Tucson Int’l Refines Goals & Updates Terminal

Tucson Int’l Refines Goals & Updates Terminal
Jodi Richards
Published in: 

Prior to the Great Recession in the early 2000s, officials at Tucson International (TUS) were making plans to expand their aging two-concourse terminal to accommodate growing traffic. But as the economy took its toll on the airline industry by way of consolidation, they realized that expansion was no longer necessary at the origination/destination airport. 

Instead, TUS opted to take a long, hard look at its facilities and “re-outline goals and priorities,” says Mike Smejkal, vice president of planning and engineering for the Tucson Airport Authority. A terminal optimization study, led by HNTB and implemented by DWL Architects + Planners, evaluated the current and future needs of the entire facility and acted as the catalyst for a series of construction projects to revitalize and extend the life of the 382,000-square-foot terminal building. 

Three major construction projects were subsequently executed to transform the travel experience for customers: a $28 million terminal optimization program, a $8.5 million concessions overhaul and the $14 million installation of solar panels. The trio of projects was united under the slogan “A Brighter TUS.”


Location: Tucson (AZ) Int’l Airport

Project: Terminal Optimization 

Facility Size: 382,000 sq. ft. 

Cost: $28 million

Funding: Passenger facility charges; airport revenue bonds; private investment from concessionaires

Contractor: Sundt Construction

Architect: DWL Architects + Planners

Electrical Engineer/Special Systems: Monrad Engineering

Structural Engineer: Martin, White & Griffis Structural Engineers

Mechanical Engineer: Adams & Associates Engineering

Program Manager/Commissioning: Hill Int’l 

Terrazzo Installation: Advance Terrazzo

Project: Concessions Overhaul

Retail Concessionaire: Hudson Group, collaborating with Poravion & Cambios y Servicios 

Food & Beverage Concessionaire: Creative Food Group

Concessions Program Consultant: SI Partners

Cost: $8.5 million

Project: Installation of Solar Panels

Cost: $14.3 million

Construction: 11 months for Phase 1; 13 months for Phase 2

Completed: Fall 2013 & fall 2017, respectively

System: 118 Type 1 arrays with 98 panels/array; 11 Type 2 arrays with 42 panels/array

Total Capacity: 2.5 megawatts

Power Generated: 41,800 kWh AC/month

Overall Savings: 25,000 gallons of gas/month; 245 tons of CO2/month
 $35,000/month on electric costs (average)

Parking Spaces Covered: 1,360

Solar Panel Manufacturer: Solar World

Inverters: SMA Solar Technology America

Phase 1 Design Builder: Barker Morrissey

Phase 2 Electrical Design: Monrad Engineering

Phase 2 Civil Engineering: DOWL HKM

Phase 2 Architecture: Herzog Associates

Phase 2 Structural Engineering: Schneider Structural Engineers

Phase 2 Landscaping: Wheat Design Group

Phase 2 General Contractor: Sturgeon Electric

Terminal Optimization

When the U.S. economy contracted from 2008 to 2011, TUS experienced a 20% decline in passenger traffic. With less volume, the Arizona airport no longer needed a terminal expansion, but the 1960s facility did need to be updated and reconfigured to better accommodate a more modern passenger flow, Smejkal explains. Currently, TUS serves 3.4 million annual travelers on seven airlines. Last year, it experienced a 4.5% increase in passenger traffic.

The terminal optimization study analyzed traffic demands and capacity to help officials determine how much space was needed to process passengers in the most efficient manner. While much of the subsequent focus was on improving security checkpoints, projects were also designed to enhance the entire customer experience—from passenger processing and wayfinding to amenities and decor. 

 TSA screening stations were completely relocated and expanded. When originally added, they had been “thrown in the throats of concourses,” resulting in dark, inflexible spaces,
Smejkal relates. 

“The security checkpoint experience needed to be improved,” notes Sandra Kukla, executive vice president with DWL Architects + Planners, the prime architect. “It was shoehorned in between the terminal and the concourse—it was never planned that way for that building.” Because TSA checkpoints tend to be the highest point of anxiety for travelers, they were an effective place to make noticeable improvements, she adds. 

