The nation’s first commercial airport to be built from the
ground-up since the 9/11 terrorist attacks is being designed to
incorporate advanced security features and technologies seamlessly
into the infrastructure, according to officials developing the project.
everything goes as planned, the new facility will replace Florida’s
Panama City-Bay County International Airport in late 2008.
Built in the late 1930s on 400 acres of land in the Florida panhandle,
the Panama City-Bay County International Airport has run into several
problems, said Randy Curtis, its executive director.
“One of the problems the airport has faced since 9/11 is
trying to incorporate new security equipment that it’s not
really designed for,” he said. “This is an opportunity
to do it from the very beginning in the right sequence.”
The airport’s 6,300-foot runway is one of the shortest in
the state. It does not meet Federal Aviation Administration standards,
which require 1,000-foot safety areas at both ends of the runway.
The safety area at one end of the airport’s main runway measures
59 feet—shorter than the distance from a baseball pitcher’s
mound to home plate. Because of that limitation, the airport currently
operates on a waiver from the FAA.
As the region became more urbanized and crowded in recent years,
said Curtis, it became clear that the airport could not expand its
facilities on the current property, he said.
Furthermore, it sits in a storm-surge zone and is vulnerable to
flooding. Hurricane Katrina recently brought water onto some of
the overruns while Hurricane Ivan last year flooded some of the
runways. In 1996, Hurricane Opal caused flooding that damaged electrical
equipment and impacted the operations of the airport.
Because of its close proximity to Tyndall Air Force Base, the airport
actually shares airspace with the military, said Curtis.
Authorities originally wanted to expand the airport to mitigate
some of these issues. But during talks with St. Joe Company, which
owns much of the undeveloped property in Bay County, the airport
authority determined that it would be cheaper to relocate the airport,
versus trying to expand into a congested and constrained site, said
The cost of the proposed project is $277 million, said Knute Ruggaard,
project manager of Bechtel Infrastructure Corp., the San Francisco,
Calif.-based company that is designing the airport.
St. Joe Company is donating 4,000 acres in an area northwest of
the existing site for the new airport, said Jerry Ray, the company’s
senior vice president for corporate communications.
“We also donated 10,000 acres that will be used for conservation”
because the state of Florida requires such mitigation, said Ray.
“So this is an airport that environmentalists want done.”
The airport will be part of a 75,000-acre, long-term land use plan—the
largest in the state’s history, said Ray. Building a “greenfield”
airport—as opposed to building a new terminal on an existing
property—usually is difficult because of all the issues involved
in constructing a facility from scratch. So-called greenfield sites
are undeveloped, and usually require substantial removal of trees
and extensive environmental reviews.
“It’s a rare event. And it probably won’t happen
again for quite some time,” said Ruggaard.
The Panama City project is the third greenfield airport to be built
in the country during the last 20 years.
At 4,000 acres, the airport’s property will be larger than
those of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and New
York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Bechtel will develop about 1,300 acres of the property initially.
The southern part of the airport will be dedicated to passengers,
said Ruggaard. The northern part will be devoted to industrial entities,
such as aircraft manufacturers and aircraft service and repair.
Besides being at the forefront of land use planning, “security
is another area where we can be at the leading edge,” said
As the first post-9/11 newly constructed airport, Panama City has
the potential to set some standards for the rest of the industry
by incorporating security considerations into the infrastructure
in a way that is virtually invisible to passengers, said Ruggaard.
“It’s an opportunity to do things right from scratch
rather than do the ad hoc security solutions that we’ve seen,”
said Robert Poole, director of transportation at Reason Public Policy
At the Panama City airport, for example, some of the security screening
equipment sits out in the main lobby, because there isn’t
enough space to place it in a security corridor as larger airports
do, Curtis said.
Bay County planners are initiating the design phase of the terminal
and are consulting with industry, government and other airports
The Transportation Security Administration provides guidelines
for airport planning, design and construction. However, those guidelines—originally
developed by the FAA—were released in June 2001, before 9/11.
At a recent meeting of TSA’s aviation security advisory council,
committee members had an opportunity to raise concerns before Administrator
“There are people right now designing terminals and airports
with old guidelines,” said Paula Hochstetler, president of
the Airports Consultants Council, an international trade association.
TSA should give these people more specific information so that they
don’t “waste even more money” on outdated security
information and technology, she said.
Hochstetler chairs the working group tasked with updating TSA’s
guidelines to reflect the 9/11 security requirements.
TSA needs to give priority to updating the document, she said,
so that airport authorities will have pertinent guidelines to refer
to when constructing new terminals and airports.
“We’re right square in the middle of a lot of focus
and efforts” on the issue, said Hawley. “I would take
flexibility and move it 50 places up,” he recommended to the
working group members updating the guidelines.
Since 1980, there have been 225 terrorist attacks on civilian aircraft
or airports worldwide, according to a database maintained by the
RAND Corporation. Of that total, 150 attacks took place on civilian
aircraft while 75 attacks occurred on or at airports.
Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action
Project, told the TSA’s aviation security advisory council
that there are still gaps in security.
“The customary fallacy is, you fight the last war as opposed
to what’s coming up,” he said, before describing a list
of threats and vulnerabilities in the aviation sector, including
the potential for mass bombings at an airport.
