Vacation planners, beware: The busiest day in the history of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is coming, a day after the Super Bowl at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“It’s not even going to be close. It’s going to blow everything out of the water,” said Phil Burke, director of MSP operations at the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC).
The day is Monday, Feb. 5, the airport’s own version of the Super Bowl. On that day, an estimated 70,000 commercial air travelers will arrive at MSP for flights out. In industry parlance, the passengers are originators, starting their travel at MSP.
“There’s no bigger event draw in the world,” Burke said of the Super Bowl.
In most years, the busiest day for air travel is the Wednesday before the two-day October school break known as MEA, when 47,000 travelers originate their flights out of MSP, Burke said. The Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee, the corporation planning and running the event, expects 125,000 visitors for the 10-day event that starts in late January, including an estimated 100,000 from out of town. Burke said MSP is expecting 50,000 more passengers than usual to arrive in the days leading up to the game.
For the airport and the Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee, providing a strong, enthusiastic welcome at MSP is critical on arrival and similarly important on departure. Burke eagerly and repeatedly raises expectations, saying he wants to blow away visitors and provide a “VIP experience” for everyone.
His moonshot: teams of volunteers greeting Super Bowl visitors individually with “Welcome to Minnesota” as soon as they emerge from the jetway. He wants visitors walking in thinking that “people are crazy excited to see me,” Burke said.
In addition to the 10,000 volunteers trained and deployed through the host committee for Super Bowl events all over town, the airport will have its own cadre of 450 volunteers in secure areas of the terminals. Host committee volunteers at the airport will be in nonsecure areas such as baggage claims.
Planning has been underway for more than a year at the MAC, in coordination with the host committee. The MAC has 29 subcommittees working on aspects of the event from accessibility, wayfinding, police, fire, concessions, the arts, customs, border patrol, sustainability and IT.
“That personal touch is so important — they will be the first hello and the final goodbye to our guests,” said Maureen Bausch, CEO of the host committee. “They are helping create a lasting memory of the Super Bowl.”
At the 2017 Super Bowl in Houston, Burke and a small crew monitored airport operations, and picked up a couple of surprising nuggets. Burke watched as the two NFL teams disembarked from their charters and strolled across the tarmac to their buses under a bright sun. Not happening in Minnesota in February, he said to himself.
Instead, the team charter flights will be directed to hangars near Terminal 2, then towed inside. They’ll unload, walk across the hangar to their buses and be off — all while sheltered from the elements.
Later in the week, the two championship teams will bring about six charter planes in for the event, complete with stroller-toting moms and wheelchair-using grandparents. Those chartered flights will also disembark in the hangar and exit through Terminal 2, probably at midday, which Burke said is a slower period for commercial travel.
Arrivals are easier, because visitors come in over a 10-day span. For commercial airlines, the extra travelers aren’t an issue: they use bigger planes and already have assigned gates.
Trickier is finding space for all private jets. An expected 1,100 private planes will ferry VIPs and high-rollers to town for the game. To compare, last year’s PGA of America Ryder Cup brought 100 private jets.
All those Gulfstreams, Bombardiers and Learjets need parking spaces. MSP can accommodate only 275 of them — and to make that happen, the airport has to shut down the crosswind runway for extra space. Other MAC airports in Anoka, St. Paul and Flying Cloud can each take 200 private planes.
So planners are going out further: finding airports with de-icing capabilities in Rochester, St. Cloud, Eau Claire, Mankato and maybe Duluth.
Because of the volume, Burke said private flights will be required to reserve exit times — something not normally required. Some bigshots will start taking off at halftime Sunday night.
“It’s see-and-be-seen and blow out of town,” he said.
Another Super Bowl tradition Burke saw at Houston’s airport: the overnighters. Every year, some 2,000 fans party up on game day, then crash at the airport to avoid the cost of a hotel room. For MSP, no problem, Burke said. The airport already has 700 sleeping mats for stranded travelers. They will bump up the inventory, dim the lights and turn down the sound for the overnighters in the terminals, he said.
On the table in his corner office overlooking MSP’s two busy, parallel runways, Burke has neat piles of documents guiding the planning.
What the documents can’t help plan is the Minnesota weather on Feb. 5, 2018. Burke shrugs it off.
“A typical snow event lasts two to four hours and then we’re cleaning up,” he said, adding that the airport already has a globe-leading winter operation.
For Minnesotans considering a vacation skedaddle the week of Feb. 5, Burke said, “if they have the option of traveling later that week ... they might want to consider that.”