DFW Airport wants to build a 6th terminal, but the design may not be for you

One of the things North Texans like best about DFW Airport is how easy it can be to get from your car to your flight.

If your journey begins in Dallas-Fort Worth, the airport features enormous parking areas at each of its five passenger terminals. From there, a traveler can walk a few hundred feet to one of the 16 security checkpoints — and then walk just a bit further to a departure gate.

But what if that convenience which North Texans have enjoyed since DFW opened in 1974 wasn’t what the airport and its largest tenant, American Airlines, had in mind for future expansion plans?

Over the next two months, officials from DFW and American Airlines say they will begin behind-the-scenes talks about the proposed construction of Terminal F, which would be built just south of Terminal D at the current site of South Express Parking.

Airport officials say there’s a good chance Terminal F will not be shaped like the other terminals, which feature a half-circle or half-moon design (although in Terminal D’s case it’s more of a squared off moon).

That’s just an example of how the next airport terminal might be built with the out-of-town traveler in mind who is just here to change planes, and not necessarily the local flyer.

“Sixty percent of our customers at this airport are here to connect, and the half-moon is not a terrific design for connecting customers,” said Sean Donohue, DFW Airport chief executive officer.

Instead, 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.

No parking?

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.

No financial estimates are available, but Donohue said it’s possible the new Terminal F could be the largest part of an airport capital improvement project that could cost roughly $3 billion to $4 billion through 2025. Some short-term improvements to Terminal C — the airport’s busiest terminal and also the only one that hasn’t seen capital improvements in the past two decades — also likely would be part of the project.

summer travel
DFW Airport’s terminals can get crowded during summer travel season. Joyce Marshall jlmarshall@star-telegram.com

Those funds likely would come from airport revenue bonds issued by the airport’s owner cities, Dallas and Fort Worth. The money would be repaid from fees paid by airlines who use DFW — mainly American, which considers DFW its main global hub and operates about 80 to 85 percent of all flights there.

The idea of building a new passenger terminal without a parking garage might be strange to some travelers. However, nearly one of every four vehicles on airport property is operated by an Uber or Lyft driver, airport officials said. That’s a striking figure, considering that ride-sharing services weren’t even legal at the airport until 2015.

In the not-too-distant future, it may be that DFW and other airports need far fewer parking spots, officials said.

“No airport has ever been built that could accommodate the local customer better than DFW,” said William “Bill” Meadows, a former Fort Worth city councilman who now serves as chairman of the DFW Airport board of directors. “But I think we can find a way to accommodate the modern airlines, and still serve the local customer.”

Donohue said the new 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.

Baggage handling

American Airlines also wants to make its baggage handling system more efficient, Skipworth said.

Today, it’s not uncommon for airline workers to deliver bags by hand from one terminal to another, to accommodate travelers who step off a flight at one end of the airport and connect to another flight on the other end.

“There’s multiple baggage systems,” he said, “Frankly, the baggage is more of a challenge than (moving) the passengers.”

Skipworth also cautioned that it’s premature to say the airline is close to a deal with the airport to launch another multibillion-dollar capital improvement plan, which would be DFW’s third major construction initiative in the past 20 years.

Any deal must be approved by the airport board as well as the American Airlines board of directors.

DFW and American Airlines also are poised to negotiate another 10-year use agreement to spell out the landlord-tenant relationship between the two entities. The current use agreement expires in 2020.

Negotiations for Terminal F could take place simultaneously with the talks for a new Airport Use Agreement.

In all, Donohue estimates the new Terminal F would need 30 to 35 gates. American Airlines plans to add 100 flights per day over the next two years, and most of that new traffic will be at DFW, he said.

Gordon Dickson joined the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1997. He is passionate about hard news reporting, and his beats include transportation, growth, urban planning, aviation, real estate, jobs, business trends. He is originally from El Paso, and loves food, soccer and long drives.