Is it already time to expand Sacramento International Airport?

‘Passenger activity … has outstripped our facilities.’ Here’s what Sacramento’s airport needs next

Sacramento County Airports Director Cindy Nichol talks about how Sacramento International Airport needs to plan for new facilities – including gates, parking and runway maintenance – on Monday, March 19, 2019.
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Sacramento County Airports Director Cindy Nichol talks about how Sacramento International Airport needs to plan for new facilities – including gates, parking and runway maintenance – on Monday, March 19, 2019.

Faced with record-setting passenger growth, Sacramento International Airport is running out of room to handle new flights and fliers, just eight years after completing a $1 billion-plus expansion.

Airport officials say they are contemplating new construction, but in the meantime are asking more airlines to start sharing gates during crunch times.

“We recognize we have not kept pace with the demand,” airport executive Cindy Nichol said in an interview last week with The Sacramento Bee. “The growth in passengers and related activity has been so significant that now we actually need to be planning for more facilities.”

The crunch includes more than just gate issues:

Airport parking lots sometimes fill, forcing some fliers to use more expensive lots than they had planned.

Thousands of people are using car share companies daily, causing traffic jams as Uber and Lyft drivers queue up to pick up passengers.

The airport’s car-rental area is overcrowded, forcing rental agencies to park some 1,500 vehicles in remote lots.

The airport is running out of space to park jets overnight.

The congestion is projected to get worse this summer. Three new low-cost airlines will be joining the local fleet in the next two months, elbowing for gate space: Contour Airlines, Sun Country and Spirit, which will be particularly busy, launching three daily flights to Las Vegas in June.

Southwest, which has been ramping up service in Sacramento consistently for several years, is expecting to announce new daily flights to one or two Hawaiian islands. Air Canada, Alaska, Delta, Volaris, Frontier and Hawaiian all also launched new service in the last year.

It’s the latest in what has been a turbulent two decades of change at the Natomas airport.

The airport went on a growth spurt just as federal officials were imposing stricter new security rules post-Sept. 11, 2001. With passengers lined up on escalators and out to the front door of the old Terminal B, officials launched a $1 billion reconstruction project, leading to the new Terminal B and concourse.

The recession hit during construction, causing passenger numbers and revenues to drop, forcing cutbacks of some expansion plans and leaving the airport struggling to pay its debt. (The airport, part of the county government, is funded mainly by airline fees, passenger fees, parking revenue, concession revenue, rental car fees and federal grants.)

After several years of cost-cutting, data show revenue levels have now climbed to record highs. Airport head Nichol, who came here from Portland, said the airport’s finances are now stable. But the facility remains understaffed with 306 full-time equivalent employees, compared to 420 in 2012.

The gate problem appears to be the most pressing concern, though Nichol said the problem has not yet caused flight backups and the over-crowding is occurring typically only during peak morning hours, 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. Nichol said the airport has hired consultants to analyze future passenger growth and determine how many more gates the airport needs. The airport currently has 31 gates. Nichol estimates it could need at least six more.

That could involve taking down a wall and expanding the Terminal B concourse building less than a decade after it was constructed. The new gates also could be built at an expanded Terminal A.

County Supervisor Phil Serna, whose district includes the airport, said that doesn’t mean the Terminal B planning group was wrong not to build more gates during The Big Build, which finished in 2011 with the opening of the new terminal, concourse building and people mover that connects them.

“Remember, at the time, it was an extraordinarily expensive project,” Serna said, “and it came with sizable debt.”

The airport, in fact, is still paying such a heavy debt load that it doesn’t have funds for what could be a $200 million project. It may take four years to build and open new gates, Nichol said. She said airport officials met with airlines last week, laying out their initial thoughts for expansion.

In the meantime, the airport has begun pushing airlines to share gates during the day to maximize their use. “In our airline agreement, we have certain provisos for how they use gates and are required to share gates. We are going to need to start enforcing that more,” Nichol said.

Airlines appear to be taking a cooperative but guarded approach. “We’re aware of the airport’s desire to grow and we look forward to working in partnership to fully understand their plans,” Southwest said in an email to The Bee. And American Airlines said in an email it has been working with Nichol’s staff “to maximize the overall efficiency of the airport facility. We look forward to continuing our partnership as future plans are developed.”

Consultants this year are expected to determine how much new parking may be needed. They also will review possibilities for expanding the rental car facilities. At the same time, Nichol said the airport must search for better ways to handle the 3,000-plus car-share rides daily.

The Uber, Lyft and Wingz carshare phenomenon – an industry that did not exist when the airport was remodeled – had been causing traffic jams on main airport roads, prompting officials to move the car share pickup area to a side road away from Terminal B and away from the protective awning. That in turn has led to complaints from travelers.

The airport next month will launch a $10 million project rebuilding the west runway. That will require completely closing that runway through October. Nichol said the airport should be able to handle all flights without interruption on the second runway on the east side of the airport. But monthly maintenance of that east runway will require shutting the airport down entirely, with no flights, for a few hours twice a month early on Sunday mornings. Some late-arriving, post-midnight flights may have to be diverted.

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