With more passengers checking in online and bypassing the linear ticket counters at the front of the ticketing lobby, project designers pulled the security checkpoints out closer to the front of the building. This, in turn, opened up post-security space to add new passenger amenities, including business centers and expanded concession options.

DWL Architects reconfigured the existing space to accommodate current and future screening needs. “With the old checkpoint, you came out of the recomposure area and were right in a holdroom,” Smejkal recalls. “Now, we have nice separation and a transitional space.” The recomposure area is also more spacious. 

Previously, each concourse had three security lanes. The new layout includes four lanes for each checkpoint, and seven of eight are already up and running. Officials are waiting for capacity in Terminal A to increase before adding the last lane. “We have a spot for it, but it hasn’t been installed yet,” says Smejkal. TSA would also need to provide the equipment and staffing, he adds.

The B Concourse checkpoint, used by Alaska Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, opened mid-April 2017. The Concourse A checkpoint opened in September and is used by Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, Sun Country Airlines and Via Air. The formerly dark area now features LED lighting, new terrazzo floors and windows that provide ample natural light. In all, it’s a “more pleasing atmosphere,” Smejkal reports. 

The terrazzo flooring not only provides a lighter, brighter space, but also represents the region and helps guide travelers through the airport. The color combination of browns and purples plays to desert sunset colors; the pattern, which mimics a river cutting through the desert floor, is designed to intuitively lead passengers from the terminal to the concourse. 

Windows on both sides of the checkpoint eliminate the previous claustrophobic feel and offer travelers a view of the Santa Rita Mountains as they wait to be screened. Awnings installed over the windows control heat gain and add a decorative wayfinding element. Cutouts of flying birds project shadows onto the floor, again helping lead passengers toward the concourses. 

“The architect came up with a number of unique things to help guide passengers and improve the experience,” Smejkal remarks. 

Reconfiguring Concessions

Making the best use of TUS’ existing square footage was also critical to concessions planning. “Our former design didn’t match the way the airline industry had gone with consolidation, and we needed additional post-security space,” says Barb Hempel, director of properties for the airport authority. Moving the security checkpoints to the ticketing level allowed TUS to install more post-security concessions and amenities.

Working with SI Partners, the airport authority studied the space and amenities offered at similar-sized origination/destination airports. “I think it was more about right-sizing the program,” Hempel says of the square-footage decisions. 

It was also a matter of placement. Previously, the airport had a gift shop and restaurant tucked away on the third floor of the terminal. “Everyone thought they were the best kept secrets—except the people who had to cover the overhead,” says Hempel. “We knew that we needed to bring those amenities down to the ticketing level where they’d be more visible.”

The airport authority also embraced the current industry trend of highlighting area cuisine and brands. “It seems the traveling public is more interested in eating where the locals eat,” Hempel observes. To ensure the region was accurately reflected at the airport, her team asked staff members to make lists of favorite restaurants and shops. “We also went down 4th Avenue and handed out flyers to local businesses,” she recalls. 

Ultimately, authority officials awarded the new food and beverage management contract to Creative Food Group. Its lineup includes several well-known Tucson dining options such as Empire Pizza, Beyond Bread, El Charro Café, The Maverick, Noble Hops, Arbuckles’ and Sir Veza’s Taco Garage.

The new local brands are intermingled with more widely recognized national names, such as Bruegger’s Bagels, BUILT Custom Burgers and Dunkin’ Donuts. “We tried to hit both segments,” Hempel notes.

Dining options are now located throughout the concourses. The new layout is popular with “holdroom huggers,” who want a bite to eat but don’t want to venture too far from their gate, she explains.

Design concepts for the new concessions fit in well with the overall look and feel of the facility, Hempel adds. “They are innately Tucson,” she says. Ink by Hudson, for instance, sells books, stationery, fashion, artwork, toys and travel items in a 1,000-square-foot, Tucson-inspired space adorned with weathered wood beams and Southwest imagery. Gates Pass is a 2,529-square-foot travel essentials and convenience store on Concourse A. Its name and décor pay tribute to the scenic Gates Pass that runs along the crest of the Tucson Mountains.

