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Orlando approves $1 billion airport expansion plan

By Barbara Liston

ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Orlando's international airport authority approved a $1.1 billion improvement program, financed in part by $543.5 million in revenue bonds, to meet growing tourism industry demand linked to the area's theme parks.

"This community is exploding. We've got to be prepared for it because it's coming," Greater Orlando Airport Authority chairman Frank Kruppenbacher said on Thursday.

Passenger traffic at Orlando International, the 13th busiest airport in the nation, stands at 35 million, including 1.8 million international arrivals, according to GOAA executive director Phil Brown.

The bonds will be backed by general revenues derived from airport concessions, and by Federal Aviation Administration-approved passenger facility charges, according to the project budget.

Brown said requests for proposals will go out to investment bankers by the end of the year to ready the first $150-180 million issue for the first quarter of 2014.

The improvements include four additional international gates, upgrades to the ticket hall and baggage screening areas, an automated people mover, and a rail terminal to accommodate the announced All Aboard Florida, a privately financed initiative to provide train service between Orlando and Miami.

The work will bring annual passenger capacity to 45 million, according to the airport authority news release.

The current airport facility, originally designed to accommodate 24 million passengers annually, opened in phases beginning in 1981, a decade after the arrival of Walt Disney Co. turned Orlando into a worldwide tourist destination. Previous expansions occurred in 1991 and 2009, according to a GOAA timeline.

Passenger traffic is projected to exceed 40 million by 2016 when Disney opens its next big draw, a new themed section at the Animal Kingdom park based on director James Cameron's popular Avatar movie and planned sequels.

Additional visitors are being drawn by Orlando's fast-growing Medical City of hospital and research facilities in Lake Nona.

The new capital plan also includes a trigger to begin final design and construction of an additional $1 billion new terminal, for which financing details have not yet been established, once annual traffic reaches that 40 million passenger mark, including 2 million international arrivals.

The GOAA timeline projects the new terminal opening in 2019.

(Editing by David Adams and Ken Wills)

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