Airport Terminals

Airports Hope for Infrastructure Help

(This is a slightly different version of a story we wrote for NBC News)

When low-cost carrier Avelo Airlines launched the first of 11 new routes to small cities and secondary airports from 14-gate Hollywood Burbank Airport (BUR) in April, it raised the airport’s profile as an alternative to Los Angeles International. And put a spotlight on BUR’s outdated facilities

“The existing terminal is too close to the runways and taxiways,” explains BUR executive director Frank Miller, “And the building is now 91 years old.” A terminal replacement plan put on hold due to COVID-19 is back on track. But funding sources for this – and for other airport infrastructure projects around the country – are “simply inadequate,” says Miller.

Even before the pandemic and the sharp decline in air travel, “chronic underfunding” created a backlog of more than $115 billion in necessary infrastructure needs for just the next five years, according to a study by Airports Council International – North America (ACI-NA) released in March.

“We’re trying to build 21st century airports,” says Kevin Burke, ACI-NA’s president and chief executive office, “But we have 20th century airports that are, on average, more than 40 years old.” 

Will infrastructure funds help?

That is why airports continue pushing for an increase to one of the main ongoing infrastructure funding mechanisms for airports – the federally capped user fee on tickets known as the Passenger Facility Charge. That fee was last raised from $3 to $4.50 twenty years ago, before 9/11.

And it is why all eyes are on the $25 billion line item for airports in the Biden Administration’s infrastructure plan being hammered out in Washington, D.C.

The proposal includes $10 billion to supplement the Airport Improvement Program (AIP), $10 billion for terminal redevelopment and intermodal transit connections, and $5 billion to replace and modernize Federal Aviation Administration equipment.

ACI-NA’s study says that instead of investing in large, high-impact projects to modernize facilities and increase capacity, “airports have been forced to prioritize smaller, immediate needs like maintenance of aging structures and systems.” And now there are “tens of billions of dollars in additional projects that have been delayed or canceled due to the pandemic and economic recession.”

Projects on, Projects off

For example, during 2020, Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) deferred $96 million in construction projects. And in April 2020, San Francisco International Airport (SFO) announced the postponement of a $1B renovation project for Terminal 3 West, where United Airlines operates. That project is still on hold, says airport spokesman Doug Yakel, “Although we will be revisiting the timeline for this project later this year.” 

During the pandemic, Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) put the $3 billion, 24-gate Terminal F project on pause. But it pressed ahead with some other major projects, including the accelerated reconstruction of an arrival runway, the opening of the four-gate Terminal D South extension of the international terminal, and the construction of a new operations center.

“We continued the work because it was important to the airport,” explains DFW CEO Sean Donohue. “But the projects were also important to the region. During the peak of all that work it created 4,000 construction jobs.”

Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Portland International Airport (PDX), Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA), and Kansas City International Airport (KCI) are some other airports that moved forward with major construction work during the pandemic. In some cases, completing projects ahead of schedule and with some cost savings thanks to reduced traffic in and around the terminals.

And Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT), which put a hold on it $1.1 billion terminal project in April 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, was able to restart that project in February 2021.

“The pandemic really highlighted the need for our Terminal Modernization Project,” said Christina Cassotis, CEO of Pittsburgh International Airport. “We’ll be the first airport in the country built from the ground up in a post-pandemic world and that’s given us the chance to include public health as a key component of the design.”

Next steps?

Despite the summer bump in travel, passenger traffic and the revenue it brings to airports is not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2023.

ACI-NA estimates airports will lose at least $40 billion through March 2022 and even more if passenger traffic stays depressed. That makes finding funding for all the needed airport infrastructure projects more important.  

The funds needed for short and long-term capital improvement projects at US airports far exceed the amounts in any of the proposed federal packages. “But the reality is that as things get back to normal and some level of funding is agreed to, you’ll see a lot more cranes, and a lot more work that will everyone,” says ACI-NA’s Burke.

“That includes communities, airports, the trades and, of course, passengers.”

SEA Airport reveals next phase of revamped North Satellite

Courtesy Port of Seattle

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport’s 1970s-era North Satellite is undergoing a much needed, multi-year makeover to create a state-of-the-art facility to serve Alaska Airlines flights.

Phase One of the project brought us a swanky new Alaska Airlines lounge, restaurants and shops, and bright new gate areas.

Phase Two includes the two gates that opened today in advance of 10 more gates that will open at the end of June. This upgraded space has a mezzanine area and a central atrium that will offer a live performance stage, lots of seating, and great views out to the airfield thanks to a giant wall of windows. And new dining and retail options will include PF Chang’s, Beecher’s, SEA Roast Coffee House, and a branch of Seattle-based outdoor store Filson.

This is our home base airport, so we were excited to mask up and take a tour.

