Elmira Corning Regional Expands Terminal, Adds Calming Courtyards

Elmira Corning Regional Expands Terminal, Adds Calming Courtyards
Thomas J. Smith
Published in: 

Approaching the TSA checkpoint at the recently renovated Elmira Corning Regional Airport (ELM) is now like a walk in the woods. Travelers pass through a gently curving corridor with floor-to-ceiling glass walls that showcase courtyards filled with greenery. The checkpoint itself is not visible until passengers reach the last bend in the bright corridor. 

Once through the checkpoint, travelers funnel into glass-walled departure lounges that overlook courtyards with trees, shrubs and rocks portraying the local landscape of south central New York. They can even wait in the gardens until boarding time. 

A $60.4 million project completed in fall 2018 expanded and transformed the ELM’s plain box terminal into a modern facility designed to help travelers relax. Prior to that, the last major renovation to the 1960s era terminal was in the 1980s to improve energy efficiency. 


Project: Terminal Expansion & Renovation

Location: Elmira Corning Regional Airport, NY

Owner/Operator: Chemung County

Expansion: 33,000 sq. ft. 

Key Elements: 3 departure lounges; 6 gates with 3 boarding bridges; new baggage claim area; geothermal system for heating/cooling; new post-9/11 configuration 

Cost: $60.4 million

Funding: $40 million, state grant; $15 million, Airport Improvement Program; $6 million, local

Construction: Aug. 2017–Oct. 2018

Architect & Interior Designer: Fennick McCredie Architecture

Engineers: McFarland Johnson

Construction Manager: Welliver

General Contractor: Streeter Associates Inc.

Landscape Consultant: Hargreaves Jones Landscape Architecture DPC

Electrical Contractor: John Mills Electric Inc.

Mechanical Contractor: Piccirilli-Slavik & Vincent Plumbing & Heating Inc. 

Passenger Boarding Bridges: Ameribridge

Baggage Handling System Design: BNP Associates Inc.

Baggage Handling System Installation: Five Star Airport Alliance

Seating: Herman Miller; Geiger; Keilhauer; OFS

Of Note: Prize money from statewide design contest provided majority of project funds

Design Objectives: Encourage calmness/relaxation in TSA checkpoints & gate areas; reallocate space according to post-9/11 standards; rethink traditional elements, such as seating materials & orientation 

The recent project added 33,000 square feet of new space to the terminal, which now stands at 88,000 square feet. Existing space was also renovated and clad in Lake Placid blue granite to make the entire building appear new. Now, the terminal includes six gates instead of four, with three boarding bridges that can service regional jets and Airbus 320/Boeing 737 class aircraft. It also includes a new baggage handling system, post-security concessions and a full-service restaurant located before the TSA checkpoint. A geothermal system with 72 wells, reaching depths of 450 feet, was installed to heat and cool the terminal.

The comprehensive overhaul was largely funded with $40 million from the state of New York. ELM secured the funds as one winner of a $200 million design contest launched by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to spur redevelopment and expansion of airports outside the New York City metro area. Upstate airports throughout the region competed for five grants, each up to $40 million. The state was looking for “transformative designs” to create “airports of the future;” and ELM’s submission fit the bill. 

To receive the prize money, winning airports had to complete their respective improvements by Oct. 31, 2018. That gave ELM 18 months to renovate and expand its terminal. And, the project team had to stick to the drawings approved by the governor’s office. ELM met both criteria.  

(For details about winning projects at other New York airports, check out our April 2018 issue at airportimprovement.com.)

Design Objectives

“A walk in the woods” was the mantra that guided every part of the design and construction process, says Jonathan McCredie, a principal at Fennick McCredie Architecture.

“That was the idea we were constantly going for—from the initial concept to making sure contractors put trees in the right spot,” explains McCredie. 

The terminal’s three departure lounges are surrounded by an 18,600-square-foot garden, complete with a security wall to prevent airside access. Two courtyards in the garden are accessible from the departure lounges, so passengers can wait outside before their flights. A third and separate courtyard is only accessible from the pre-security restaurant area.

