Reno Reinvents Passenger Check-in and Baggage Screening Areas

Jodi Richards
Published in: 

From March 2008 to November 2009, passengers at Reno-Tahoe International Airport (RNO) resorted to tent-like structures outside the main terminal to check-in for flights. Behind the tents, crews worked to complete the Airport Baggage Check-in (ABC) Project, a $63 million renovation designed to move passengers faster and more efficiently through the new ticket lobby. According to project consultants, diverting the check-in process to temporary facilities saved the airport millions of dollars and more than a year of construction time.

Facts & Figures

Architect/Designer/Lead: Gresham, Smith and Partners

Structural & Civil Engineering: Gresham, Smith and Partners

Structural Engineering Support: Blakely Johnson & Ghusn

MEP Engineers: Dinter Engineering

Construction Manager: PBS&J

General Contractor: Q&D Construction

IT: Faith Group

Lobby Materials

Stone Veneer: Sunset Stone

Light Fixtures: Hubbardton Forge

Floor Tile: Crossville

Wood Beam Wraps: Koroseal Wall Coverings

Baggage Handling System

Design: CAGE Inc.

Simulation: TransSolutions

Oversized Baggage CTX machines: Reveal Technologies

System  Assessment/Redesign/Commissioning Support: CAGE Inc.

Inline Conveyor Controls, Software & Motor Control Panels: Brock Solutions

Baggage Handling/Sorting System Installation: Glidepath

Drive Solutions: SEW Eurodrive

Power Turns: Portec/Flomaster

High Speed Diverts, Vertical Sorting Units: Vanderlande Industries

Bag Measuring Array: 


Belting: Segling

Control Hardware: Allen Bradley

New screening policies, particularly the 100% hold-bag screening requirement, prompted the ABC Project, explains Krys Bart, A.A.E., president and CEO of the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority. Explosive detection system (EDS) machines required to screen checked bags occupied one-third of RNO's ticket lobby - not including the space necessary for Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees to operate the machines or stanchions.

For roughly five years, travelers had to check in at the ticket counters and then take their bags to a second queue to wait for screening by TSA, resulting in a two- and sometimes three-step process if TSA flagged bags for additional screening.

During peak travel times, traffic was so congested it was physically difficult to move through the lobby. Sometimes, the check-in area was so packed with people that the temperature could not be controlled. A few customers even passed out from the heat. "We had serious safety concerns," Bart stresses. "This wasn't just an academic exercise to improve the lobby experience."

Setting a Strategy

Planning for the new check-in lobby began in 2006. Team members focused on finding the least expensive approach to alleviate the problem and deliver exceptional customer service while increasing security, Bart relates. After reviewing several options and collaborating with tenants and TSA, the airport decided to build a temporary ticket lobby and baggage screening area outside the terminal.

Under the lead of Gresham, Smith & Partners (GS&P), three "sprung structures" were erected in front of the old check-in lobby. The first housed passenger and baggage check-in for the airport's 10 airlines. It contained ticket counters and one baggage belt shared by all the carriers. Bags were screened with EDS machines in the second structure, then moved to the third, where tugs picked them up and dispersed them to aircraft. "The temporary facility was a great improvement over what we had to begin with," Bart reports. It worked so well, she adds, some passengers thought it was the new permanent arrangement.

Q&D Construction provided both the temporary structures and final building services.

Although the temporary structures closed one of the airport's roadways, they allowed the construction team to completely gut the check-in area and essentially create a greenfield environment. They also eliminated the need for a multiple-phase construction schedule and allowed crews to rebuild the area without having to work around passengers.

Sean Bogart, senior associate with GS&P, puts it in more concrete terms, estimating that the strategy saved the airport roughly $7 million and 16 to 18 months of construction time. "That was probably one of the smartest moves made in this project." Bogart relates. "It made the construction go much more smoothly."

Complete Renovation

The new facility not only includes new ticket counters and a new inline baggage screening system, but back-of-the-house systems such as HVAC and electrical as well. "Every element of this new terminal lobby has been rebuilt," Bart comments.

The ABC Project also extended the usable life of an area that was originally built for the 1960 Winter Olympics. "The airport does not have to focus on building a new check-in lobby for 25 years," says Bart. "We can focus our capital projects in other more critical areas."

Although the check-in lobby remains the same size, the airport netted 30% more check-in space by reconfiguring the existing square footage, Bart reports. Roughly 30,000 square feet was added behind the scenes to accommodate the in-line system.

