$3.1 million overhaul to start: Expansion project to keep facility in line with growth

Aug. 27--BENNER TOWNSHIP -- Travelers slated to fly out of University Park Airport in upcoming months will encounter construction work intended to lead to more elbow room in the waiting area if not on the planes.

The Centre County Airport Authority is getting ready for a renovation and expansion project that will cost an estimated $3.1 million and add 6,000 square feet to the terminal. The project includes expanding the passenger waiting lounge by 120 seats, building space to accommodate the federal Transportation Security Administration, moving the food and gift shop, and creating a centralized baggage security area.

Authority Director Charles Welch said the changes should make using the airport easier to navigate and more convenient for passengers.

Construction could start in October and take an estimated six to eight months, depending on factors such as weather and the availability of materials.

"The simple need is we have outgrown the space we have here," Welch said.

The number of times passengers take to the skies from University Park Airport each year has more than tripled since the early 1980s. So far this year, the number of emplanements is up 4.2 percent compared with the same period last year. US Airways, United, Delta and Northwest serve the airport.

A 2004 long-term study that included projected growth determined that the airport needs a new passenger terminal that would be twice as big as the current one, as well as more space for aircraft parking. Welch said that project could cost almost $60 million.

But that much money wasn't available, so the authority pursued a smaller-scale project. Welch said the authority still hopes to have federal aviation funding to move forward with the larger expansion in eight to 10 years.

The airport is also looking to move ahead with an air-traffic control tower. Traffic is currently handled by controllers in New York.

In the meantime, plans are to reconfigure parts of the airport. The authority is accepting bids on the project, designed by Architectural Alliance, of Minneapolis, until Sept. 13. Almost the entire cost will be covered by the Federal Aviation Administration, through a $4.50 federal passenger fee.

Welch said construction will take place in phases to minimize any disruption. There won't be reductions in the number of flights.

The project will start with an expansion of a front area to make room for the relocated food and gift shop. Expanding the passenger lounge and adding space for the Transportation Security Administration, which is currently housed in mobile offices outside the main building, also will be part of the first phase.

The entrance for passengers deboarding planes will be moved to prevent arriving and departing passenger lines from becoming entangled. Space will be added to the ticket check-in counter for another airline to join the existing ones at some point in the future.

Passengers also will give their baggage to TSA agents at a central station rather than to the individual airlines. Welch said there are plans to add parking space too, hopefully by summer 2008.

Anne Danahy can be reached at 231-4648.

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