Passengers rolling through the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport lately may have noticed telltale signs of construction in the main terminal. Temporary partitions divide its midsection, exposed ventilation systems hang in the baggage claim and makeshift signs direct befuddled travelers.

The airport, the nation’s 17th busiest, is undergoing a seven-year $1.6 billion overhaul — one of the biggest in its history — as it adapts to changing travel trends and a growing number of passengers.

Guiding the ambitious project is Rick King, a business executive at Thomson Reuters, who Gov. Tim Walz recently named chairman of the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), which operates the airport. A MAC member for nearly a decade, King is no stranger to the wiles of aviation as he takes the helm of the 15-member commission that must nurture an asset that touches nearly every Minnesotan.

“Minnesota needs to have this airport in good shape to thrive economically,” King said in a recent interview.

Part of the renovation is driven by a shift toward more passengers starting or ending their trips at MSP instead of using the airport as a pass-through connecting point. It used to be split evenly; now MSP is the departure or destination point for 63% of the airport’s 38 million travelers.

That puts more pressure on public areas of the airport where people park, drop off passengers, check in and snake through security lines. The baggage and ticketing areas of the main terminal are being expanded in a project slated to wind down by 2022.

But much work has already been completed, including the addition of the Inter­Continental hotel, 45 new restaurants and 35 shops, and refurbished restrooms. A retooled food court in Terminal 1 will debut this fall, and a $245 million, 5,000-space parking ramp will open next year. The entire project will wrap up in 2023.

At the same time, King and his colleagues on the commission must look even further into the future as they contemplate a long-term plan, the airport’s blueprint for the next two decades.

Former MAC Chairman Dan Boivin said King’s up to the task: “He’s reasonable, he’s calm, he never loses his temper.”

‘Some tricky navigation’

In coming months, a hole will be bored between the ticketing and baggage claim areas to make way for a multilevel public artwork by New York-based artist Jen Lewin. The interactive piece, crafted of glass and metal, is expected to be unveiled next winter.

More recently, construction has resulted in a big chunk of the departure and arrival areas cordoned off in Terminal 1 to make way for new elevators.

Adam Frey, a frequent traveler from Lakeland, said one challenge at the airport involves the lack of elevators and escalators connecting the bottom levels of the main terminal to ticketing and security, particularly during peak travel times.

Plus, space for walking in the ticketing area is constrained “with very long lines for security and pinched space with the construction,” Frey said. “This leads to some tricky navigation.”

As the number of passengers flying to and from MSP increases, it may result in longer screening lines by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), as well.

TSA Federal Security Director for Minnesota Cliff Van Leuven applauded the MAC’s planned expansion of the south checkpoint from six lanes to nine, due to the increase in passengers.

“We are also bringing on more passenger screening canine teams as well as the latest technology to our security checkpoints,” he said.

The changes, while sometimes inconvenient, generally earn high marks from travelers.

Karl Anderson, a frequent traveler from St. Paul, said MSP “is my favorite airport in the country. It’s relatively easy to get in and out, I like the food options, there are good spots to do work if you need to, there’s Wi-Fi and outlets for charging, and it’s clean — even the bathrooms.”

Linda Standke of Bloomington, who flies from MSP maybe twice a year, said if the airport embarks on a project “it generally turns out well.”

More changes ahead

King’s ascension comes as the airport adds new airlines, including Aer Lingus, and service, such as Delta nonstop flights to Mexico City, Seoul and, pending government approvals, Shanghai. Working with the economic development group Greater MSP, King helped form the Regional Air Service Partnership to assess what airline service is needed by local businesses.

Peter Frosch, CEO of Greater MSP, said businesses “are interested in the labor force, the quality of life and a world-class airport. From a competitive standpoint, it’s difficult to overstate the importance of the MSP Airport to this region and the state.”

Frosch said enhanced service to Nordic countries as well as India, Africa and Brazil may be next in line for MSP.

Although more airlines serve MSP than ever before, Delta Air Lines remains dominant, carrying 71% of all passengers.

King “has a well-earned reputation on the MAC of being able to find solutions to complex issues that have made [the airport] one of the best in the country,” said Bill Lentsch, the airline’s executive vice president of Flying/Air Operations.

But in the coming months, King and the MAC must deal with growing labor unrest among some of the airport’s 19,000 workers. Some are pushing for the commission to adopt a $15-an-hour minimum wage, which appears likely.

Other labor unions have complained about pushback from Delta and some of its contractors regarding organizing campaigns and working conditions.

“Honestly, I believe the new chair has been brought on to listen to different perspectives,” said Wade Lüneburg, political director at UNITE HERE Minnesota, which represents some airport workers.

The commission also faces critics regarding airplane noise affecting neighboring communities.

“We made a series of reasonable proposals to better engage the community on noise issues and they were rejected out of hand,” said Kevin Terrell, co-founder of the MSP FairSkies Coalition, a group of anti-noise activists. “They don’t seem to have in their minds the notion that noise should be reduced.”

King, a former Division I hockey referee, said the best strategy for tackling hard issues is listening to all points of view.

“We get the facts out and make the best possible decision,” he said.

“Rick is a pro,” Walz said in a statement. “He’s a proven leader with deep private and public sector experience who brings people together to find consensus and get the job done.”


Twitter: @ByJanetMoore