Terminal Upgrades Improve Flow at Buffalo Niagara Int’l

Terminal Upgrades Improve Flow at Buffalo Niagara Int’l
Jennifer Daack Woolson
Published in: 

It’s too small.

That was the first impression William Vanecek, director of Aviation for Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, had when he walked into Buffalo Niagara International Airport (BUF) on his first day of work in November 1998. The western New York airport was celebrating the one-year anniversary of renovating its two separate terminals into one larger facility. “When I walked in the front door, my initial reaction was: They built it too small,” Vanecek recalls.

In the years that followed—especially after BUF added service from JetBlue in 1999—passenger volume grew to a peak of 5.2 million. The airport expanded from 15 gates to 25, but baggage claim capacity and auxiliary spaces for passenger flow did not keep up with the growth in passenger traffic. 

That created the need for a two-year, $80 million improvement project that is slated for completion next spring. It is part of a $400+ million master plan that spans another nine years.


Project: Passenger Terminal Improvements

Location: Buffalo Niagara (NY) Intl’ Airport

Airport Owner: Niagara Frontier
Transportation Authority

Cost: $80 million

Funding: Passenger facility charges; airline contributions; loans

Size/Scope: 58,000 sq. ft. of new construction; 37,000 sq. ft. of remodeled space on 2 levels

Key Elements: Expansion of Baggage Claim Hall; circulation corridor from Customs & Border Protection Facility to main terminal building; additional exit paths from Concourse to Baggage Claim

Notice to Proceed: May 2016

Design: June 2016–Oct.2018

Construction: Jan. 2019–April 2022

Prime Consultant/Architect of Record: Jacobs

General Contractor: The Pike Company

Civil Airfield/Architectural Interiors/ Structural/Fire Alarm/ Lighting: Jacobs

Architect/Surveyor/Code Compliance: Foit Albert Associates

Landscape Architect: Watts Architecture
& Engineering

Fire/Life Safety Engineering: Jacobs; Watts Architecture & Engineering; Foit Albert; Davis Fire Protection; Frey Electric

Civil/Plumbing: Watts Architecture & Engineering

CHA Consulting Inc.

Moye IT Consulting LLC

Baggage Carousels: Siemens Slope Plate Carousels

Baggage Handling System: BNP Associates Inc.

Seating & Furniture: Steelcase, from Prentice Office Environments

Living Wall: Growing Green

Roofing: Ketone Ethylene Ester HP PVC

Photovoltaic Collectors (Solar Panels): High Efficiency LG NeON® 2 72cell Module

Glass: Trulite Glass Insulating Glass Units (Perma-Pane); Trulite Glass Tempered Glass (Perma-Temp)

Passenger Boarding Bridges: JBT

Lighting Designer: Jacobs

Lighting: Pierce, from The Lighting Practice

Signage: Jones Worley

Fixing Passenger Flow

When viewed from above, the original terminal looked like an aircraft, with two linear concourses resembling wings, and a security checkpoint in between as the fuselage. Vanecek notes that the design looked pretty cool but didn’t function very well. After 9/11 prompted new security measures, new flow patterns made it more difficult for passengers to clear TSA checkpoints and get to their flights. The airport expanded some security areas, but that didn’t quite fix the problem. One specific issue was that the checkpoint entrance was directly adjacent to the concourse exit. This created a congested area, with no place for people to sit while waiting for arriving passengers and long lines of departing passengers waiting to enter the security checkpoint.

New exit concourses designed by Jacobs have changed the dynamic of how people move into and out of the terminal, and passengers no longer need to swim upstream against the flow of traffic. On the west side of the terminal, which houses American Airlines and Frontier Airlines, a new 11,000-square-foot concourse routes passengers away from the central terminal and directly into the baggage claim area. A new west walkway was designed to better accommodate international arrivals, who previously had to go outside the building to get to baggage claim.

The east side, where Southwest Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and JetBlue Airways reside, handles about 70% of BUF’s traffic. In this area, designers created a much larger 41,000-square-foot exiting concourse with a more spacious meet-and-greet area.

The airport furnished the new area with modern furniture and desktops to create a better environment for arriving passengers.  “They used to have a horrible first impression; but now when they deplane here, you just see smiles on their faces,” Vanecek reports.

The airport’s facelift represents a larger transformation that has occurred in Buffalo. What used to be a predominantly blue-collar steel town is now an updated community attracting more high-tech companies. The new terminal reflects the new culture, Vanecek explains.

When the original terminal was built, it had three flat-plate baggage carousels. The recent project installed four large slope-plate carousels, each double the size of the previous units. Although the footprint of the baggage claim area didn’t change, designers were able to create more space by removing some offices. Vanecek notes that these improvements have doubled the capacity for inbound traffic, which will help minimize overcrowding around the baggage claim belts. Recent changes also created room to expand the storage area for “lost” or delayed baggage, which in the past clogged the lower level.

Active Design Process

In addition to working right, the new areas also had to look right. That’s another area where the Jacobs team figured prominently.

