Dallas Fort-Worth Needs a New Terminal. Will American Airlines Let Them Build It?

When US Airways management first took over American Airlines about 5 years ago, executives didn’t seem like big fans of Dallas Fort-Worth airport. They saw it as a huge challenge from an operational standpoint.

  • Terminals are set up beautifully for passengers originating in Dallas — parking garages right across from terminals which are set up in a horseshoe. If you know what terminal you’re leaving from you walk right into the airport, through security, and you’re by your gates.

  • However connecting passengers move via train between terminals. There are distances to traverse moving bags. You have to move parts and mechanics all over the airport.

Airline executives have come to love DFW, because they say it’s in their top tier of profitable hubs. They are the dominant carrier by far, and have incredible scale. They’re on their way to operating 900 flights a day from the airport. And with that many flights adding a new city is easy to make profitable as a result of connecting feed from all over the world.

The future of the airport is being hashed out now. Next year the airport’s 10-year use agreement is up, and a new deal is being negotiated. That’s where the broad plan for the future of the airport gets set — what is the airport going to invest in, how much will airlines pay for the space. The biggest airlines get the biggest say. American Airlines is in the driver’s seat.

With the airport at over 70 million passengers, and the region expected to continue to grow, the airport needs to plan for future capacity. The more they invest, though, the more airlines need to pay to cover that investment.

There are Three Basic Models for the Future of DFW

At one point American Airlines notionally wanted a single large terminal complex, effectively walking away from the existing terminal structure. But that’s a non-starter given the tens of billions of dollars it would cost.

Right now the horse shoe structure has 5 terminals, A through E. Major discussions center around whether to build a new terminal F, and what sorts of renovations to do on the existing terminal C.

  • Terminals A, B, C and E were considered to have been at the end of their service lives (the newest terminal D is still in great shape). A, B, and E have gotten refreshes.

  • Terminal C is deteriorating and in need of significant investment. It was supposed to get that investment already as part of the airport’s TRIP or Terminal Renewal and Improvement Program which was supposed to be completed by 2017 but that was deferred over American’s willingness to invest.

    The airport’s President refers to terminal C as their LaGuardia. I don’t think it’s that bad but it’s beaten up, there are leaks, and it’s dirty. (As a sidenote, I believe American Airlines is responsible for cleaning in terminal C, and contracts for it at a lower standard than the rest of the airport.)

    DFW Airport Terminal C

    DFW Airport Terminal C

  • If they build a new terminal F by 2025, they could then shut down terminal C and effectively replace the 1970s-era building by 2030.

  • Alternatively they could do piecemeal renovations, shutting down chunks of gates at a time but not gutting the entire thing. The airport’s President has said it’s a bad idea to invest $1.5 billion into the nearly 45 year old facility, with gates renovated, maybe HVAC, but you’ve still got an old building with significant ongoing maintenance issues.

Piecemeal renovation of terminal C is the best they can do without terminal F at all. American Airlines may not want to see a whole new terminal that they don’t control entirely because that sort of capacity opens up the airport to additional competition and drives up their costs. The lowest-cost, least-growth, American-centric option would be just to build additional stinger gates onto the C concourse as part of renovations.

DFW Airport Terminal C

The Current State of Negotiations

A brand new mega-terminal isn’t likely feasible due to cost. Stinger gates, and no new terminal, won’t support growth for the region and would be a mistake for the airport to agree to. It would, in a very real way, impose a cap on the region.

Even though a new terminal might allow for other airlines to compete with American Airlines, growth in the region and at the airport still benefits the largest carrier there. Even though nearly two-thirds of traffic at Dallas Fort-Worth is connecting, growth in the region supports demand for American Airlines flights. American has supported multi-billion dollar investments at their Chicago O’Hare, Los Angeles, and even low cost Charlotte hubs. They shouldn’t stand in the way of growth at their largest hub.

The current Express South Parking space would permit building a new terminal F and connecting it to the Skylink train system. They don’t need to make changes to the airfield. The airport is blessed with plenty of land, indeed DFW’s footprint is larger than Manhattan.

Adding a new terminal that matches the model of the rest of the airport makes sense to me, though that may not be the state of current negotiations. Apparently there’s currently discussion of how to build a terminal F on the cheap with a smaller footprint, no parking, and international-capable gates but no immigration and customs facility.

Terminal F could be built with design standards that allow more airplanes to park in a smaller space. For example, at the brand new airport in Istanbul, Turkey, the terminals stick out like fingers, making it possible for planes to park on both sides of each terminal pier.

That’s a contrast to the layout at DFW, where planes can only park on one side of each terminal.

…Also, although the talks about construction of DFW’s Terminal F are still preliminary, it’s possible the new terminal could be built without a parking garage, officials said.

“If we can add gates without a lot of the things you typically need for a terminal, that might be really helpful,” said Tim Skipworth, American Airlines vice president of airport affairs and facilities.

…Terminal F also could include some international gates. But, he said, rather than building a new U.S. Customs area to process travelers arriving from other countries, there may be a way to connect the Terminal F international gates to the Customs processing center that’s already in Terminal D.

