Orlando International Airport

The story of MCO's past and present terminal building.

McCoy Air Force Base Civilian Passenger Terminal

  Orlando city officials faced a dilemma at the dawn of the jet age.  The Orlando Municipal (Executive) Airport’s short 6,000-foot runways were not long enough to handle the new Boeing 707, Convair 880 and Douglas DC-8 jetliners and the tiny 1951 Terminal was too small to accommodate the growing number of passengers.  Officials worked out an arrangement with the Air Force that allowed the city to use one of McCoy Air Force Base’s (MCO) two long 12,000-foot runways for airline operations.

The Civilian Passenger Terminal in the late 1960s.  Note the Delta Airlines Douglas DC-8 in the far right.

  Two former missile-storage barns located near Sand Lake Road were procured and hastily converted into a single passenger terminal for Delta, Eastern and National Airlines.  The makeshift facility with its single five-gate concourse opened in 1964 and was more than adequate in handling the airline requirements of the sleepy Central Florida city until the end of the decade.  By 1968 all airline operations had migrated from the Orlando Municipal Airport to MCO.

  An event that changed Central Florida forever took place in 1971 when the Walt Disney World Resort and its world-renowned Magic Kingdom theme park opened.  Air traffic skyrocketed and Eastern Airlines (Orlando’s busiest carrier) was suddenly the official airline of Walt Disney World.  To keep up with the demand Delta, Eastern and National Airlines placed wide-body airliners on flights to Orlando.  Even Orlando based Shawnee Airlines benefited from the Disney generated traffic by exclusively flying guests from MCO to the Magic Kingdom STOL-Port on de Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter commuter airliners. 

  Officials began making plans for the future and acquired a substantial amount of land east of McCoy.  Plans were drawn for two Curvilinear Terminals (similar to the ones at Kansas City International Airport) to house the airport’s four carriers (by this time Southern Airlines had begun scheduled service).

A mid-1970s roadway view of a newly renovated old terminal.

  After McCoy was acquired by the local authorities in 1974 and renamed Orlando International Airport, $3.5-million was invested in the old terminal to bring it up to Disney standards.  Its interiors were remodeled, a modern canopy was installed (to protect patrons from the Florida weather) and two baggage claim areas equipped with four luggage carousels were built.  The original single-story concourse was expanded into a Y-shaped structure with 15 gates and an additional two-gate pier was added.

An interior view of the old terminal after it was refurbished.

  Orlando International Airport became very popular with the airlines after Airline Deregulation came into effect and was soon the fastest growing airport in the nation.  In 1978 the jam-packed terminal handled an amazing 5-million passengers.  New carriers initiating scheduled service included American, Braniff International, Continental, North Central, Northwest, Ozark, Pan American, Piedmont, Trans World, United Airlines and USAir.

Landside/Airside Terminal

  As a result of the rapid traffic growth and the additional carriers the plans for the Curvilinear Terminals were shelved in favor of a Landside/Airside Terminal complex similar to the one in operation at Tampa International Airport.

  The chosen terminal design would reduce congestion by decentralizing terminal functions and minimize walking distances for the passenger.  This type of terminal separates the Landside (ticketing and baggage claim) functions from the Airsides (gates and aircraft).  An automated people mover system replaces the long walks to the airliners by conveying passengers between the Landside and the surrounding Airside Buildings.

  Construction on Orlando International Airport’s second passenger terminal began in 1978 (on a once forested site situated east of the airport’s original parallel runways) and was finally completed in 1981.  A grand opening celebration was held within the terminal on September 18th and the facility was officially dedicated on October 2nd.

Assorted views of the Landside/Airside Terminal Building.  Note the Pan Am Boeing 727s. 

  The $300-million complex was initially comprised of a central Landside Terminal Building, two Airside satellites and a Westinghouse People Mover System.  The terminal had some 1.5-million square feet under cover and a rated capacity of 12-million passengers a year.  The facility was designed for future expansion and could be doubled in size when required.


Interior views of the Landside/Airside Terminal's Great Hall.

  The Landside Terminal had three passenger levels and was divided into two zones (Landside A and B).  Surface transportation facilities (buses to Walt Disney World and rental car agencies) were found in the Ground Transportation (first) Level.  Sixteen belt-type luggage dispensers and the offices of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority where housed within the Baggage Claim (second) Level.  Four airline ticket counter islands, two people-mover shuttle stations, shops/newsstands and restaurants/lounges were located within the Ticketing (third) Level.  The Ticketing Level featured a beautiful skylight-enclosed “Great Hall” atrium and a fifteen-piece art collection. 


Various views of the Landside/Airside Terminal depicting the Westinghouse C-100 shuttles. 

  The automated Westinghouse People Mover System employed a fleet of eight 100-passenger second-generation C-100 shuttle cars that traveled on four 1,960-foot elevated roadways.  Each Airside was provided with two roadways and eight shuttle cars that operated as two-car trains.  The vehicles traveled at 25 mph and could convey over 8,000 passengers per hour during peak times.  Average travel time between Landside and Airside was 68 seconds.  Improvements in people mover technology allowed the vehicles to travel on gradient roadways thereby eliminating the need to position the Airside and Landside shuttle stations on the same level (as in the case of Tampa International Airport).  This reduced vertical pedestrian movement and improved traffic circulation within the terminals.  Shuttle maintenance was performed at service bays situated on the lower level of the Airside satellites. 

