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Rebuilding Alabama's Front Porch

The new Birmingham Airport terminal is replacing outdated futuristic design with up-to-the-minute amenities and security, easier traffic flow for passengers and lots more space.

Birmingham Airport Authority CEO Al Denson and Birmingham Airport Authority Board Chairperson Gaynell Hendricks

Birmingham Airport Authority CEO Al Denson and Birmingham Airport Authority Board Chairperson Gaynell Hendricks

Photo by Steve Gates

One of the first things greeting you when you reach the departure level of Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport is the curious façade on the terminal’s outside overhang. The façade depicts four different sizes of raised circles, giving the structure sort of a moonscape appearance.

When the terminal was built in 1973, this type of space-age touch was a relatively common architectural style. We had made it to the moon and were heading to infinity and beyond, and everybody wanted that 21st-century look.

Well, the 21st century has arrived, and what once looked futuristic now looks old and out of date. The airport interior also is lagging behind the times, with a layout that is not conducive to the security upgrades needed in a post-9/11 world.

So the Birmingham airport is basically starting over, with a $201 million renovation and expansion project that will result in a complete replacement of the existing structure. Everything old will be new again, and the airport will truly enter the 21st century instead of just looking like a dusty vision of the future.

“It’s time to give a good facelift to the airport,” says Gaynell Hendricks, chairperson of Birmingham Airport Authority Board. “The airport is Alabama’s front porch. It is the first thing many people see when they come to Birmingham and other parts of our state. For people who are changing planes, it’s the only view of Birmingham they’ll get. It’s important to give a good impression.”

The project is being financed primarily through bond revenue, airport fees and federal grants from the Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration. The work is scheduled to take place in several stages through 2014.

The last significant renovation to the Birmingham airport occurred nearly 20 years ago, and it mainly involved changes in such aesthetic elements as flooring and lighting. While this newest project will dramatically alter the way the airport looks—the design by KPS Group includes curved metal ceilings and an increased use of natural light—it will also provide a major overhaul in how the airport functions.

“There is new technology that has come along that will really help to move passengers through our airport much faster and easier,” Hendricks says. “When 9/11 came, we had to retrofit what we had to accommodate the new security features. Now we’re going to have an opportunity to really make it a part of the airport. Things will be set up in a more efficient way.”

The changes include:
• The addition of a third concourse, part of an overall expansion that will nearly double the size of the terminal. The concourses will connect to each other past a central security checkpoint area, so passengers can move easily from one concourse to another. In the past, if passengers left a concourse they had to go back through security in order to re-enter.

“People are always tense until they get through security, and then they want to relax,” says Al Denson, the Birmingham Airport Authority president and CEO. “In the future people will be able to meander throughout the terminal and shop and eat.”

• A new consolidated baggage-handling system that will enable luggage to be sent immediately to the TSA screening area after a passenger checks in. Currently, passengers must take their luggage from the check-in counter to a TSA holding area, which is often crowded and difficult to maneuver around.

“That’s going to help tremendously,” Denson says. “The TSA security equipment that you see now will be underneath the terminal. It will help with the ease in the check-in process. The way it is now creates a lot of strain for the travelers. This will eliminate that piece of it.”

• Expanded concessions, with most of them located past the security checkpoint. Dining options currently are extremely limited inside the secured area.

• New elevators and waiting areas in the parking deck, as well as easy ramp access from the garage to the terminal. The parking deck’s current elevators are cramped, musty and slow, and people waiting for them are nearly standing in the way of rent-a-car traffic. In addition, the third-floor connection from deck to terminal includes a flight of stairs and two curbs, making the crossing difficult for people with rolling suitcases and impossible for those in wheelchairs.

The airport also is taking the proactive step of creating a Federal Inspection Station, more commonly referred to as Customs, in anticipation of eventually having international passenger flights. No deals are in place, but there is speculation about potential non-stop flights to Mexico, the Caribbean and possibly even Germany, which would appeal to officials with the nearby Mercedes-Benz manufacturing plant in Vance.

“This is a $200 million project, and the Federal Inspection Station is a $1.2 million investment. That’s less than 1 percent of the project cost,” Denson says. “If you’re going to undertake a project of this size, it makes sense to go ahead and construct an Inspection Station. It does not guarantee us anything, but it provides us with an opportunity to market this airport and this community to seek international travel.”

The airport certainly would like to take care of as many projects as possible during the next three years, because terminal renovations are a logistical challenge for everybody involved, especially the construction crews. There are layers of security protocol that must be strictly followed, and there is activity within the facility nearly 24 hours a day.
“They can’t just stop for us. They’re always operational,” says Jeff Hart, senior project manager of the airport renovation for Brasfield & Gorrie. “And if you make a mistake, you’re apt to have an evacuation.

“It requires a lot of planning to keep a seamless operation. We have coordination meetings with the airport every morning, about 15 of us, where we make sure we know the plan for today and for the next two weeks.”

The smaller of the airport’s two concourses was shut down in July and all the airlines were consolidated onto the larger concourse. A new concourse and security facility will be constructed, and then the airlines will be shifted over to the new concourse before work begins on replacing the rest of the terminal.

“It sounds fairly simple, but there is a lot of coordination that goes on in order to accomplish that,” says Herschell Hamilton, CEO of Bloc Global Group, which is working with Brasfield & Gorrie on the project. “It’s challenging, but it’s important to do it right. Because we are literally changing the face of the city.”

Indeed, as much as anything, airport officials are enthusiastic about the image boost the renovation could provide to Birmingham and the state overall. And if more people have a favorable opinion of the state, the thinking goes, then more people will want to come here, and traffic through the airport will increase.

“The airport is the first and last impression people have,” Denson says. “If the airport is very vibrant, then it sends a positive signal and is a reflection of the vibrancy of the city, as well. We’re playing a role in trying to create that ambiance and atmosphere. When this project is complete, we’ll have a facility to rival most any airport of our size.”

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