It sounds strange to hear the airport’s chairman and the airport’s President talking about these options are viable, rather than driving for a full new terminal to support the airport’s long term vision. I interpret their enthusiasm for what seems like ‘new terminal light’ in the context of negotiations with American Airlines over the airport’s major tenant’s willingness to go along with a new terminal at all.

Not having a new terminal as part of the airport’s 10 year plan would be a disaster for a region that’s been one of the fastest growing in the United States. As a result a scaled back terminal F seems better than no terminal F at all. That, and what kind of support terminal C will get, are the live questions that will be settled in the coming months as a new use agreement for the airport sets the agenda there for the next decade. And in turn it will help determine whether the Metroplex region itself can continue to grow.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I read somewhere the main reason C got excluded from TRIP is during the preliminary work they realized that C was in a very terrible shape that rehabilitating it will cost more than just tearing down and rebuilding the terminal.

    I really think DFW shouldn’t skimp out on concourse F but build it out as a new international terminal (ala ATL concourse F). Or else the airport will rapidly find itself to be an inferior airport to the other mega hubs 15-20 years down the road.

  2. AA needs DFW more than the other way around at this point, seeing that CLT, even with infinite capacity expansion and bottom barrel enplanement unit cost is simply too far east, while PHX won’t be able to expand sufficiently fast enough.

    If AA still treated its ORD hub with any dignity they could’ve played one against the other, but the last 10 years has only shown AA’s constant willingness to sacrifice ORD and route the traffic via DFW instead.

    Nothing wrong with boosting a fortress hub from financial perspective, but when it comes to playing multi-jurisdiction aviation politics, it’s not a winning strategy. It works in Lufthansa’s case cuz they’ve sufficiently diversified between FRA and MUC even prior to the spat with FRAport, and they’ve actually shown in actions (new routes, freq, A380 redeployment etc) they can give all the new love to MUC.

    So now neither ORD nor DFW will believe any tantrum AA might try to throw (e.g. see how indifferently ORD and Chicago reacted when AA whined about the gates for the expansion project). If AA refuses to do jack about TermC, someone else will make the decision for them, and most likely, not their ideal choice. I cringe whenever I deal with PHX or LGA old TermB, and these pictures of TermC look like it’s heading there too. Piecemeal isn’t all that hard at all. Heck, LGA is managing mission impossible now – building COMPLETELY new terminals, opening in phases, while existing infrastructure still operating at essentially full capacity.

    DFW TermF is a much more elegant long-term solution, and if AA is too penny-concerned for that, next time AA throws tantrums at non-fortress hubs, the exact same response from the airport authorities will be :

    my way or the dallas north tollway is something best kept within texas

  3. It seems designed to add a terminal F so it just a money thing. If they aren’t going to bandaid Terminal C then they should build F and rebuild C after that is open. According to all the “experts”, air traffic will double in the next _______years. So they will need the capacity at some point.

    Oh and I like how DFW’s design is so awesome where you can park by the gates and go right in, etc. Yet MCI which is somewhat the same era and type model is crap and KCMO is going single terminal.

  4. Thank you Gary for the article. I read it. However, since I am no longer a EP, I am not sure when I will be in DFW again. Over 100K miles in 2018, but none on American. So far, 2019 is the same.

  5. This probably isn’t too relevant, as it happened at least a couple years ago, but I was sitting next to an architect on a flight out of DFW and he pulled open his laptop to a CAD drawing. I couldn’t help but snoop and noticed they were blueprints of DFW and a new terminal F. It appeared to be shaped similar to the other terminals (most similar to D) and in the spot you would expect it to be, in the location of the current South Express parking. As I said it was a few years ago, but at the very least someone at some point designed a future Terminal F for DFW and prints exist.

  6. A Terminal F that is like Concourse D in Las Vegas is what I expect will be the solution. That will require some expansion of Terminal D to accommodate additional baggage claim and checkin areas, but likely not more than that footprint can handle. It would effectively be a satellite of Terminal D. A replacement for C may also look more like that as well and perhaps a satellite of A or E. Some rework of the Airtrain path is a likely requirement but there is enough space and capacity at DFW for a good solution for both connecting and local passengers.

  7. DFW’s current setup is pretty poor. I flew there often for a job in Dallas. While transiting other terminals was manageable it was not very easy, a single terminal would be so much better. But DFW doesn’t have that option. They must build Terminal F, there’s no way around that. Navigating the construction at E was not pleasant, C would be worse due to more gates.

    There needs to be a train to the rental car facility, the buses are crowded, bumpy, and inefficient.

    Another problem is the toll-road through the middle of the airport. You can pass through that area avoiding the tolls. But toll avoidance means you have no access to the terminals. To have to pay a toll to even hit the departures curb is terrible. When I first signed up for Global Entry my home airport had interviews 8 months out, DFW had openings during my next trip. The only option I had was to pay the toll to get to the parking structure at Terminal D.

    DFW’s land footprint is enormous, it’s a shame they don’t have an airport to match.

