To listen to Sharon Litwin’s interview with Iftikhar Ahmad on WWNO-FM radio, click here.
It’s a cliché, I know, but an airport is, for many travelers, tuly their first impression of a city. Fortunately for New Orleans, the city’s national “brand” has, for years, helped visitors overlook the tired and dreary appearance of the Louis Armstrong Airport in anticipation of, we suspect, the fabled food and music they were expecting to experience.
Of course, for those of us living here, it meant packing a sandwich before leaving home, because few would willingly experience the airport’s generally uninspired culinary offerings, and this in the home of some of the most extraordinary cuisine in the country.
But that has all changed. Now the New Orleans airport offers sit-down restaurants and stand-up eateries ranging from Popeye’s and PJ’s to Ye Olde College Inn, Dooky Chase and WOW Wingery. Even more importantly, the entire physical environment has changed.
Some of the new look is the result of what Executive Director Iftikhar Ahmad describes as “putting some lipstick on” what was already there, like fresh flowers in the women’s restroom or colorful kite design elements suspended from ceilings. But other aspects are more far-ranging, such as the $12 million do-over of the ticket lobby and baggage claim area and a multi-million dollar consolidation of all rental car operations, eliminating the need for shuttle buses.
For the traveler, the entire space is lighter, brighter, smarter, and much more contemporary in appearance — a visual affirmation and reflection of a resilient city that has fought its way back from disaster.
“At a luncheon not so long ago, Mayor Landrieu asked Mayor Daley of Chicago, how do you make a city better?” Ahmad says. “And Mayor Daley said, Well, first you start with the airport.”
Ahmad says that he agrees with Daley, because for any city it is the “first, best impression that matters.” And that is especially true for one still fighting the national and even international perception that we might still be under water. And, while he wants a great first impression for all who go through the space, the airport director says it is most important for those considering doing business in this community.
But Ahmad is not resting on his recent accomplishments; as soon as the Super Gras thousands leave, he’s turning his attention to the next phase of this airport: a new terminal. Extensive renovations and new building plans are expensive propositions. But Ahmad says the $310 million cost of this first phase has decreased maintenance cost which, along with a reevaluation of more than 160 contracts, has resulted in a financial upgrading by both Fitch Ratings and Standard and Poor’s.
So who is Iftikhar Ahmad? This fairly recent newcomer to New Orleans immigrated to the United States in 1988 to obtain his bachelor and master’s degrees in civil engineering from Oklahoma State University. He went on to hold airport leadership positions in Houston, Nashville and Dayton, before taking over Louis Armstrong Airport 2 1/2 years ago.
Married to a “farmer’s daughter from La Crosse, Wisconsin,” with two children in area schools, he says his family “loves it in New Orleans.” The son of a father “with an African background and a mom with a Turkish background,” Ahmad went to a Catholic School in Pakistan until middle school, before finishing his childhood education in Nicosia, Cypress.
Now a devoted New Orleanian, he says his plan is to “personally work very hard to make sure my adopted city has only truly positive things happen at this airport.”
The gallery below showcases the scope of airport improvements:
Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie.