Sacramento’s older airport terminal is about to get an expansion and makeover

Take a trip down memory lane for SMF’s 50th anniversary

Sacramento International Airport celebrates its 50th anniversary on Oct. 21, 2017. See some vintage images from SMF’s history.
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Sacramento International Airport celebrates its 50th anniversary on Oct. 21, 2017. See some vintage images from SMF’s history.

Sacramento International Airport officials are laying plans to expand Terminal A, saying the airport’s smaller terminal is outmoded and congested at the security checkpoint area upstairs.

The terminal was designed in the 1990s before the 9/11 terrorist attacks prompted a dramatic increase in security. A more recent four-year increase in passengers has turned the security area into a choke point during peak hours.

Two weeks ago, 93 people missed flights in the terminal one morning because they did not get through the checkpoint in time. Wait times briefly stretched to nearly 50 minutes.

Airport executive John Wheat said the expansion likely will involve knocking down one of the terminal walls to give the federal Transportation Security Administration the space to expand from five security lanes to seven.

“We have to add onto the building – where the exit lane is now – to increase passenger through-put,” he said. He called it the kind of problem airports like to have.

The redesign also could include changes to the terminal’s escalator system, he said. Currently, the line sometimes backs up to the top of escalator, causing people to wait in another line at the bottom of the escalator.

Terminal A houses American, United and Delta airlines, and it handles 34 percent of the airport’s passenger load. Larger Terminal B, which opened in 2011 and houses Southwest, the airport’s main carrier, as well as Alaska, serves the bulk of fliers.

Wheat said the airport hopes to have Terminal A expansion plans finalized in time to hire a contractor by April, with a construction finish date in 2019. He declined to estimate the potential cost of the Terminal A project, saying it is still conceptual.

Meantime, the airport and its passengers this week face what likely will be the busiest Thanksgiving in airport history, with 12 percent more travelers this month than in November of last year, and heavier flight loads as well in December and the New Year.

“This will be a record year for us,” Wheat said.

Officials have issued a series of warnings, asking passengers to arrive two hours before their flight departure times, and to check the airport’s real-time, online parking app to see which parking lots are full and which are still open. The economy lot is expected to close first, and other parking lots may fill as well.

The airport will station customer service workers in Terminal A to guide people to the proper lines, Wheat said, including making sure people who have TSA Precheck status get in that line instead of waiting in the longer general passenger line.

Federal and local officials say they have made small changes to lower wait times in the last week. Federal TSA security chief Sid Hanna said his team has begun opening their security lines early, at 3:30 a.m. in Terminal A, in an effort to get more passengers through before the peak crowds arrive, typically between 5 and 6:30 a.m.

“That is helping,” he said. “We went through last weekend without the extreme volume” that had been occurring in recent months.

Hanna and airport chief Wheat said they are talking about other interim measures to speed Terminal A lines, including the possibility of squeezing in a temporary sixth lane.

The biggest crunch time this week will be on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, and on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, two of the heaviest air travel days of the year.

The TSA has published a smartphone app called MyTSA that reports current wait times and whether the airport is dealing with flight delays. The app allows travelers to report checkpoint wait times at airports. A Sacramento Bee check of the app on Friday afternoon, however, found no travelers reporting wait times at the Sacramento airport.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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