Uniform ticket counters and airline branding on large LCD monitors vs. on backwalls as in the past gives the airport's new lobby a common-use appearance; but check-in positions are actually dedicated-use stations. Although a common-use arrangement would offer many advantages, it was not economically feasible for the airlines, explains Bogart.

RNO's lobby now features about 50 ticket counters, some single customer-single agent, others dual customer with two self-service devices and a single-agent position. Self-service kiosks are also dispersed throughout the area. Instead of locating them in front of ticket counters or placing them haphazardly, they are blended seamlessly into the counters, Bogart notes.

New Capabilities

Currently, RNO manages about 2 million enplanements per year. The new ticket lobby is designed to handle 8 million annual enplanements - a tremendous capacity increase without adding square footage in the ticketing lobby, Bart comments.

The baggage screening area was increased from 28,536 square feet to 52,599 square feet. The existing 22,892-square-foot lobby and 16,243-square-foot airline ticket office accommodated 10 airlines and TSA. In contrast, the new facility increases the airline ticket office to 20,114 square feet and accommodates 12 airlines as well as TSA with the same size lobby.

The number of EDS machines remained the same (six), but two new machines from Reveal Technologies were added for screening oversized baggage. "That's important because in our community, we have skis and snowboards in the winter and golf clubs, bikes and kayaks in the summer," says Bart. Previously, all oversized items were screened using explosive trace detection (ETD) equipment.

An Eye on the Environment

"The entire design, everything we did with this project included a focus on conserving energy," notes Bart.

About 30% of the belt used in the 1.3-mile inline baggage system was "green belt," meaning it is low-friction to conserve energy, Kulpin RNO's director of marketing and public affairs, says.

The reduced-friction belt allows motors to work less and last longer, while the conveyor system goes into sleep mode if it has not sensed a bag passing by in a predetermined amount of time, Bogart adds.

The HVAC system and lighting zones for the new ticket lobby are tied into the airport's energy management system. This allows the airport to regulate the lighting and heating/cooling based on activity in the check-in lobby, conserving energy and saving dollars.

According to Bart, the best part of the ABC Project is that the $63 million renovation was completed without creating any debt. It was paid for through a combination of passenger facility charges, currently $4.50 at RNO, and $17 million in TSA grants, $12 million for equipment alone. Given the current economy, Bart was especially pleased to report that 74% of the workers on the project were from the region.

Tahoe Vibe

In keeping with the feel of Tahoe, the new check-in lobby features natural colors and tiles, as well as a cut-glass mountain motif behind the ticket counter. Stone-covered columns and a "floating cloud" ceiling also help send people off with that "positive Tahoe image," Kulpin says.

Ticket counters are made of stainless steel and quartz solid surfacing; columns throughout the lobby are stainless steel bases with stone veneer and Hubbardton Forge light fixtures. The back wall features 4 1/2-foot-tall stainless-steel and is trimmed with matching wood and LCD monitors to keep passengers informed while they wait at the ticket counter.

Bart and Bogart agree that the team effort and continuous communication among the design team, airport, tenants, general contractor and subcontractors helped make the project a success. "The teaming effort that was undertaken on this project was really beneficial in being able to move it forward in a timely manner," Bogart states.

"One of the keys early on in the planning stages was to pull together all of the airlines, the tenants that would be impacted and work hand-in-hand with them in the planning so they all had a stake in the project and could support you through every step," Kulpin says. "That kind of communication early on, along with stakeholder meetings, has been an absolute key to the success of this."

Marketing Makeover

Getting the word out about the project in a positive manner was a key challenge, Bart explains. The airport wanted to ensure that the traveling public was informed about what kind of changes to expect at the airport. A multimedia communication program was created that included outreach through television commercials, local newspapers, magazines and radio. "We even went so far as to put footsteps on the ground directing people which way to go to check in," she says.

Responding to the electronic way more and more people receive information, the airport created a website ( to relay important notes about the project, including updates and changes to the ABC Project. A "construction wizard" - a real-life construction worker, complete with hardhat and wand - became the icon that helped deliver the message. "People immediately associated that construction worker to some real construction that was going on," Bart says. "It was a huge hit."

Brian Kulpin tailored a $200,000 advertising campaign about the project to the airport's peak travel seasons and at its start and conclusion.

This is the first time the airport has pushed a marketing campaign for a capital improvement project to such an extent, notes Kulpin. "Some of the best service you can offer with a project like this is to give them advanced communication so they know to arrive early and not be surprised by the construction," he says.

According to Bart, the project has not received a single complaint - a success she associates directly with the airport's "extensive communication efforts."

"We really believe that we make the all-important first and last impression on people coming and going from the community," Kulpin adds.


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