In his statement to the council, TSA’s Hawley spoke about
placing a “high premium on being nimble, agile and flexible”
in developing a model to handle the risks faced by the aviation
industry. TSA wants a model that will “work well against known
risks but also build in a margin that allows you to be flexible,”
A number of airports that have been upgraded since 9/11 had to
revise their plans after the terrorist attacks. Among the first
was Harrisburg International Airport in central Pennsylvania, which
opened a new terminal in Aug. 2004.
Harrisburg’s airport authority had originally planned to
make a $40 million renovation to the existing terminal, but the
Sept. 11 terrorist attacks prompted security adjustments to the
renovation plans that more than doubled the cost of the project.
As a result, the airport authority revamped its plans and approved
the construction of a new terminal.
“We had the chance to redo everything with the new terminal
building, and that’s what we did,” said Alfred Testa
Jr., director of aviation at Harrisburg International Airport.
The $230 million project, managed by prime contractor Kinsley Construction
of York, Pa., tripled the size of the former 100,000- square-foot
terminal, which includes a 2-acre basement to house an in-line baggage
screening facility for all checked luggage.
“Nobody sees baggage handling at all in the building. You
see a rather uncluttered terminal building with no big machines
where the people belong. The big machines are down in the basement
where they belong,” said Testa.
The airport currently has three L-3 systems in the basement that
are certified to screen 1,500 bags an hour. It uses an $8.5 million
conveyor system that was designed by Vic Thompson Company and manufactured
by Siemens Dematic (now Siemens Logistics and Assembly Systems Inc.)
to transport the checked baggage through the screening stations.
The $20 million basement was designed for expansion and can accommodate
a fourth screening system, said Testa. It also has a room for next-generation
The Philadelphia-based Sheward Partnership architectural firm designed
the new terminal with a passenger security checkpoint area capable
of accommodating six security-screening lines. The airport currently
operates three lines.
“We could get by on two security lines,” said Testa.
During peak times, he said, the airport opens the third checkpoint
to expedite the screening process. Testa said the average security
wait time is one minute during off-peak times, six to seven minutes
during peak times.
The airport handles 700,000 departing passengers annually.
“We could triple that number. We could have 2.1 million enplanements
and a one-minute wait still,” said Testa.
Testa said the airport used to have only 10 to 15 security cameras;
now there are 150 digital cameras in place all over the airport.
Other new security measures included moving all commercial transportation,
such as taxis, buses and rental cars, to the garage and designing
the airport to accommodate larger crowds in the waiting and greeting
“We tried to synthesize all the ideas and put them in place,”
said Testa. “We built this whole terminal for 200 bucks a
Having been through the process of designing terminals from scratch,
Testa offered this advice.
“You have to think of every single thing that’s going
to come up and plan for it,” he said. “Be flexible enough
to design the airport to accept anything that is ready by the time
you’re ready to build,” he said. But, he added, Panama
City needs to be careful to not overbuild and make it so expensive
to operate that it will attract nobody. Most importantly, Testa
said, “you don’t want to block any future expansion
“I hope they will design an airport with the idea that security
is forever. I don’t know if there will be a time when the
security threat will diminish so much that people will say, ‘can
you imagine they had to take off their shoes at one time,’”
said Arnold Barnett, an aviation safety specialist who is professor
of operations research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology
If Panama City were to take the position that security is going
to be an ongoing problem, then “I think it would be making
a statement that would be extremely valuable for the entire country,”
said Barnett. “Panama City has the opportunity to be a laboratory.”
Establishing a test bed at the airport is an idea being championed
by its developers and supporters.
“Among the things that we think this makes available is a
unique opportunity to actually develop a test bed, for an R&D
center, for security-related technologies, and ultimately, to create
a laboratory space where you can actually test various kinds of
technologies, various kinds of designs, in an operational setting,”
said Ed Wright, chairman of Partners in Progress, a Florida citizens
group that has been advocating for the new airport. “It seems
that if we indeed manage to do that, we also ought to operate a
training capability with regard to those technologies,” he
As for the terminal itself, Curtis, the airport’s executive
director, said that the design phase is ongoing.
“We now have the basic airport permitted and ready to go,”
said Bechtel’s Ruggaard. “We’re doing the fun
stuff now, designing the interior, getting the input.”
Ruggaard said that planners are looking at all aspects of security,
including screening for passengers, baggage and cargo; perimeter
protection and surveillance, and general aviation safety.
“Our goal is to provide seamless state-of-the-art security
that actually enhances the traveling experience, instead of being
an unpleasant part of travel. Though our approach to security has
not been finalized, we are designing the airport to handle the flow
of passengers logically from the time they enter the airport property
until they depart for their final destination,” he said.
However, “state-of-the-art does not mean ‘break-the-bank,’
” he added. “We believe we can enhance security significantly
without adding exponentially to cost.”
“There are machines out there that are very effective and
not very expensive. I would hope that trend will continue, and that
Panama City could be one of the first places to benefit from that,”
The funding for the new Panama City airport will come from three
main sources: the state of Florida, the FAA’s airport improvement
funds and local funds, including the sale of the old airport.
The ground breaking for the new airport is scheduled for May-June