksonville's port.

There's also no escaping the armada of rental cars -- roughly 15,000 to 20,000 -- that will descend upon JIA that Monday. The plan is to funnel them into the ground floor of the hourly parking garage adjacent to the main terminal; that space would be dedicated solely for car drop-offs. (Passengers now can pick up rental cars there, too.) But

if the lines of cars back up, the airport authority may dedicate an outlying lot for car drop-offs and run shuttles to the terminal, said Danette Bewley, JIA's general manager.

Then there are the 500 times charter buses will chug up to JIA on Super Bowl Monday to drop off passengers. …