LEZLIE STERLING / lsterling@sacbee.com

Travelers wait for a people mover in Sacramento International Airport's Central Terminal B. Two shuttles carry passengers to the security checkpoint.

Sacramento International Airport is put to the test

Published: Saturday, Oct. 22, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Monday, Oct. 24, 2011 - 10:33 am

Sacramento's new $1 billion terminal is bigger and grander than anything our relatively humble airport has offered travelers before.

But is it as convenient?

The Bee's transportation reporter set out this week, stopwatch in hand, to see if the new Central Terminal B preserves Sacramento International Airport's "easy in-easy out" reputation.

We timed how long it takes to walk to the farthest gate and compared that with Terminal A. (We couldn't compare with old Terminal B because that facility is no longer in use). We also looked at how pleasant or difficult each walk is, and what amenities are offered on the way.

Easy in?

No surprise, Terminal A – the older, smaller building – was quicker. But not by much. Arriving midmorning, it took 16 minutes, 25 seconds to walk from our car in the garage to gate A16 at the terminal's north end. Distance: a reasonable one-third of a mile.

We saved time by going to a self-serve kiosk for boarding passes instead of the ticket-counter line. The security checkpoint provided the only bottleneck moment, accounting for eight of the 16 minutes travel time. That was faster than we expected, despite having to wait at the conveyer belt as security agents retrieved more plastic bins for our shoes, belt and laptop.

Whereas Terminal A is compact, the Terminal B complex is sprawling, a grand hall with a people mover tailing out to a concourse building.

The distance from our car in the garage to the farthest gate was double that of Terminal A, but it took only 3 1/2 minutes more. That amounted to nearly 20 minutes of travel time, half of it at the security checkpoint.

Terminal B offers a surprise "easy-in" amenity for some fliers: kiosks at the pedestrian bridge. We didn't have to take the escalator down to the second floor ticketing hall for boarding passes. It freed up two minutes for coffee.

By the way, Terminal B is Sacramento's caffeine crossroads. Not only is there the requisite Starbucks, there's Old Soul, Peet's and Java City Eco-Grounds.

Terminal B's automated people mover may be the new facility's biggest shock. There are two shuttles, prompting an "uh-oh, which goes where?" moment for travelers who don't read the signs. Both shuttles, in fact, take you to the security checkpoint in the concourse building.

A shuttle was waiting when we walked up. We were on and off in 90 seconds. You ride standing up. We've heard concerns from some elderly travelers about the quick acceleration and some swaying.

The federal security line at Terminal B took a bit longer than at Terminal A. We made it worse, though. We got into one line, then decided the other looked faster, so we ducked under several guide straps to the new line just in time for it to stall. Argh.

Note: We didn't actually fly anywhere. This was a ground-based research mission. Airport representatives arranged with federal officials to allow us to go through security like a ticketed passenger.

We "traveled" as a business flier with carry-on bags. Fliers with checked luggage face greater time uncertainty dealing with ticket counter lines and baggage services, including baggage claim afterward. Early word is that some baggage arrives on new Terminal B carousels before fliers get there.

Easy out?

Heading home through Terminal A is a simple stroll. It took us six minutes to walk from our gate to our car. A straight shot. No confusion.

The journey through Terminal B involved a few twists. For instance, if you're staring at that oak tree chandelier ahead, you may miss the sharp turn to the automated people mover. Once off the people mover, it's one turn to enter the bridge to the garage.

It took us 9 minutes, 24 seconds from our gate to our car. That's 3 1/2 minutes longer than Terminal A. Travel distance was about two-thirds of a mile, including the people mover.

Roads and parking

The roads and parking lots may well be the trickiest element, especially for infrequent travelers. We tuned our radio to 530 AM for parking updates but got static until we were almost at the terminals. There are new directional signs, but they weren't easy for us to process on the fly. We made a wrong turn into a surface lot instead of the garage. We immediately drove out of the lot. They didn't charge us. But we had to head back toward the freeway and loop around. It cost us about five minutes.

The garage, however, is conveniently perched directly between the terminals with a bridge to each. We had to park on the top floor because the floors below were filled, and we could only get a parking spot near the far end, away from the elevators.

Adding to the parking hassle: The Daily B lot is closed until next year, and the Hourly B parking lot was filled the morning we were there, forcing some drivers to loop around to the garage.

Our conclusion

The new Sacramento International is bigger, with more moving parts and decision points. For instance, the new terminal has a double-decker roadway and curb drop-offs on two sides. But both terminals are pretty convenient.

Terminal A is now the airfield's old shoe, easy to slip into and comfortable. Terminal B seems big-city at first, but for us, on second and third visits, it looked smaller and felt simpler. Someday, it too may be an old shoe.

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Read more articles by Tony Bizjak

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