When the doors slide open on Sacramento International Airport's $1 billion expansion next month, it will be critical from the first moment that passengers find their way to their planes without confusion or consternation.
That's why, airport officials said, they've invited 120 volunteers next week for a dry run to see how they navigate the new facilities, from the parking lots to the ticket stations to the boarding gates.
If there's a problem, officials said, they need to know now rather than on Oct. 6, when real passengers will need to get to real flights.
"You're basically turning off the lights one night (at old Terminal B), and opening at 5 a.m. the next morning at the new terminal," said the airport's Robert Spitler. "You can't be wrong."
Spitler was brought in from Indianapolis to serve as "readiness" consultant for Sacramento's new facilities.
With three years of construction behind them, airport officials showed off their nearly finished buildings Monday to the news media. What's immediately notable is how different they are from the buildings they replace, the Terminal B complex, and from Terminal A, which will remain in operation.
Passengers will first encounter the new Central Terminal B, an airy, light-filled, four-story structure that towers over squat Terminal B nearby. Its double-deck roadway flows in the opposite direction from the airport's traditional traffic patterns.
There is a separate concourse building a few hundred feet to the north, where boarding gates are located. A buslike automated people mover system will ferry fliers on an elevated guideway between the two buildings.
It's a lot of change to throw at often-hurried travelers. So, those who run the airport are bringing in a group for simulations next week. Some will be dropped off on the ticketing level sidewalk. Some will be sent in via the parking garage bridgeway. Others will be brought in on remote lot shuttle buses to the lower level.
Airport officials will watch as the volunteers make their way to the ticket counters, then onto the people mover and through security stations to their gates. They'll then reverse direction and, acting as arriving passengers, find their way back to baggage claim and out to buses or their cars.
Two days later, the airport will invite members of Sacramento County's disabled advisory group to give the airport a try.
After hours in the next few weeks, airlines will taxi planes to the new facility and practice deploying passenger loading bridges.
"It's the last good shot we have at testing the whole system before we open," Spitler said.
Southwest Airlines will move into the new terminal, along with Aeromexico, Alaska/Horizon, American, Frontier, Hawaiian and Jet Blue airlines.
The new facilities will open less than two months before the Thanksgiving travel season. That means many fliers will experience the new facility for the first time amid heavy crowds.
One lead airport architect, Brent Kelley, said designers made a point of limiting the number of signs directing travelers.
"We felt the building is intuitive and leads you where you want to go," Kelley said.
The airport will have volunteer ambassadors stationed at transition areas in the opening weeks, but Kelley said, "Our hope is the ambassadors will be bored. It should be an easy process."
Airport officials said they will monitor several potential trouble spots when the facility opens.
Unlike most airports, the new terminal has two drop-off zones on its upper roadway, one on each flank. Airport director Hardy Acree said he will watch to see if people mistakenly get dropped off in the first zone when their airline's drop-off area is on the opposite side of the building.
Officials also will monitor use of the Terminal A garage, which has a new connecting bridge to the new terminal.
Airport designers said people without tickets may try to ride the automated people mover to the concourse building. The airport will post signs indicating the people mover is for ticketed passengers only. If needed, the airport could station an attendant at the people mover station to check for tickets.
In the jet concourse building, some travelers headed to the federal security checkpoint will have to cross paths with travelers headed to the people mover. Officials said they will watch those intersecting groups.
"We think we can minimize conflicts," Acree said.