Automated Exit Safeguards and Welcomes Passengers Arriving at Oakland Int’l

Automated Exit Safeguards and Welcomes Passengers Arriving at Oakland Int’l
Chris Jones
Published in: 

Striking a balance between creating an inviting atmosphere for travelers and adhering to rigid security requirements is a familiar challenge for airport operators worldwide. Oakland International Airport (OAK) seems to have found that fulcrum point with an $8 million exit lane improvement project it quietly unveiled in July 2023. The busy Northern California hub leveraged a mix of innovative tools and functional artwork to find the balance.

Last spring, OAK completed several months of renovations to a roughly 5,000-square-foot exit way that serves passengers arriving at Terminal 2, home to the airport’s primary air carrier, Southwest Airlines. Enhancements include:

  • an automated exit lane breach control system on two separate levels;
  • a full-height containment wall;
  • fire safety monitoring; and
  • a state-of-the-art AmberBox gunshot detection system.

Passengers, however, may hardly notice the security upgrades all around them thanks to customer-centric features and decorative touches.


Project: Security Exit Improvements

Location: Oakland (CA) Int’l Airport

Terminal: 2

Cost: $8 million 

Key Component: Fully enclosed space with automated exit lanes for passengers exiting via escalators, stairs & elevators

Size: 5,000 sq. ft.

Design Feature: Oakland-themed artwork

Timeline: Project was conceptually launched in 2017; bid in Sept. 2019; constructed Jan. - July 2023

Project Designer: WSP

Prime Contractor: Turner Construction Co.

Subcontractors & Vendors: 16

Access Control Systems: Securitas Technology

Security Surveillance System: CheckVideo LLC

Installation of Cameras, Cables, Interfaces, etc.: Birdi Systems Inc.

System Maintenance: Birdi Systems Inc.

Gunshot Detection System: AmberBox

Artistic Signage: Circa Now

2022 Passenger Volume: 11.14 million 

Airport Owner: Port of Oakland, CA

“We wanted the exit to look like it has always been there—nothing too obtrusive, but something welcoming as you come down from the upper level,” explains Victor Cervantes, an OAK Port associate engineer who was involved with the exit lane project from design through construction.

Layout Challenges

Ever since aviation was reshaped overnight by the terrorist hijackings of Sept. 11, 2001, airports have routinely sought to reduce or eliminate vulnerabilities bad actors might seek to exploit. Such changes are generally more difficult in facilities designed before 9/11 such as OAK’s Terminal 2, which opened in 1985 and was renovated and expanded in 2007.

After passengers deplane at Terminal 2, they flow toward a vestibule with escalators, stairs and an elevator leading to Baggage Claim and the street-level exits one floor below. Until recently, this exit had no physical barriers. That meant the Port of Oakland had to place officers from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office there around the clock to monitor both the upper and lower doorways to prevent unauthorized access to post-checkpoint areas.

“It was a big, open space from floor to ceiling,” explains Eva Lillie, a senior aviation project manager with OAK’s eight-person Aviation Planning and Development Group. “Now, our passengers all go through sliding doors upstairs, with swing doors downstairs for one-way egress.”

Those new doors, she adds, reduce the need for—and costs of—24/7 staffing to guard the exit ways.

OAK first set out to reconfigure this exit in 2017; and following a design phase led by WSP USA, the project went to bid in September 2019. Cutbacks driven by COVID-19 lockdowns quickly put the job on hold, but as air traffic resumed in mid-2021 the project came off the back burner and was awarded to Turner Construction Company. It received notice to proceed in August 2022, and onsite work began in January 2023. 

Turner Construction Company has worked at OAK for more than 20 years on projects, including the International Arrivals Building and a prior Terminal 2 expansion. Over the past seven years, it has played a major role in the airport’s terminal renovations.

Gary Huang, a San Francisco-based project manager with Turner Construction Company, oversaw day-to-day operations for the exit lane improvements. His team had 16 subcontractors and vendors, with up to 25 workers onsite at peak construction, including four full-time Turner Construction Company employees.

“This project was well coordinated on all fronts,” Huang says. “There was a lot of great upfront communication, which is built upon the great relationship that we have established with the Port over the last two decades.

“As with a lot of active airport work, we had to plan accordingly to schedule work on off-hours. This took coordination with a number of airport stakeholders as the productive hours at night really occur after the last flight comes in and before the first flight (departs) the next morning.”

Huang says three-week “look-aheads” helped optimize work schedules within active areas, and construction barriers were occasionally erected to keep passengers outside of work areas. Lillie agrees that the most challenging aspect of the job was working in an operating airport environment where thousands of passengers needed to exit Terminal 2 each day, regardless of any construction.

The project team got creative to facilitate egress while the main exit was closed for about five months during construction. To provide an exit pathway compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, crews built a temporary ramp with cutbacks over an existing escalator, and repurposed a Known Crew Member entry lane in the Terminal 2 checkpoint to route passengers out of the terminal. Signage and careful planning made the temporary detour transparent to travelers, says Lillie.

Complicated Integration

With the egress hurdle cleared, OAK’s development team next had to integrate a series of complex systems for the automated exit’s many technologies to function.

