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FEATURE ARTICLE  

First New U.S. Airport Built Since 9/11 Gets Off the Ground 

11  2,005 

By Grace Jean 

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.

If 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 Curtis.

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 Ruggaard.

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 Institute.

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 for ideas.

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 Kip Hawley.

“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,” he said.

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 equipment.

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 areas.

“We tried to synthesize all the ideas and put them in place,” said Testa. “We built this whole terminal for 200 bucks a foot.”

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 capabilities.”

“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 in Boston.

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 added.

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,” said Barnett.

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 of 2006.

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