Duluth Terminal Takes Off

Duluth International Airport’s new $78 million terminal was more than a decade in the making. But the new terminal’s wow factor makes it well worth the wait

Tom Werner, executive director of Duluth Airport Authority, starts the conversation triumphantly, and with some noticeable relief: “We have finally built and opened our new terminal building.”

The new facility, more than a decade in the making, was definitely worth the wait.

The $78 million state-of-the-art terminal at Duluth International Airport (DLH) both impresses and awes with a curved roof and mezzanine symbolizing the waves of Lake superior, rippled decorative glass representing the lake’s water, haphazard lines in the terrazzo floors inspired by the body of water’s cracked ice in the winter, and red paneled walls on the outside echoing the color of the iron ore boats that sail the Great Lake’s waters.

In addition, the new terminal meets post 9/11 federal safety and security requirements; includes sustainability features such as geothermal heating, natural lighting and an efficient water system; corrects passenger flow deficiencies in the old terminal; and positions the airport for future growth, an important fact as Werner points to signs that the air travel economy is recovering.

“2012 was our second best year ever, with 322,000 passengers passing through,” he says. “With our ability to attract new customers, our numbers will continue to grow. The new terminal will accommodate the four jet bridges that are not used at capacity; and our concourse, with seating for more than 400, which is rarely filled.”

Out With the Old

The old terminal is scheduled to be razed this spring; a fact that wasn’t a given at the project’s onset.

Originally, the airport considered remodeling the existing space for approximately $39 million instead of building anew. But the basic design of the old terminal worked against the modern security demands of a post 9/11 era. “In 2003, [when they began planning for the project], we were still trying to adjust to the TSA’s new norm,” Werner says. “After 9/11, it was not easy. There were a lot of unfunded mandates and, of course, the pre-9/11 passenger flow requirements were radically different.”

In addition, remodeling the existing facility would not have solved the airport’s FAA Part 77 issue (tails penetrating restricted airspace), according to Brian Ryks, the former executive director at DLH (and now executive director at Gerald R. Ford (GRR) International Airport in Grand Rapids, Mich.).

“When we decided how to site the new building, we considered Part 77 clearance requirements; to get aircraft far enough away from each other,” Werner explains. “And we found the old building simply would not work. It wasn’t just Part 77, however. When we considered passenger comfort and utility issues, the old [1970s-era] building had to go.”

As airlines phase out many of their 50-seat jets in favor of larger aircraft, compliance with Part 77 will become even more significant, according to Werner. “… and we’ll be ready for it,” he says. “If we need to expand, we can add to either end of the facility, without major interruptions.”

Ryks says he and the board also considered the long-range effects of predicted changes in commercial aviation, when determining whether to renovate or move forward with a new construction. They determined the existing terminal’s floor plan was impossible. “There were two separate security checkpoints for about 120 passengers each, and no restrooms!” Ryks says.

The original terminal had been built for far fewer passengers than the airport sees today. While airline tenants remain stable with Delta (to MSP, DET), United/SkyWest (ORD) and Allegiant Air (to LAS; seasonal service to SFB Orlando/Sanford); and IWA (to Phoenix/Mesa twice-weekly service), passenger growth continues.

“Over the last 30 to 40 years, traffic has grown tremendously,” says Werner. “Even before 9/11, we were facing capacity issues, which became more and more obvious as we ramped up to our record year (2007), when we had 350,000 passengers.”

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