The U.S. may have been first to embrace the jet age, but its aging infrastructure is putting it behind rivals such as China that have been on an airport building boom over the last decade.
A year ago, a dingy, cramped and aging terminal greeted travelers to Sacramento International Airport. The utilitarian, 44-year-old building was designed for another era in air travel, one without long security lines and with in-flight dining.
Now the old terminal is gone, replaced by a soaring structure filled with natural light and with restaurants, shops, artwork and a row of wooden rocking chairs where passengers can sit and watch planes take off and land.
Airport terminals built half a century ago are wearing out, and no longer meet security or passenger needs. Some were tailored for airlines that no longer exist. And while the struggling economy has reduced travel demand, aviation experts say that now’s the time to modernize ahead of an expected increase in air travel.
“As you can imagine, in the ’50s, air travel was not what it is today,” said Victor White, the director of airports for the Wichita Airport Authority, which expects to begin building a $200 million terminal in the next few weeks.
Costly? Yes. Some of the larger makeovers run $1 billion or more.
But airport officials claim the projects can pay off in the long run. The Federal Aviation Administration forecasts that annual passenger totals will pass the 1 billion mark in the next decade, assuming average growth in the economy and the population.
“Short-term issues are short-term issues,” said David Magna, a spokesman for Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, which began a nearly $2 billion, seven-year renovation last year. “People are still going to travel.”
Besides Dallas-Fort Worth, several major hubs have undergone upgrades in recent years, including Atlanta, Miami, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. Other busy airports have built modern new terminals, such as Indianapolis, Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and Sacramento. Wichita, Kan., and Myrtle Beach, S.C., are ready to break ground, and Kansas City, Mo., is drafting a blueprint to consolidate three 40-year-old terminals into one.
In 1960, 62 million domestic and international passengers boarded planes at U.S. airports, according to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics. In 2011, the count had risen to more than 800 million.
The new terminals won’t improve on-time arrivals and departures. They won’t upgrade the nation’s antiquated air-traffic control system. Passengers will still have to take off their shoes at security checkpoints and pay extra to check their bags.
But you can admire colorful sculptures, sip a fresh latte while charging up your iPad or buy that shirt you forgot to pack.
“Sometimes with flight delays and things that happen, the experience can feel quite gruesome,” said Curtis Fentress, an architect involved in the design of the Sacramento and Raleigh terminals. “What we as architects try to do is make the experience as pleasant as possible.”
Airlines and travelers help pay for the projects through increased fees, but the recession has taken its toll.
Indianapolis opened its $1.1 billion terminal in 2008, only to see traffic drop from 8 million passengers to 7.2 million last year. When Sacramento’s $1 billion Terminal B opened last year, the airport handled about 2 million fewer passengers than the 10.6 million in 2007. Raleigh-Durham saw nearly 9 million travelers last year when the $570 million Terminal 2 was finished, a million fewer than in 2007.
It might take a decade or more from the initial design phase of a terminal to final construction, and conditions can change. Airlines can add or subtract planes, but airports can’t add or subtract gates.
“Oftentimes, an airport will begin a project in a very different economic cycle,” said Debby McElroy, the executive vice president for policy and external affairs at Airports Council International-North America, an industry group. “Airlines can quickly respond. Airports have less flexibility.”
She said airports could scale down projects to save money. Sacramento put plans for a parking garage and hotel on hold. When the recession hit, Wichita hit pause on its entire project.
“There was a benefit,” White said. “Because the economy had been so poor, the construction costs are better than what they were two years ago. It helps stretch the dollars that much more.”
Wichita, called the Air Capital for its large concentration of aircraft manufacturers, got bad news in January when its largest employer, Boeing, announced that it was shutting down operations there. But White said the new terminal was less about economic development than about giving the city a portal worthy of its heritage.
“Even the design of the building captures the history,” he said. “Those kinds of things will make people proud when we’re done.”
Dallas-Fort Worth is updating its four original terminals, which date to 1974. Magna said the overhaul included more space for the comprehensive security screenings that have been a part of the travel routine since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and less space for ticket counters. Travelers print their boarding passes at home and check fewer bags because most airlines charge for it.
He also said more space would be allotted to restaurants, cafes, coffee shops and bars, owing to the shift away from in-flight meal and beverage services.
“A lot of that has reverted back to the airports,” he said. “Passengers are looking for choices.”
No detail is too small. Restroom stalls need space to store luggage. Passengers need enough electrical outlets to charge cellphones, laptops and iPads. The right kind of flooring is important, too, because almost everyone has a suitcase with wheels.
“Our current terminal is 100 percent carpet,” White said, explaining why Wichita’s new one will have smoother terrazzo tile floors. “The passengers hate it when they’re pulling a suitcase or pushing a wheelchair.”
The old terminals looked very similar. The newest ones reflect the history and culture of their communities. Fentress, the architect, incorporated wood beams into the Raleigh-Durham terminal’s design, in a manner that pays tribute to two elements of the state’s heritage: handcrafted wood furniture and the Wright brothers’ first flight.
“They said they wanted it to be welcoming and warm, and they wanted it to feel like North Carolina,” Fentress, who grew up in the state, said of the airport board. “They did not want something that looked like everything else.”
Sacramento’s Terminal B also uses wood, but in a different way. Hardy Acree, the director of the Sacramento County airport system, approached a team of architects that included Fentress and asked whether a decommissioned bridge made of old-growth redwood timbers could be reused.
“So we thought, ‘Wow, that’s interesting,’ ” Fentress said. “We didn’t quite know what to do with it.”
Look up: It’s part of the gracefully curved high ceiling.
“It gives a nice warmth to the building,” Fentress said.
(c)2012 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by MCT Information Services.