Hudson Group is collaborating with Tucson-based Poravion and Cambios y Servicios on retail locations.

Although Creative Food Group and Hudson Group are still building out their spaces, Hempel reports that both are “really hitting it out of the ballpark,” in terms of meeting passengers’ wants and needs.

To allow for the public’s changing tastes, airport authority officials included a mid-term refurbishment agreement in the new concessions agreements. The retail program is an eight-year contract, while the food and beverage program is a 10-year contract.

In addition to expanding concessions, the airport added other passenger amenities such as business centers and will soon install nursing pods. Officials are also working with local sponsors to add a children’s play area. “Now that we have the space, we’re able to add those to the post-security areas,” Smejkal states. 

Pre-security, TUS provides baggage scales and repacking tables to help travelers stay on the right side of airline weight limits for checked bags.

Harnessing the Sun

Capitalizing on the roughly 350 sunny days Tucson experiences each year, the airport authority constructed a two-phase, 2.5-megawatt solar installation in the hourly and daily parking lots at TUS. “We thought it would be a great program to bring to the airport,” Smejkal relates, noting that Tucson is a solar city and TUS is the first and last impression people have when visiting the area. 

Photovoltaic panels supported by an open metal canopy and columns make up two structures, one 56 feet by 36 feet and the other 37 feet by 23 feet. The units also include electrical infrastructure to facilitate direct connection to the terminal’s central plant power system. Except for “peak summer loads,” the solar arrays power the terminal and concourses—and at a savings of $35,000 per month, Smejkal reports. 

A popular feature has been the covered parking that the installation provides. “It was not the goal of the project, but it’s a nice side benefit,” he comments.  

Installing the solar panels required temporary detours, and small areas of the parking lots were shut down in phases. “We tried to maximize the amount of spaces open during our peak travel times,” Smejkal says. “And in the summer, when we’re a little slower, we took down bigger portions of the parking lot.”

FAA grants funded about 91% of the $14.3 million solar project; the Arizona Department of Transportation and airport authority paid for the remaining portion. 

Overcoming Challenges

Because the terminal is roughly 50 years old, updating its infrastructure technology was critical. One of the most technically challenging aspects of the project involved the backbone infrastructure, says Smejkal. Designing and planning for cutovers while ensuring airport operations were not compromised required much time and effort, he adds. Most of the switchovers took place between 1 a.m. and 3:30 a.m., to cause the least amount of disruption. 

Replacing all of the terrazzo flooring proved challenging as well. In retrospect, Smejkal notes that the multi-step, multi-day process was probably the most disruptive project of all, from a passenger perspective. At the front of the building, workers opened doors and windows to bring in fresh air, but that wasn’t an option up on the concourses. The contractor consequently built a tent around the work area to contain fumes and allow them to dissipate. Filters were also installed so the odor would not overwhelm holdroom areas. 

Bright Future

With new food and beverage locations debuting in stages, the airport is keeping at least one full-service restaurant in Concourse B open throughout the remaining transition. The first new restaurants opened in Concourse A, and half of all the concessions were operational as of mid-December 2017. Even though new spaces are “rolling out a little bit at a time,” Hempel reports that food and beverages sales are pacing significantly higher than with the old program 

During the first nine months of 2017, Creative Food Group had already pulled in 93% of last year’s revenue. Moreover, the restaurants logging those sales haven’t been opened long, and most concepts are still under construction, notes Hempel. Airport authority officials are consequently projecting an annual increase of 30% once all restaurants are open; and some are even more optimistic. 

On the retail side, Hudson Group earned 83% of the previous year’s revenue in the same nine-month period. “Again, this was operating in very small kiosks while the retail stores were under construction,” advises Hempel. In December 2017, with most stores open, Hudson Group exceeded sales for the same period in 2016 by 8%. Revenue is expected to increase 20% after a full year of sales. 

Assessing the current landscape, Kukla notes that “A Brighter TUS” has achieved the airport’s goals to maximize underutilized space, increase airport revenue, improve passenger processing and enhance customer service. “The project revitalized an old building so it can thrive and be an asset to the region.”  


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