Cervantes says he will likely remember this particular project forever. “There was a big learning curve for me because it was my first security-related project,” he relates. “It was more challenging than we expected because there were multiple systems we had to integrate to work with each other. There was a lot of trial and error, but when something didn’t work exactly as we planned, we found alternative solutions to make it work.”

Automated exit lane anti-backflow systems must “talk” not only within their own components, but also with other supporting systems tied to an airport’s security operations center. OAK’s access control systems, supported by the Fremont, CA, offices of Securitas Technology, had to be dialed in, as did ExitSentry, an airport security surveillance system provided by CheckVideo LLC from Falls Church, VA.

While many airports have incorporated modular “plug-and-play” solutions for one-way access, OAK’s architecture required a custom engineered system to fit its large spaces and high floor-to-ceiling clearances, explains Ken Vondrasek, Aviation systems manager for CheckVideo. Following meetings with the Port of Oakland’s Aviation Security Department, the Terminal 2 exit space was subdivided into three separate subzones linked by a common data interface.

ExitSentry’s software is proprietary but uses an airport’s standard hardware such as doorways, optical turnstiles, cameras and sensors for detection and containment. Vondrasek notes that in some instances, at OAK, new techniques were designed, assessed and implemented along the way.

“We came up with some tricks up our sleeves to do this. And there is not a square inch of space in that lobby that isn’t covered with detection,” says Vondrasek, who praises OAK leadership for taking a hands-on approach to problem solving when needed. 

“Plug-and-play solutions are simplistic, but the glass boxes are somewhat claustrophobic and not necessarily passenger-friendly,” he adds. “I have watched folks trying to go through these boxes, and perhaps they don’t speak the local language; maybe they can’t read the signs or listen to the audible commands as well as others, and they get confused when the ‘man trap’ features enclose them. This creates nuisance alarm situations that the airport security staff must respond to.”

Adds Lillie: “Many passengers don’t consider the element of added security [to be critical to their customer experience]. But the Terminal 2 exit doesn’t feel enclosed like the trap door systems. We left a lot of elements to provide openness.”

Birdi Systems of Pasadena, CA, provided specialized installation services for CheckVideo cameras, cables, equipment cabinets, lighting and speaker systems, plus associated interfaces. Richard Burtnett, a program manager with Birdi, says subcontractors worked closely with Turner Construction Company and OAK staff to ensure delivery of a system that met TSA’s exiting standards, including preventing the wrong-way flow of people and items.

“You have to be able to know if someone were to attempt to throw something back in the opposite direction to someone on the other [secure] side,” Burtnett explains. Troubleshooting measures were also taken to prevent false alarms caused by environmental conditions such as reflected sunlight, he adds.

Birdi Systems’ previous airport business primarily involved installing access control systems such as badge readers and biometric scanners at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Burtnett expects the company’s successful work at OAK to lead to similar camera-centric installation projects elsewhere, in addition to its ongoing maintenance contract with OAK.

Nathan Roberts, project manager for CheckVideo, credits a strong team effort for taking the project over the finish line. “We were proud and excited to be a part of the new beautiful exit lane project at Oakland,” he says. The company has also provided systems at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) and Philadelphia International Airport (PHL).

Huang highlights the airport and construction team’s focus on completing the project in a socially responsible manner that included hiring local and small companies as well as using apprenticeship labor.

“Every step of the way, we did our best to ensure that we uplifted the area surrounding the Oakland Airport, as this is one of the priorities and duties when building here,” he says.

Welcome Change

OAK’s proximity to San Francisco International (SFO) and San José Mineta International (SJC) creates a highly competitive environment that powers OAK’s vision to become “the airport of choice” for Bay Area residents and visitors. It also helped inspire OAK to add artistic features to its new Terminal 2 exit.

Circa Now, a Bay Area design firm, developed an abstract art piece that spells out “Oakland” just above the public side of the exit lane doorways leading into Baggage Claim. And from the secure side, arriving passengers see a “Welcome to Oakland” message set over images of the Oakland skyline at sunset.

The colorful artwork was made using perforated metal to minimize its impact on the building’s heat/venting/air conditioning systems. “It offers a cleaner, sleeker look than we had before,” Lillie says of the artsy signage. “It modernized things without needing to do a whole lot to the area.”

The exit space also features enhanced wayfinding elements to help guide passengers to Baggage Claim, ground transportation and OAK’s Bay Area Rapid Transit station, which provides access to the regional commuter rail network.

In addition to the exit lane improvements, OAK had added nine new food and beverage concepts as of early December 2023. The airport’s focus is emphasizing local, streetside concepts such as Farley’s, Calavera, Southies and Tay Ho while also providing passengers with national brands such as Peet’s Coffee and Subway.  A parking reservation system was also added in mid-2022 to make it easier for local travelers to reserve spaces.

In 2022, OAK served nearly 11.1 million passengers – a 37% increase from the prior year, though still down from its pre-pandemic level of 13.4 million passengers in 2019. Overall, the airport’s busiest year ever was 2007, when it welcomed 14.6 million passengers.

Currently, OAK has 29 aircraft gates split between Terminal 1, which opened in 1962, and Terminal 2; but potential changes are in the works. The Port is in the process of completing an Environmental Impact Report for a Terminal Modernization and Development Project, which includes replacing and modernizing aging terminal facilities to meet current industry standards, improving passenger experience and accommodating market-based passenger forecasts.


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