Inspired by the rolling hills and abundant hiking trails in southwest New York, designers opted for natural elements when re-thinking how the terminal could look and operate. The idea was to place the most stressful aspects of flying—security screening and waiting to board—in a serene courtyard, explains McCredie, a graduate of upstate Cornell University. 

Glass is another dominant element of the design to reflect the region’s glass-making history and modern innovations. In fact, the longtime headquarters of multinational glassmaker Corning Inc. is located just a few miles from the airport. 

Secure-Side Changes

When reconfiguring concourse areas, the Fennick McCredie team focused on “thinking differently.” Instead of positioning gate seating so passengers look out at the airfield, designers oriented them toward the courtyards. “It’s like you are sitting in the garden,” McCredie remarks, noting that passengers can still see the gates to keep track of the boarding process. 

In another departure from industry norms, ELM installed soft seating rather than traditional straight leather seats attached to fixed steel frames. Again, the change was to encourage relaxation.  

Prior to recent renovations, each gate had about 100 seats—not enough when the airport had multiple flights at the same time, explains ELM Aviation Director Tom Freeman. In addition to adding 300 new gate seats, the airport widened the concourse and increased restroom capacity near the boarding lounges. Previously, the concourse was only 10 feet wide in some areas. 

The old terminal had two boarding bridges, and neither could be manipulated to reach the A320s that Allegiant Air uses. Such larger aircraft had to be ground boarded.

With project funds, ELM purchased three boarding bridges (one new, two renovated) that can accommodate regional jets and A320 class aircraft.  

The facility expansion added two gates with ground boarding in case ELM attracts service from carriers that use turboprop aircraft.

Fortuitous Timing 

When Gov. Cuomo announced the airport design competition in 2016, ELM already had a fresh masterplan completed by
McFarland Johnson.

Chemung County, which owns and operates the airport, had not invested any significant money in the terminal for decades, notes Jeff Wood, a project manager with the firm. The terminal was deemed to be the right size for enplanements; but was still configured according to pre-Sept. 11 design standards—a lot of pre-security space, with little room post-security. “It was all backwards,” Wood comments. 

McFarland Johnson consequently hired Fennick McCredie to assist in designing a new terminal and with ELM’s contest application. To apply, the team had to submit “crude budget estimates, a lot of justifications and some very conceptual drawings.”

That said, the firm’s initial sketches set the tone for the entire project. 

“We knew that we had to do something special, and it needed to stand out because we were competing with other communities,” Wood recalls. “Elmira was an underdog compared to the others.”

In the end, ELM was one of the first airports to win a grant. Wood suspects the team’s entry stood out because other applications were not nearly as aggressive in transforming their terminals. 

The word from Cuomo’s office was that airports couldn’t submit enticing designs and then build something easier and ultimately more mundane.   

“This made our job more challenging on a daily basis, but it kept everyone driving toward the shared goal,” Wood explains. “It did produce the best results.”

The county viewed winning the contest as its only hope to upgrade ELM’s terminal. In the end, it supplemented the $40 million from the state with $15 million in Airport Improvement Program grants and $6 million in local funds.

“There is no way, through the normal course of AIP funding, the county could ever be able to undertake a project like this,” Freeman explains. While ELM is not self-sustaining, operations have improved enough to shrink the deficit to several hundred thousand dollars, he reports. 

Once it received the grant, the county had 18 months to complete the terminal project. McFarland Johnson hired Welliver, of nearby Montour Falls, to act as the construction manager.

“This project was very rigorous,” observes Nick Robertson, Welliver’s project executive. “Normally, a project like this would take 18 months to construct. We had 18 months to design and construct.”

Lean Construction

To get the project team on the same page, key participants from McFarland Johnson, Welliver and Fennick McCredie met for several days in a hotel to “hammer out” the concept design and construction phasing.

At the time (2017), the approach was unusual; but multi-discipline planning meetings are now more common, notes McCredie. 

The group employed planning tools from the lean construction approach, including the “big room” concept, where all parties meet periodically to coordinate construction phasing and progress.

“It worked out well,” McCredie reflects. “Getting everyone in one room early on does help everyone get started.”

He notes that his firm had used the process for several years in other sectors; and Massport was using it at the time for projects at Boston Logan International. 

