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Travel Tuesday Top 10: Notable US Airport Upgrades

Oct. 30, 2012
12 min read
Travel Tuesday Top 10: Notable US Airport Upgrades
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TPG Contributor Candice Abraham takes us on a tour of ten exciting new airport projects around the country for today's Travel Tuesday Top 10.

They say travel is about the journey and not the destination, but try telling that to the traveler waiting in a slow-moving customs line, or for delayed baggage at a carousel. Oh, and don’t forget the culinary options at terminal concessions smothered in sodium and tossed in grease. Boxed salad anyone? Luckily, a growing number of airports throughout the U.S. are striving to transform the airport experience so that this leg of the journey becomes something to savor. Here’s a top ten list tallying some of the best airport upgrades to be found throughout the US.

The interior of SFO's LEED Gold-certified Terminal 2.

1. San Francisco International Airport (SFO), Terminal 2: Opening in April 2011 after a $382-million renovation, Terminal 2 at San Francisco International Airport has been heralded as a groundbreaking air travel space for the 21st century. Integrating sustainable practices with new technology, T2 boasts amenities that other airport terminals only dream of. The Dining & Shopping Marketplace features a “retail street” with high-end Bay Area stores and restaurants that offer locally sourced, natural and organic cuisine. You won’t be at a loss for a place to fire up your laptop here either, with 400 computer plug-in outlets and comfortable workstation seating. Preparing for the next airport temper tantrum? You may not need to when bringing the kids to SFO’s T2, with its two eco-friendly play stations crafted by local artists. T2 hydration stations allow travelers can fill up water bottles before hopping on the next flight. If you feel like you’re basking in the sunshine as you stroll through T2, breathing in the cool, fresh air, you can thank the many skylights and clerestories featured throughout the ticketing lobby and retail areas. There’s also an advanced displacement ventilation system that uses filtered air to improve indoor air quality. SFO’s T2 is also the first airport terminal in the US to earn LEED Gold designation, an internationally recognized green building certification.

Check in at Atlanta's new international terminal.

2. Maynard H Jackson Jr. International Terminal at ATL: The new Maynard H. Jackson Jr. International Terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport (ATL) opened on May 16 of this year. This new terminal has now become part of a 40-gate air-travel complex (together with Concourse E), which connects American travelers to 80 destinations in over 50 countries around the world, including 150 U.S. cities. Designers of the new terminal decided to approach the build from the inside out – meaning they kept passengers in mind to create a space using local and regional materials and colors that ensure the terminal is full of light. Sustainability isn’t something designers skimped on either. The Maynard H. Jackson Jr. International Terminal is LEED-certified with environmentally conscious features including the 25,000-cubic-foot “water box.” This water box collects rainwater from the roof of the terminal and then cleanses that water before releasing it back into the environment, significantly reducing the terminal’s impact on surrounding groundwater. The international hourly parking deck also features 14 close-in parking spaces for alternative fuel vehicles, and to ensure better indoor air quality, the terminal has incorporated low-chemical emitting paints, sealants, carpeting and adhesives and uses green cleaning products. Travelers will also find signature works of art, which debuted with the terminal opening. Selected by a special panel put together for the Airport Art Program, some of the chosen works include a wall that uses glass, steel, color, pattern and light, as well as a suspended sculpture that resembles a bird taking flight and an installation that features high-definition video footage.

JFK's Terminal 4 will streamline the travel experience.

3. John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), Terminal 4: Delta Air Lines has joined forces with JFKIAT LLC and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on this $1.2-billion renovation project. With an anticipated opening of May 2013, the expansion of T4 will replace Terminal 3 facilities, which have become largely outdated. The 11 million passengers Delta serves at JFK each year should hope to see major improvements in operational performance through enhanced baggage claim areas, an expanded Customs and Border Protection area, upgraded inter-terminal passenger connectors between Terminals 2 and 4 and dual taxiways that will ensure reduced taxi times. Travelers will find nine new international gates on the B Concourse of T4 and two passenger security checkpoints will be consolidated. The merging of these checkpoints is aimed at making for a much more relaxing experience post security so travelers can enjoy the new food, beverage and retail options beyond security.

Miami's $180 million North Terminal. Photo by Steven Brooke.

4. Miami International Airport (MIA), North Terminal: The last phase of this $3-billion improvement project, which took over ten years to complete, ended in July with the opening of the $180-million North Terminal. The new terminal is a 400,000-square-foot building with three levels capable of moving 2,000 passengers per hour. Projected to decrease international connection times by an average of 30 minutes, the North Terminal is adjacent to the Concourse D Skytrain, a $130-million upgrade that opened in 2010, which provides easy access to Concourse D from any of the North Terminal’s 47 gates. The North Terminal also features a 72-lane passport control area with six dedicated lanes for Global Entry. The opening of the North Terminal at MIA couldn’t have come at a better time, with record-breaking numbers of visitors coming to Miami, and MIA now handles 1,300 weekly flights serving 85 international destinations.

Las Vegas's recently opened $2.4 billion Terminal 3.

5. McCarran International Airport (LAS), Terminal 3: Most of us know Vegas as the go-big-or-go-home destination and the $2.4-billion Terminal 3 expansion at LAS is definitely in keeping with that motto. Opened on June 27th of this year, this development is being heralded as state-of-the-art. There are now 14 gates for international and domestic arrivals and other enhancements include an expanded ticketing lobby and advanced check-in area, with kiosks that let passengers tag their own checked bags (a time-saving initiative proven popular elsewhere). Terminal 3 is also equipped with an automated tram system that gives the building the ability to handle check-in, security and baggage claim needs of up to 26 gates from McCarran Airport’s D Concourse. Travelers arriving at Terminal 3 will also find a much larger customs port that utilizes Global Entry kiosks, and the area is also decorated with vintage photos from Las Vegas’s history. Together with the existing airport infrastructure, Terminal 3 increases the annual capacity at LAS to 53 million passengers.

