San Diego Int’l Fast-Tracks Federal Inspection Station Project

San Diego Int’l Fast-Tracks Federal Inspection Station Project
Thomas J. Smith
Published in: 

Faced with a growing number of international flights, San Diego International Airport (SAN) needed a new international Arrivals Hall and Federal Inspection Station—and it needed them quickly. 

An aggressive timeline scared away all but one design/build team at the beginning of the project. Ultimately, however, the new 130,000-square-foot facility was completed in just 13½ months. Moreover, it features the most advanced passenger screening technology currently in use by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Although CBP is the primary tenant in the new space, the airport authority funded the entire $229.4 million project.

The new facility nearly triples SAN’s processing capacity for international arrivals. The airport’s previous 20-year-old federal inspection station could handle 350 passengers an hour. With 16 booths in the primary inspection area, the new facility is designed to process 1,000 passengers per hour. 


Project: New Federal Inspection Station & International Arrivals Hall

Location: San Diego Int’l Airport

Owner: San Diego County Regional Airport Authority

Size: 130,000 sq. ft.

Cost: $229.4 million

Funding: Airport funds; passenger facility charges 

Design & Construction Timeline: 12 months

Project Manager: Turner/PCL

Architect/Lead Designer: Gensler

Staffing: 227 subcontractors; 3,568 construction workers; 1,000+ security access badges

Mechanical/Electric/Plumbing Engineers: Syska Hennesey Group

Structural Engineer: MKA

Civil & Special Systems Engineers: Burns & McDonnell

Fire Protection Engineer: Jensen Hughes

Landscape Architects: LdG

Temporary Construction Walls: McCain Mfg. 

Wall Installation: Brady SoCal Inc. 

Key Benefits: Improved throughput; enhanced customer experience

Sustainability: Targeting LEED Gold certification

After travelers clear Customs, they exit into the new International Arrivals Hall, a public meet-and-greet space with soaring windows on the bayside of Terminal 2.

The upgraded airside facility includes three new gates attached to Terminal 2—each with two jet bridges, elevators and escalators. All of the new gates can “swing” between supporting domestic flights and providing the sterile, isolated environment that is required for international flights. The facility accommodates a variety of aircraft sizes on six gates.  

The old facility had three international gates, but could not handle three wide-bodies at the same time, explains Bob Bolton, SAN’s director of design and construction. Four of the new gates were operational by July; the remaining two were slated to be ready by next summer—in time to serve additional international flights that have already been scheduled by carriers, notes Bolton. 

Growth-Driven Urgency

SAN officials originally wanted to add a new federal inspection station when the airport constructed a new Terminal 2 during its Green Build, which concluded in 2013. The air service marketing staff projected that by summer 2018, station demand would reach 850 passengers an hour. However, the airlines would not support a larger facility since it was not needed at the time, Bolton explains. As a compromise, Terminal 2 included empty shell space to house a new inspection station at some point down the road.

“By 2016, it was apparent that we needed additional capacity,” Bolton recalls. Planners also realized that the shell space alone would not accommodate new CBP requirements.

In new projects, the agency was replacing its traditional two-step screening process with a bags-first approach that requires more specific square footage not originally built. Confined within a sterile environment, deplaning passengers retrieve their luggage and then proceed to a primary inspection area. “It is a real game-changer for the passengers, because they only have one interaction and off they go,” explains Bill Snyder, the CBP port director for the Port of San Diego.

In the end, an additional 54,000 square feet was added to Terminal 2 to accommodate the flow associated with the new bags-first process.

Like other recent SAN projects, the new federal inspection station and International Arrivals Hall was a design-build initiative. “As we went through the pre-qualification phase, we made the requirement that it must be completed by June 30, 2018,” says Bolton. “This all but eliminated one team. The others either had too much on their plates or felt this was too complex for one year.”

The joint venture of Turner/PCL and its lead designer, Gensler, tackled the project head on. Both were alumni of SAN’s Terminal 2 projects. The continued involvement of key players with “embedded knowledge” was crucial to giving the team confidence that it could meet the tight deadline, says Ben Regnier, Gensler’s project manager.

“We came in with a design of what we wanted to achieve; and the project was so fast-tracked that we really did not get a chance to change anything,” notes Regnier. “We wanted to ease the traveler off the plane and onto U.S. soil in a way that did not add to stress and confusion. We tried to make it feel like it was a local San Diego arrivals facility.”

Designers consequently specified wall colors, illustrations and textures that highlight the six distinct landscapes found within San Diego County. Notable features include a “welcome sunrise” on the third floor, a canyon-like escalator core and a shoreline-inspired space on the ground floor. Two new art installations were coordinated into the design and provide additional finishing touches.

Challenge Met

“We really pushed ourselves very hard,” says Dave Cattle, the executive that Turner/PCL put in charge of the project. “We agreed to design team commitments early, we had a highly aggressive schedule, clearly defined responsibilities and a coordinated plan that we executed extremely well.”