A 1981 aerial view of the Eastern Airlines Airside (Gates 1-29).

  The two Airside satellites were two-level structures with three concourses radiating from a central core.  Airline offices/workshops were located on the ramp level and the departure lounges, shuttle stations and restaurants/gift shops were found in the level above.  The jetway-equipped satellites could simultaneously accommodate a total of 48 narrow-body or fewer wide-body jetliners.  Each structure was identified by its gates (Gates 1-29 and 30-59) instead of letters as in the case of Tampa International Airport.


Different views of the Landside Terminal and Westinghouse People Mover System.  

  After the terminal became operational the Airport’s Operators Council International rated MCO as the 25th busiest airport in the United States.  Icelandair commenced scheduled service to Europe in 1984 after the terminal was modified to handle arriving international flights.  Traffic continued to soar and in 1986 MCO became the second busiest airport in Florida!  That same year the terminal reached its design capacity of 12-million passengers and plans were made for a major expansion program.

A 1992 bird's-eye view of the Landside/Airside Terminal.  Note the garages and terminal expansion. 

  By 1992 Phase II of Orlando International Airport’s Landside/Airside Terminal’s expansion had been completed.  The $516-million Capacity Improvement Program included a Landside Terminal Building addition, a luxury hotel, three parking garages and a third Airside satellite.

  The Landside Terminal was greatly lengthened.  The number of ticket counter islands was increased from four to eight more than doubling the amount of check-in space.  Baggage claim, concession and office space was also doubled.  A luxury 446-room ten-story Hyatt Hotel and a 1,682-space parking garage were opened atop the new addition.  An airy 42,160 square-foot Hotel Atrium was included in the design and featured a fountain, concession space and seating areas for patrons.  Two shuttle stations with security screening areas were also incorporated into the design.  Moving walkways linked the Landside Terminal’s Hotel Atrium with the Great Hall in the opposite side of the building.

Assorted views of the Delta Airlines Airside (Gates 60-99).  Note the atrium's giant glass ceiling.

  The third Airside satellite (Gates 60-99) was comprised of a huge skylight enclosed atrium core and four concourses with 39 gates.  One of the concourses was designed for commuter airliner operations and featured 15 ramp-level departure lounges and gates.  An internal U.S. Customs and Immigration Center could process 2,000 international passengers per hour.  The Airside was designed for Delta Airlines (which by this time had replaced Eastern as Orlando’s busiest carrier) and its commuter affiliate Comair.

Various views of the Landside/Airside Terminal.  Note the American and TWA wide-body airliners.

  In 1996 Orlando International Airport handled 25-million passengers and Southwest Airlines began scheduled service with 19 daily flights to 17 domestic destinations.  That same year the International Air Transport Association selected the terminal as number one in North America for Overall Passenger Satisfaction.

  A fourth and final Airside satellite (Gates 110-129) was added in 2000 and was the most beautiful of the four.  This facility had two concourses (expandable to three) that could handle sixteen medium-range jetliners.  The 318,000 square-foot glass/steel Airside featured whimsical floor mosaics and massive stained glass windows created by award winning artists.  The satellite's bright and airy central core boasted 12,000-square feet of skylights supported by a unique steel-cable system.  Low cost carriers AirTran, JetBlue, Midway, Southwest and Spirit Airlines were the building’s original tenants.  During recent years JetBlue and Spirit Airlines have relocated to other Airsides.  Currently AirTran, Southwest Airlines and Virgin America are the only carriers serving this satellite.

  In 2003 a food-court rotunda was opened in the central section of the Landside Terminal halfway between the Great Hall and Hotel Atrium.  The new 37,700 square-foot facility was created as part of the aviation authority's Concessions Redevelopment Program.


Interior views of the Landside Terminal Building featuring the Hotel Atrium (Left) and Great Hall (Right).  

  In 2000, 2001 and 2004 J.D. Power and Associates’ highly praised Orlando International Airport’s Landside/Airside Terminal with its Global Passenger Satisfaction Survey Award.  In 2003 the readers of Conde Nast Traveler Magazine selected the terminal (along with Tampa International Airport’s world renowned Landside/Airside Terminal) as the top two facilities in the United States.

  Today Orlando International Airport’s 6.5-million square-foot Landside/Airside Terminal is among the busiest and most beautiful in the world.  During 2011 MCO handled 35,356,991 passengers making the terminal Florida's second busiest after Miami International Airport.  Forty scheduled airlines serve the airport with 418 daily flights to 115 worldwide destinations.

  The Greater Orlando Aviation Authority takes great pride in its showcase terminal and airport, which (along with Walt Disney World and Universal Studios) could be a tourist attraction in its own right.  The airport boasts the most beautiful and one of the tallest ATC-Tower (345-feet high) in the United States.  The tower overlooks the third largest airport (13,297 acres) in the country and its four long parallel runways.  The north/south runways that range in length from 9,000 to 12,000 feet can simultaneously handle three airliners performing instrument landings, a capability shared by very few airports.  Two of these runways can easily handle the Airbus A-380 Super Jumbo-Jet.

An April 1980 pilot's view of the Landside Terminal construction site.


Interior shot of the Eastern Airlines Airside (Left) and the original ATC-Tower (Right).

Early 1990s views of MCO's Landside/Airside Terminal.