As they do when John Wayne Airport shuts down each evening, weary airline employees will close up shop at the Edward J. (Eddie) Martin Terminal on Saturday. But under the cover of darkness that night, an army of workers and technicians will swing into action, like stage hands preparing for a Broadway debut.
In the space of a few hours, tons of equipment and supplies ranging from computer terminals to baggage tags will be moved from the 23-year-old building into the new, nearby Thomas F. Riley Terminal, where the first flight into a new era will depart about 8 o'clock the next morning.
There is no master switch to flip to transfer operations from the old, cramped facility to the cavernous Riley Terminal. Each of the nine airlines now serving the airport is on its own. The new terminal must be outfitted quickly, said Assistant Airport Manager Jan Mittermeier, because "there's no going back."
"Each airline has been notified in writing that they must be out of the old terminal on the 16th," Mittermeier said. "It's up to each airline to make the switch individually."
Most of the airlines simply will use new computer terminals that by Sunday morning will have undergone days of testing. If an airline's electrical power or computers fail, said Mittermeier, the carrier "will have to come talk to us. . . . We might be able to do something, but they can't fly out of the old terminal. It will be locked up."
Some of the airlines couldn't go back even if they wanted to, simply because they won't have anything left there.
Construction of the new terminal already has cost $63.1 million. Another $10.6 million in equipment has been built into the facility, such as the baggage-handling machinery, topped off by untold millions spent by individual airlines and airport concessionaires for their own tenant improvements.
In hopes of accomplishing a smooth transfer to the new terminal, the airlines' station chiefs have been meeting regularly with airport officials, and with each other. With a week to go, there are still loose ends. Some airlines don't have the right keys to go with the locks on their office doors. Others are still wondering how to control the air conditioning if employees complain that it's too cold. When one station manager asked where he should tell airline employees to park, an airport staffer faxed over a map.
In a long tunnel underneath the massive, 337,900-square-foot building, electrical and communications cables have been installed, awaiting final hookups with state-of-the-art computers, telephones and fax machines.
Some airlines will have backup systems; others will not.
The newness of everything leaves airline supervisors such as Gene Adams, USAir's station chief at John Wayne, somewhat wary.
"We've got so many new things going all on the same day. We're training on how to drive the Jetways (loading bridges) now, and on the new flight information display system. It's the most sophisticated available. And there's an all-new baggage belt system that's going to have to handle very heavy loads for 18 hours a day. . . . There's simply an awful lot of new things to get used to. I don't think there's going to be any catastrophe, but I think things are going to be a little slow the first day or two."
Adams, who has been through these kinds of moves before, said the computers have always "come up" working, just like they were supposed to.
Occasionally, airport officials said, jetliners arriving at the new terminal will have to wait on the concrete apron until a loading bridge becomes available. This isn't a problem at the Eddie Martin facility because it has no loading bridges. Planes park out on the Tarmac, and pilots can almost always squeeze into the pack somewhere.
Every new facility goes through a shakedown period immediately after people begin using it, airport officials said. And although no single official will serve as the key trouble-shooter on Sunday, a handful of airport officials, project supervisors and representatives of Taylor Woodrow Construction California Ltd., the prime contractor, will be on hand.
Delta Airlines' Larry Pool said this week will be crucial, with "all kinds of technical staff around, trying to get things in shape."
Some of his airlines' employees may have to work overtime, he said, adding that he also believes that many volunteers will also come in.
"As we get closer to the opening, the stress level goes up," said Brian Pundt, customer services manager for Alaska Airlines at John Wayne. "The attention to detail is double what it normally is, and that means an overload from time to time."
While some experts worry about computer failures, Pundt is optimistic. "If we didn't have computers we could live. We would just write tickets by hand and call them into the system elsewhere, over the phone."
The new baggage conveyors, electronic flight information displays, and the loading bridges are the key systems that bear watching on opening day, Pundt said. "If any of these fail, it will slow us down significantly, and a lot of people will be kept waiting."
Passengers will love using the new facility compared to the old terminal, airline officials predict. But they also expect that people eventually will start complaining about something, no matter what. "It's just in their nature," said America West's Robert Covey.
Some airlines, including United, are trying to get a jump on the big move by transferring much of their gear in the next few days. A United spokeswoman said her company's plan is to have everything working in the new terminal by Friday, even though the airline will still be using the old facility on Saturday.
Airlines such as United, which park aircraft overnight at the airport, will have their last arriving jetliners unload passengers at the old facility. Then, during the night, the aircraft will be towed up to the loading bridges at the Riley Terminal for Sunday morning's departures.
Which airline will have the first commercial flight out of the new terminal?
The airport's nighttime noise curfew doesn't allow takeoffs before 8 a.m. on Sundays. Several airlines have 8 a.m. departures. Delta, however, has a flight to Dallas and Tampa that may push away from the gate as early as 7:50 a.m. The final decision is up to air traffic controllers, who inform pilots when they can leave.
Meanwhile, Alaska's Pundt said most of the last-minute moving involves file cabinets and office machines, such as his personal computer and photocopier.
"We're hiring a moving company, just like you would do if you were moving from your home," he said.
But also there will be a parade of hand carts and even some hand-carried items, he said.
Airline officials said their employees welcome the move because the new terminal provides better, less cramped working conditions.
"I think that saying they're excited is an understatement," USAir's Adams said. "Just to give you an example, I have a beautiful office located away from the airport. It's very spacious and quite nice. But I'm giving it up for a 10-by-10 cubicle space at the new terminal because I want to be in this wonderful, new terminal, and because that's where I belong."
Covey, America West's station chief, agreed that employees are very happy with the new terminal.
But then he added: "Every time I make a move like this, everything seems to come together at the last minute, just before the passengers walked up to the gates."
"Before that," Covey said, "it's chaos."