The project was approved in March 2017; the official ground breaking occurred weeks later in mid-May; demolition began the next day; and the occupancy permit was granted one year later to the day.

Over the year, the project involved 227 subcontractors and 3,568 construction workers. More than 1,000 personnel required security access badges.

At one point, the team had more than 60 staff members overseeing the project—about twice the normal amount for a similar size project due to multiple shifts and 30+ separate work sites around the airport. Two full-time schedulers were also assigned to the project.

Throughout most of the year, the project required three shifts of workers. Most construction could only be completed during the limited hours each night that the airport was closed to the public.

Cattle explains that the team agreed to a design schedule that enabled the steel to be designed, bid, fabricated and onsite by Aug. 1. 

Project challenges included a local building boom that sometimes made it difficult to secure subcontractors. “As an example, we could not get a roofing contractor during the spring for a week of work, because they were flat out doing 100% schools at the time,” he recalls. 

The team met weekly with stakeholders, including CBP. At times, there were separate bi-weekly meetings with CBP just to deal with technology issues. “A lot of time was spent just making sure we were doing the right things,” says Regnier. 

A separate committee was established just to deal with “unexpected situations.”

Mid-Project Biometrics

To meet CBP design standards, SAN installed biometric screening equipment at all 16 inspection booths. The challenge to the airport and its design-build team was that the standards evolved during the project.

When the project began, facial recognition technology was being tested in just two airports: Washington Dulles and Atlanta International. As the project progressed, CBP determined what equipment was working and decided what it wanted at SAN. Unfortunately, this occurred six months into the 13½-month project, notes Regnier. 

As soon as CBP specified the equipment it required, the airport quickly purchased it. Each booth is equipped with a camera to photograph travelers and facial recognition technology to compare the photos it takes with those CBP has on file from passports and other travel documents.

Because the facial recognition technology was relatively new at the time, the airport purchased 10 Automated Passport Control kiosks for the new facility as backups. The airport allowed CBP to test the new equipment in the old/existing inspection station to “get the bugs worked out and to train their staff,” Bolton explains. “The day we opened, the equipment worked beautifully.”

Ultimately, the Automated Passport Control kiosks were never used; and SAN plans to sell them to other airports that are not slated to use the new facial recognition technology.

With the new equipment, CBP officers have more time to converse with passengers. “It now happens so quickly, and we are saving time in the process,” Snyder reports. “I have heard nothing but good comments from stakeholders and passengers.” 

San Diego Int’l Upgrades its Construction Barriers

To meet officials’ high expectations for maintaining a great customer experience, the team designing the new Federal Inspection Station at San Diego International Airport (SAN) specified a new product to wall off construction zones from the traveling public.

Designers opted for reusable modular units rather than temporary drywall or Formica-covered particle board barriers to keep passengers and other customers out of work areas. 

At one point, there were 20 separate construction sites within the terminal that needed to be screened from the public, notes Bob Bolton, director of design and construction at SAN.

Project documents for the new facility called for high-quality walls that could be installed with minimal mess and inconvenience to passengers. They didn’t, however, specify a specific brand. 

“It was up to the design/build team as to how to meet these requirements,” says Bolton. Project manager Turner/PCL specified McCain Walls based on positive experiences it had with the product during previous projects. Dave Cattle, a Turner/PCL construction executive, notes that it was very important for SAN to maintain the expected customer experience throughout construction and at all times meet the schedule. 

“We’re on a mission to ‘help save the planet, one wall at a time’,” says Jeffrey L. McCain, chief executive officer/founder of McCain Manufacturing. “We have invented what we believe is a 21st century, sustainable solution to drywall, and are proud to help enhance green airport construction across the U.S.”

The walls are made of steel frames covered with shaped aluminum panels that have a high-gloss white finish. McCain personnel say they are like a “giant Lego system” because the modular components are easy to assemble and offer many visual options. 

Great spans of McCain Walls were installed overnight with none of the mess associated with erecting, sanding and painting drywall, notes Lisa McGuckin, president of PanAmar Inc., a sales agent for McCain Walls. The airport also saved the time and cost of tearing down and disposing drywall structures after the project was complete. Crews at SAN were able to dis-assemble and re-install the McCain Walls elsewhere the same night in a different configuration. Eventually, all parts of the wall system can be recycled.

Airports can customize the pre-painted panels with easily removable graphics, explains McGuckin. SAN decorated some of its temporary walls with directional signs and images from the annual Comic-Con festival. Reusable elements cost $10 to $20 per square foot.  

The first large-scale installation of McCain Walls occurred in 2016 at Aria Resort Casino in Las Vegas. Los Angeles International was the first airport application, and SAN first used the system at its facilities while renovating restrooms last year. Since then, 11 other airports have followed suit. Typically, drywall contractors or general laborers install the walls, notes McGuckin.

At SAN, a six-person crew installed a 450-foot-long McCain Wall in 2½ nights. According to Cattle, using the temporary barriers helped the construction team meet its tight one-year schedule for the 130,000-square-foot facility.



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