DTW's Light Tunnel is a favorite spot for transiting travelers.

6. Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (DTW): This airport is one of the busiest in the U.S. with more than 30 million passengers traveling through here each year. In 2008 the Airport Authority Board approved a Master Plan for DTW outlining a growth strategy to support an estimated 60% rise in passenger traffic by 2027. Needless to say the upgrades are ongoing here with two new passenger terminals and a total of 145 gates. One of the latest improvements is the new Play Port in the North Terminal. Parents traveling through here can now bring their children to this state-of-the-art play area, which features comfy seating for parents and soft-sculpted play equipment for kids, including a slide that takes them “through the clouds.” Another of DTW’s latest upgrades is a green initiative that passengers probably won’t notice on their next trip through, but as fuel-surcharges seem to be going nowhere but up, innovations that reduce cost and support the environment are welcome efforts indeed. DTW has become the first airport to power its service vehicles with biofuels derived from recycled cooking oil. Approximately 50% of this recycled oil, which comes from DTW’s concessions, is converted into fuel for ground-support vehicles. The airport was awarded “Best Green Concessions Practice or Concept, at the 2011 Richard A. Griesbach Excellence in Airport Concessions Contest. One of the airport's other hallmark features is the popular "Light Tunnel," which connects Concourses B and C to the main terminal building. The tunnel was one of the first large-scale LED-lighting installations in the US, with changing patterns reflected on sculpted glass panels over the course of a half-hour loop. The display has won multiple design awards and is a great spot to take a break from the stresses of travel for a few minutes.

7. New York LaGuradia Airport (LGA): Delta Air Lines is also leading this $160-million expansion plan along with its renovation of JFK Terminal 4. This is the largest expansion project at LGA in the last 40 years, with one of the major highlights of the project being the 630-foot connector bridge linking Terminals C and D, which will bring a new sense of ease to travelers keen on making their connecting flights between the two terminals. The LGA renovation will also include expanded security lanes in both terminals and a new Delta Sky Club in Terminal C. In April, LGA broke ground on the expansion and when Delta’s new full schedule at the airport is implemented, the airline will be operating more than 260 daily flights between LGA and more than 60 cities, exceeding all other carriers at the airport. Many of Delta’s new LGA routes will operate with regional jets that feature two-class service, in-flight WiFi and a host of other amenities.

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An artist's rendering of LAX's new Tom Bradley International Terminal.

8. Los Angeles International Airport (LAX): It might be too early to tell just how grand the LAX makeover will be, but since it’s being called the largest capital improvement project in Los Angeles’s history it’s a fair guess that the enhancements will be big. Los Angeles World Airports is spending over $4 billion on the revitalization — the centerpiece of which will be the new Tom Bradley International Terminal. This upgrade alone takes a $1.7-billion chunk from the upgrade fund, although it isn’t set for completion until 2015. When it’s finished travelers, though, may truly enjoy their experiences here thanks to an improved customs and security system projected to move 4,000 passengers per hour, and nine of the new 18 gates will accommodate passenger loads for new-generation aircraft, like the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The New Tom Bradley International Terminal is also being designed to achieve LEED Silver Certification. Other highlights of the LAX capital improvement project include a $737-million renovation of the existing Tom Bradley International Terminal, airport-wide elevator, escalator and moving walkway modernization, an airport-wide in-line baggage handling and screening system, renovations of Terminal 5 and 6 and a new runway lights system. Travelers will also find new shopping options and restaurant choices, including Ford’s Filling Station, Campanile, B Grill by BOA Steakhouse, Cole’s and more. Air New Zealand has also been selected by Star Alliance to build and manage the Alliance’s new lounge at the airport, which is set to open in May 2013.

9. San Diego International Airport (SAN), Terminal 2 West: Known simply as "The Green Build," this $1-billion project is set for completion in 2013. Its mission? Well if the name didn’t give it away, beyond increasing sustainability, the upgrades here will enhance passenger and aircraft flow and improve customer service. Some of the new features you’ll be able to enjoy here in 2013 include reduced terminal congestion and expanded passenger waiting areas, thanks to 10 new gates. Curbside check-in will also be vamped up so travelers can print boarding passes, check baggage and view gate info at a kiosk before even entering the terminal. To help relieve curb-front traffic, a dual level roadway will separate arriving and departing passengers and to eliminate congestion indoors, more security lanes are being added throughout the terminal. Once travelers are through security they’ll come face-to-face with Sunset Cove, a brand new central dining and shopping venue inside Terminal 2 West that offers views of the tarmac. All existing concessions are also getting a makeover and a public art project will take travelers through a multi-sensory journey that extends the entire length of the terminal as well as showcase suspended artwork.

Sacramento's newly modernized Terminal B.

10. Sacramento International Airport (SMF), Terminal B: The $1.03 billion modernization of SMF’s Terminal B — dubbed the Big Build — was completed at the close of 2011. Since then Terminal B has won five regional and national awards for engineering and construction and has also obtained LEED Silver certification. Perhaps the most eye-catching features of the Terminal B upgrade though, are the many grand-scale works of art placed throughout the terminal. You’ll find much more than a few mounted murals here. For instance, there’s the twenty-one silhouettes of indigenous Northern California birds inset into the floor, with suspended birdcages hanging overhead. Other standouts include an interactive musical piece that lets travelers compose literary-based music, a work paying homage to Sacramento’s native oak trees and an installation where images on LCD screens are activated by the use of an elevator.
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