There's an unexpected calm in the lobby of Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. Below the large windows over the ticket counters and the gallery of doors along the airport entrance, traveler traffic moves at a gentle pace — despite it being the day of the Sugar Bowl. The frenzy of last-minute sports fans filled the lobby the day before, and they'll return tomorrow, when airport communications director Michelle Wilcut expects a mass exodus.
"Right now is the quiet part," she says from an office overlooking the lobby.
But the quiet part isn't and hasn't been quiet at all. Contractors and electricians work from early morning hours through afternoons filling holes, painting walls, laying carpet and installing flat-screen TVs. The notoriously drab airport is getting a $300 million retro-futuristic red-and-brown makeover — a design (with floating art pieces, flat-screen flight monitors, natural light) that just a month earlier would be unrecognizable to travelers familiar with MSY.
Iftikhar Ahmad, who has directed the airport since May 2010, sits at the head of a long conference table, his back to the runway outside his office. Ahmad and his staff are preparing a plan for a game much bigger than the Sugar Bowl — in a matter of weeks, Ahmad anticipates more than 42,000 travelers at his airport for Super Bowl XLVII. His staff has kept a fast-paced construction schedule. Most concessions and restaurants will open Jan. 15. But Ahmad has the task of creating the first impression for thousands of new visitors, many of whom will see the heavily touted post-Hurricane Katrina "renaissance" for the first time.
"The Super Bowl for us is just one event," he says. "Then it's Mardi Gras, convention business, cruise business — we're not going to stop. We didn't just prepare for Super Bowl then go back to our old ways; we've been working hard the last two-and-a-half years to change this airport in a positive way. We hope they feel it, they see it, when they're here."
Visitors leaving the airport in cars, however, meet traffic detours and construction — and when they enter the city, they dodge another round of detours and construction focused on the downtown area in the shadow of the Superdome. Mayor Mitch Landrieu and city officials are confident the city will be ready for the national championship game. They have, after all, spent several years planning, legislating and enforcing for a Super Bowl — the city's greatest and most expensive commercial.
New Orleans now ties Miami as the most frequent Super Bowl host. (New Orleans hosted nine Super Bowls, in 1970, '72, '75, '78, '81, '86, '90, '97 and 2002. The Superdome also is the most used Super Bowl venue; Tulane University also was used by the Super Bowl three times, in 1970, '72 and '75.)
The National Football League likes to up the ante each year for its big game. With concerts, its weeklong NFL Experience, concessions, fan events and dozens of other activities, the Super Bowl is a massive event well beyond the Astroturf. Indianapolis, which hosted last year's game, spent more than $8 million (on top of more than $180 million on city infrastructure, like street repair) for the 40,000 game attendees and thousands of other visitors.
But Indianapolis' Capital Improvement Board estimated the city lost $1 million — it only received $7 million from tax revenue. (This was on the heels of opening Lucas Oil Stadium, a $720 million project that broke ground in 2005 and required a tax increase to cover its expenses. The stadium opened in 2008, a few months before Indianapolis won its bid for Super Bowl XLVI.)
The city still received international visibility. Headlines in the Indianapolis Star heralded the event: "As millions watch, Indy shines in her close-up," "City put heart into the game," and "City's efforts made Hoosiers proud."
When New Orleans hosted the big game in 2002, the city and NFL scrambled to come up with a plan following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, which postponed the event and pushed the game into the Carnival calendar.
"This time we've had a few more years to perfect the plan, not just a few months. Super Bowl XVII is a lot bigger," says Frank Supovitz, NFL vice president of special events. In 2002 terms, it's way bigger: Supovitz says viewership has increased more than 28 percent since then, when more than 86 million viewers watched the New England Patriots defeat the St. Louis Rams and saw U2's Bono reveal an American flag under his leather jacket. In 2012, more than 111 million people tuned in.
New Orleans won its "perfect 10" bid in May 2009 at the NFL's annual Spring Ownership Meeting in Florida, beating out Arizona and Florida as potential bowl sites.
"It seems like eons ago we were standing in front of 32 stone-faced owners," says Jay Cicero, president of the GNO Sports Foundation and executive director of the city's Super Bowl committee. "We couldn't tell if they gave a rat's cheek about us. ... It wasn't until the commissioner came into the room."
When Landrieu took office in 2010, the city got to work, well knowing the impending city and federal road projects and general cleanup before the game. As New Orleans City Council Vice President Jackie Clarkson noted at the city's Super Bowl traffic plan announcement last month, "It's our job to pass, legislatively, any changes — anything that has to be done."
When the visitor floodgates open, the airport will be first to greet them.
"There is an impression we need to make on these folks coming in," Ahmad says. "Our customer service team is also working on beads, doubloons, all that stuff that comes with New Orleans, so as folks are coming in, they get a taste of New Orleans as soon as they step foot in Louisiana. We're going to have live music on both levels. They'll play jazz."