“In many ways, the terminal is the airport’s brand for anybody who has been to Buffalo,” says Rob Coan, the Jacobs’ project manager for Aviation. “We had to be very, very respectful of that.”

One of the architects working on the project described the team’s design process as “quiet intervention.”

“I thought it was very eloquent,” says Coan. “We just wanted to come in and make our changes and not ‘stir up too much dust’ with the existing building.”

Personnel from Jacobs traveled around the country meeting with architectural teams working in aviation and other industries to develop a design that was not too bland and not too extreme.

Coan also sent personnel to BUF to interview user groups, take pictures and research existing material palettes to study the original terminal design. But the team also looked forward. “It’s almost 25 years since that terminal was designed, so we didn’t want to leave it back there,” remarks Coan. “We wanted to continue to evolve it.”

In addition to addressing aesthetics, Jacobs considered dynamics specific to the Buffalo area, such as winter storms that cause flight delays and what that means for the baggage claim hall.

Pre-COVID Contracts Prove Pivotal

Like other airports, BUF had days early in the pandemic when it served fewer than 10 departing passengers. “That was tough to take,” Vanecek acknowledges. “We were a little concerned that we weren’t going to be able to fund the project because the price of steel was going up everywhere.”

Fortunately, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority had established strategic contracts with the primary construction contractor that allowed it to maintain the costs originally budgeted for the project. Before crews broke ground in September 2019, Larry Fuentes, executive vice president with The Pike Company, had already begun keeping an eagle eye on supply chain issues.

“We were constantly working with our subcontractors,” Fuentes explains. “We asked to see the purchase orders to make sure the material was ordered. Our verification process had to go a little above and beyond the normal.”

Because it was essential for the airport to maintain operations throughout construction, the project’s timeline was complicated. “We didn’t have a lot of space to start with because the baggage claim hall was being expanded because we needed more space,” Coan muses. “To make it happen, there was phasing, there was microphasing and then there was micro-microphasing. It was pretty detailed.”

Bringing Outside Elements In

Before the recent renovations, passengers often described BUF as dreary. To remedy that, project designers added a lot of windows and sunlight. “Now passengers come in, they see this beautiful concourse that’s all glass looking out over the taxiways, and then they come into this expansive waiting area,” explains Vanecek.

A massive living wall covered in plants makes the new waiting area significantly more impressive. Designers also outfitted the space with innovative light fixtures on bars that hang at different heights and angles. The Pierce lighting is particularly striking as visitors drive toward the terminal at night. Vanecek notes that the new area embodies the 2021 feel BUF was going for—as opposed to the 1970s look the terminal used to have.

Another design feature of the east expansion is a solar wall. Coan explains that the south-facing wall is made of corrugated metal that allows air to blow through it. The air, which is heated by the sun, is then mixed into the facility’s distribution system to help offset mechanical heating.

The west expansion also includes a solar feature, in the form of more traditional roof-mounted panels. The 50-kilowatt photovoltaic system produces power and ties directly into the facility.

Customer-facing improvements include new curb space at both ends of the terminal, a new bus waiting area on the lower level, a centrally located kids’ play area and a tech center with workspaces and cellphone charging stations. Some concessions and the airport barbershop were relocated to the upper floor.

Planning Made All the Difference

Vanecek reports that nearly everything about the complex project has gone according to plan; and he emphasizes the important role that upfront planning played in making that possible. “You have to really take a long, hard look before you even start breaking ground to make sure that everybody is on the same page with respect to design,” he advises. “There are always going to be some surprises during construction, but it’s going to be very helpful if you know a path forward with certainty.”

Fuentes concurs: “I think whenever you’re working in a facility that stays operational during construction, it’s always a challenge. But through proper coordination, we were able to successfully work around the existing customers.”

Because much of the construction occurred during 2020 and 2021, Jacobs and The Pike Company had to evolve their original plans to accommodate remote work and inspections.

“We’re very accustomed to working remotely in different area codes and time zones,” says Coan, noting that project designer and architects use FaceTime and Teams when they need to visually review something found during construction. He adds that when Jacobs personnel were able to be on-site in person, the Transportation Authority and prime contractor made the process seamless.

In retrospect, one of the things Coan appreciates most about the BUF project was the pride of ownership everyone exhibited. “Most, if not all, of the team members were personally invested in it,” he explains. “They believed in what we were doing, and they wanted to succeed.”

In fact, it wasn’t unusual for personnel from the Transportation Authority, Pike and Jacobs to text each other at night or on weekends if they thought of something that could make the project better. “Although we had people on the design team spread across the country, there was a real hometown feeling,” Coan remarks.

Vanecek notes that the positive team spirit extended to the airlines—particularly onsite personnel who continued to serve passengers during construction and renovation work. He acknowledges that the project was sometimes intrusive, especially when airline offices were relocated. “But the airlines supported us through this whole project, and they were great partners,” he comments. “That meant a lot to us, and I think they’re thrilled with how it turned out and how it functions."


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