Although the masterplan originally envisioned expanding the west side of ELM’s existing terminal, the compressed schedule shifted expansion to the east. The initial plan called for a multi-year timeline, with crews first removing and relocating several existing buildings (including a dilapidated aircraft rescue and firefighting station) before expanding the terminal. But the east side space was empty and construction-ready, so that’s where the airport expanded. 

Site, building foundations and envelope construction work began while engineering systems were still in design. The glass walls were ordered immediately because of long manufacturing lead times, particularly for curved glass walls, notes Christopher Kopec, project engineer for McFarland Johnson.

Construction began in August 2017 with foundation work for the new departure lounges and baggage claim area.

“We were building as the designed progressed,” recalls Robertson. “The two processes were running parallel, with just enough information flowing to stay ahead of the work. That resulted in a lot of coordination and a lot of added challenges you don’t normally see on a project.” 

Due to the condensed planning time, the design team drew on its prior experience on other airport projects to place and properly size the security checkpoints, baggage handling area and boarding lounge seating. 

“We had moments when we had to contact the designers to get the plans and answers within the next day or we would be at a standstill,” recalls Robertson. “The design team worked diligently collaborating with us to keep the flow of information ahead of the construction.”

Ground transportation and baggage claim areas were consolidated into the terminal’s original ticketing hall to facilitate the necessary demolition for the expansion. The original restaurant, actually just a deli, and a meeting room were also demolished.

Asbestos Curveball

In the first week of construction, contractors found asbestos in some of the original walls that were being demolished. “It was dealt with very quickly,” reports Wood, noting that the asbestos was not documented on any of the original drawings or flagged during initial inspections. It was a scheduling “curveball,” and it added $80,000 to the costs.”

To keep passengers and airport employees away from the area while crews removed the unexpected material, ELM set up restrooms in a temporary trailer out in the parking lot. That arrangement lasted about six months.  

“There was not much complaining,” says Wood. “The people ‘got it.’ The community knew what was coming.”

“The passengers had to put up with a lot of ground boarding,” adds Freeman, “but everybody knew that’s what they had to do to get a terminal like this.”

Once the new space was constructed, crews renovated the existing space to make it look new, too. The ticketing area received a makeover, but no substantial changes.

Late in the project, the airport’s four-story control tower and offices received a cosmetic facelift with new windows and a new exterior. Infrastructure for the new geothermal system was extended to the tower. Kopec notes that the system has enough capacity to eventually handle the tower’s heating and cooling needs.

While building the addition, contractors ran a single shift, often with extended hours and overtime. However, crews worked multiple shifts toward the end to finish on time.

At peak, there were 30 contractors onsite, with up to 150 total crewmembers working in close quarters.

“The contractors and engineers worked really well with the airport to enable us to carry on with business as usual even with a lot of temporary facilities,” Freeman reports.

One Year Later

Despite adding about 50% more space, ELM is not experiencing substantial increases in operating costs. Airport officials attribute this to new efficiencies that were built into expansion and renovation plans. 

In addition, initial concerns about the durability of soft seating have been allayed. “I did go back one year later and found that the seating held up extremely well,” says McCredie. “The manufacturers have caught on.”

“The terminal was built for the 21st century with a lot of forethought about the long-term needs of the airport,” adds Freeman. “This will suffice for years to come, as I don’t see operations outgrowing the facility anytime in the near future.”

While the local population has stabilized, ELM has experienced a steady increase in annual enplanements for the last several years. In 2018, it logged 160,000 enplanements, up 12% from 2017.

Allegiant, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines currently serve ELM with nine flights a day to five locations: Orlando, St. Petersburg/Clearwater, Punta Gorda, Detroit and Washington, D.C.

Since the terminal project was completed, Delta has upgraded the size of regional jets it flies into ELM, and Allegiant concluded its transition from MD80s to new Airbus 320s.

“It is really becoming a regional airport,” Freeman notes. “We have become the airport for northern Pennsylvania, with service and fares drawing travelers from Williamsport, Wilkes-Barre and even Pittsburgh. We are also attracting travelers from Binghamton and Ithaca (NY), since their airports are not serviced by Allegiant.” 


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