Officials scramble to finish  garage

Contractor disputes are jeopardizing the completion of a massive new parking garage at Louis Armstrong International Airport in time for the upcoming Super Bowl, and airport officials are scrambling to prevent the potential catastrophe.

Several New Orleans Aviation Board members learned of the problems with the airport’s $95 million consolidated rental car garage at a committee meeting on Thursday. Iftikhar Ahmad, the airport’s director aviation, said rental car companies say they need at least 90 days to complete their portion of the project, which would put its completion date well past the Feb. 3 game. The problems were presented to board members by David Groh, the program manager with Aviation Resources Team, who is supposed to shepherd the project to completion.

New Orleans is counting on the Super Bowl as a chance to showcase the airport and the city, and millions of dollars are being spent to modernize the facility and give it a fresh face. The rental car garage actually was designed before Hurricane Katrina and then modified later to meet a new vision. It will move all the companies under one roof adjacent to the main terminal and provide simpler vehicle returns along with a seamless transition from the airport.

Given the type of travelers who typically come to the Super Bowl, for them to arrive and have issues accessing their rental cars would be a disaster, said Doug Thornton, an aviation board member.

“There is no amount of money that could repair the damage to the brand of New Orleans if we don’t have this ready,” he said.

The problems stem from issues between the airport’s general contractor, Satterfield and Pontikes Construction, and a separate contractor hired by three rental car companies to complete their portion of the project. Although the airport is handling the construction of most of the structure, each rental car company is handling the construction of its individual offices.

Rental car companies claim that Satterfield and Pontikes missed several deadlines that have made it impossible for them to complete the project in time, Ahmad said. But, Groh said the car companies’ contractor has made mistakes as well, and there seems to be little effort by the car companies to finish the project quickly since customers can still rent vehicles from their existing offices at the airport. Ahmad said the airport has accommodated several late demands by the rental car companies. He said he plans to speak with the chief executive officer of each company to impress upon them the seriousness of the situation.

“It is a big problem for us if it doesn’t get done,” Ahmad said. “Something has gotten away from us.”

Nolan Rollins, the chairman of the board’s construction committee, said the full board needs to see an exact schedule of when the projects were supposed to be completed and who is at fault for the failure to meet those deadlines. In addition, the board needs to see a solution for the delays to make certain that the car companies are moved in and ready to operate, he said. Rollins wants that information by Thursday.

“Not having this done by Super Bowl is unacceptable and cannot happen,” Rollins said. “While we’re sitting here having these conversations, I’m unclear about what’s getting done.”

Ahmad and Groh pledged to have a schedule ready for next week. They said that with improved communication and combined effort, the garage can be completed in time for the big event.

“With everybody working together, we’ve got to try to pull this off,” Groh said. “We’re committed to continuing to do that.”