First: Cookies. All Airport Events Must Have Cookies.

New Construction Means New Art

This North Satellite project add 10 new pieces of art to the airport’s impressive collection. Some of the new works are tucked into the existing Nursing Suites. Others are already installed and are hard to miss.

Passengers riding up the escalator from the train level at SEA’s North Satellite are now met with an impressive sculpture titled “Boundary.” Seattle-based artist John Grade created this life-sized portrayal of the expanding root structure of an old-growth Western Red Cedar.

The work is 40 feet high, extends 25 feet out from the wall, and stretches 85 feet across – a distance, the airport notes, is equal to the wingspan of a Boeing 737.

Blackleaf, by Montana artist Deborah Butterfield is cast in bronze from pieces of driftwood.

Courtesy Port of Seattle

Bathrooms that use rainwater to flush toilets

We are disappointed that the newest restrooms in the North Satellite don’t have that much-appreciated red light/green light feature found in some SEA lavs that let you know which stalls are empty.

But we are pleased these restrooms make use of rainwater collected off the roof to flush the toilets. That will help save 2.8 million gallons of potable water annually – the equivalent of 4.5 Olympic swimming pools.

What’s up at Portland International Airport?

Our first post-pandemic road trip takes us to Oregon, starting at – where else – Portland International Airport (PDX).

The airport is getting a new main terminal and we stopped in to get an “in-progress” view and to learn about what it will take to make the project happen.

Here are some snaps of what the terminal looks like now.

Sadly, one of our favorite features of PDX, the pre-security shopping street with branches of many local favorites, is gone and not coming back. But many of these shops still have post-security outlets, and additional local shops are opening now, with more on the way.

Outside, things look pretty torn up too. But we were assured that the construction is not getting in the way of flight schedules. No small feat!

Here’s are some renderings of what the new terminal will look like. And below, a recent PDX tweet with a video of what we’ll see inside the new terminal. It looks like it will be pretty snazzy, pretty Portland, and very northwest.

Tampa Int’l Airport Turning 50

Tampa International Airport (TPA) turns 50 on Thursday, April 15, and is celebrating with giveaways, a sweepstakes drawing, and special surprises for travelers passing through the terminal that day. 

The airport is hosting a sweepstake with a first prize of a $1,000 gift card for redemption at TPA’s shops and restaurants. The winner will also get a TPA swag basket and an exclusive airfield tour. There will be smaller prizes for second and third place. The contest is open until April 15 at 10 a.m. and winners will be announced later that day. Enter TPA’s sweepstakes here.

If you happen to be at Tampa International Airport on April 15, you’ll also be able to enjoy:

  • Giveaways for every 50th passenger going down the escalator, exiting the shuttles and at other key touchpoints.
  • 50th-anniversary décor around the Main Terminal 
  • A TPA branded photo station 
  • Special anniversary videos playing throughout the Main Terminal and on social media
  • Snacks and treats 

Fresh Art at TPA

Just in time for its 50th anniversary, Tampa International Airport also has some fresh new artwork to its collection. Both “Cove” by Jason Hackenwerth and “Untitled” by Soo Sunny Park are in the newly completed SkyCenter Atrium.

Travel Tidbits from SAT and SEA Airports

Fresh Art for San Antonio International Airport

San Antonio International Airport (SAT) has a new, hard to miss, piece of public art.

“Star of Texas (La Estrella de Texas),” by the renowned Mexican artist Sebastián, now sits on the south side of the SAT airport entrance, on Airport Boulevard.

The work is 17-feet tall and is painted in the artist’s signature fiery red.

“Public Art is a significant part of who we are, representing where we’ve been, where we are, and where we hope to go as a community,” said San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg in a statement. “The ‘Star of Texas’ speaks to the long-lasting impression San Antonio leaves on visitors and residents alike. Whether visiting San Antonio for the first time or the 100th, or a resident leaving the airport for a vacation, we all know the feeling that keeps us longing for a fast return to this great city.”

Sensory Room + Interfaith Prayer and Meditation Room at SEA Airport

Airports in Pittsburgh, Miami, Atlanta, and elsewhere now have sensory rooms designed to reduce the stress for travelers with neurological or developmental disabilities. The latest airport to offer this feature to travelers is Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA). The new sensory room at SEA room offers a seated bench area, an orange squeeze chair, a rocking chair, dimmable lighting, a starry night ceiling, wool rock pillows, and other features.

Along with the sensory room, SEA also recently unveiled the Interfaith Prayer and Meditation Room. Features here include dimmable lighting, three alcoves of seating, a kneeling prayer bench, Qibla pointer, and luggage/shoe storage.

Both the Sensory Room and the Interfaith Prayer and Meditation Room at SEA airport are located h the train level of the A Gates Satellite Transit Station (STS) in the long hallway near the elevators.