  8. I’ll also add it’s refreshing to see DL’s investment in the new SLC. That completely new terminal and gates is going to be fantastic. Had DL been less willing to invest it would not be the impressive structure it’ll be.

  9. From an airfield standpoint, it would be a mistake to build Terminal F as an international/widebody facility. Right now, almost all of the widebodies (and certainly all of the international heavies) operate out of the west side of the airport. No matter where they land, they have to trek over to D, and vice-versa when it’s time to depart. They should use construction as a chance to balance the ground traffic flows. If they want a second Terminal D (for the 777’s and A380 traffic), they should build it on the east side of the airport, where Terminal C currently stands. That way, the heavy traffic can be distributed 50-50 on the property.

    Of course, this means they’d have to build Terminal F first, but build it as a direct replacement for Terminal C’s mostly-domestic narrowbody traffic. Once F is online, they can demolish C (or build a new C in phases) and rebuild it to widebody specs just like Terminal D. It would also have visual symmetry this way, as the two “non-horseshoe” terminals would be opposite each other in the center of the complex.

    Another issue at play in all this is the explosive growth of regional jets in American’s fleet. They’ve already added a stinger terminal to B, but is that one terminal sufficient to hold all of American Eagle’s operations over the next few decades? And if it’s not, where would be the best place to put all the new regional jet growth? Maybe they could build another one of those idiotic satellite terminals, like what they have at Terminal E.

  10. I moved to Dallas a few years ago and I love how it’s set up. I do agree extended the train to the rental area’s is a good thing, except the trains are behind security not after. So there’s no way to get your bags and go… so it would be another whole set up.

    I actually like having a Toll road in the middle. Then the people who use it, pay for it., and those who don’t… don’t have to either. Plus you can bypass it by taking the feeder roads. But the toll road is great as they connect their parking system to your toll tags so it’s super easy and convenient for people actually parking in the airport or just picking up passengers.

    I’d love to see an expanded Terminal E following the similar lines of the current terminals…although I get making it more efficient for plane parking. I regularly experience parking capacity issues already with only 5 terminals, so I don’t think a mini-terminal without parking is the best option.

  11. @trevor, sure you can avoid the toll by using the feeder roads. But don’t expect any sort of airport access from the feeders.

  12. I’m a Fort Worth resident and I think I recently read that another factor into why C wasn’t included in TRIP was that the other renovations, especially in A, went way over budget.

    To further support a future F, I believe they installed underground fuel tanks/pumps such that if F ever did happen they could fuel at the gates via these tanks/pumps vs. trucks. And as mentioned above, the SkyLink already travels on a horseshoe track where F would go. So seems like at least some thought has gone into the potential of using that space for F.

    C is horrendous, although it’s not any better/worse (IMHO) than A, B and E were before their updates.

  13. Another terminal that works like PHL or CLT? No thanks. I’ve backed of my AA flying a lot because of the customer comfort, service, and operational issues, but having a third disaster of a terminal might well be the final nail in the coffin.

  14. AA has no bargaining power. The place is too profitable to leave and every AA gate would be flooded with applications from other airlines if they left, so let AA make idle their threats.

    Build F as a real terminal. Then replace C, as others have said.

    Right now, D has excess capacity for international flights (they are flying domestic flights out of it) and there is enough unused gate capacity spread across all terminals for another carrier to have a full-blown hub.

  15. So American can blow 350 million on a new corporate HQ which MAKES NO MONEY instead of investing in a new terminal WHICH MAKES MONEY? Yep, I remember these guys now…same ones who have been running the brand into the ground for a few years now.

  16. Me thinks all interested parties will be able to make a deal. Not rocket science. And, obviously, a “Terminal F” will eventually be built in the “missing” half-circle spot.

  17. As a Fort Worth resident I feel a Terminal F “lite” would be an abomination. If a terminal was constructed without parking, locals driving to the airport and departing through TerminaI F would be forced to park and clear security in another terminal and then take the train to F.

    A few assorted comments: When DFW was designed in 1969 it was envisioned to have up to 13 u-shaped terminals. Looking at satellite images quickly reveals how this could be realized. Originally the terminals and remote parking lots were connected by the dreaded AirTrain, located land side. To be frank, it was a pain to use. Also after spending Billions on the TRIP, terminals A, B, & E were renovated but the bathrooms were not. DFW’s excuse was that the bathrooms had recently been renovated. In my opinion the bathrooms at DFW or too small and also disgustingly dirty. DFW, from an operational perspective, is nowhere close to being maxed out. With 7 runways and plans to construct two more runway “by-passes” DFW has lots of flexibility.

    Over the years, there have been many things said about Terminal C, Terminal F, and Terminal E. There have been discussions on building a terminal F and then tearing down terminal C and using that space as aircraft parking (probably not an option now). There has been lots of discussion about building a Terminal F, consolidating the operations of all other airlines there, and granting American control of terminal E and, most if not all, of D as well. Only time will tell.

  18. I could be way off base, but I’m pretty sure Gary isn’t a liberal unless you are considering the folks he’s worked for — Tom Delay, Paul Ryan and Dick Armey — to be members of the radical left.

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