Fairbanks Int'l Airport to Get Makeover

That part of the terminal was built in 1952. It's inefficiently designed, poorly insulated and dirty, according to a 2-year-old study. Besides, it could be downright unsafe.

Most of the existing airport terminal is out of compliance with life and fire safety requirements of the International Building Code, and much of it would be significantly damaged in even a moderate earthquake.

"We think it's gonna fix just about everything," airport manager Jesse VanderZanden told the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce's transportation committee in January.

The airport will begin work on the terminal as early as March, he said.

One of the biggest failings of the terminal stems from the airport's greatest success--a steady increase in passenger traffic. Enplanements, or the number of people boarding planes, have risen by about 3 percent annually for the last 20 years to just over 410,000 in 2005, or nearly double the figure in 1988.

In 2004, JAL started offering direct service from Tokyo to Fairbanks, coming on the heels of Condor Airlines' non-stop flights from Frankfurt, Germany.

The airport welcomes the traffic but is overwhelmed by it.

"Condor flights were small compared to the JAL flights," said Fairbanks Economic Development Corp. president Jim Dodson, who has tracked the renovation plans. One sold-out JAL flight this winter had 355 passengers.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has had to send extra staff up from Anchorage to handle customs for the JAL flights, Dodson said. The Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau provides coffee and tea to those waiting in line. And the Boeing 747 is so large it takes up three gates.

"There's just not enough room at that airport," said Amy Cook, Fairbanks manager for Northern Air Cargo. A sister company does ticketing, baggage handling and other ground services for BP and ConocoPhillips charter airlines.

Cook said space at the airport is an issue in the winter because of the JAL flights and in the summer because of Condor.

Part of the problem is that the terminal is actually two terminals, each with check-in and baggage claim, and therefore inefficient, VanderZanden said. The renovation plan will create one larger, more efficient terminal capable of handling the large flights.

"We're really excited," Cook said.

In addition to being cramped, the airport could be unsafe.

According to a report prepared in January 2004 as part of the development plan, the pre-1985 sections of the terminal are "subject to collapse" during earthquake activity. A fire in the terminal could cause the release of toxic gases from unprotected foam insulation, and electronic locks on jetway doors are in violation of current code.

Because any significant renovation of the terminal would require compliance with new International Building Code requirements, it became clear to planners that renovating would be just as costly as building new.

"It wasn't remodelable," Dodson said.

"We've had it for a long time and it has served us for a long time," he said. But its time has come.

Dodson said in the early stages of planning he called for a functional terminal, "Not the Cadillac but the Chevrolet."

Charles Bettisworth and Company Inc., the Fairbanks-based architecture firm that designed the Wood Campus Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the Rabinowitz State Courthouse and the Denali Center, is designing the new terminal.

Anchorage-based Davis Constructors & Engineers, Inc., which built the SpringHill Suites by Marriot and the Westmark Hotel tower, as well as OfficeMax and others, will construct the building.

Anchorage-based RISE Alaska, LLC is overseeing the whole project.

The goal is to start things off with new bathrooms at the terminal's southern end in early March, the day after the last JAL flight of the winter, VanderZanden said. They should be done in time for the first Condor flight in the summer.

Work on the terminal, roads and parking lot will be timed to minimize disruption of services, he said.

The terminal will expand from 134,000 square feet to 151,000 and will gain a gate. Forty new parking spots will be added for travelers and 50 for rental car companies.

The renovations and new construction will be paid for by a combination of bond proceeds and passenger facility charges and comes on top of ongoing upgrades to the airport's taxiway, cargo aprons, and runway.

So what's it going to look like?

"The spirit of it has been to capture the essence and feel of Fairbanks," said VanderZanden, who said plans for the work will be done soon.

It'll have some pizzazz but won't be too flashy, he told the Chamber of Commerce committee.

"It's not gonna be a Taj Mahal," he said.

That will probably please Dodson.

"We're anxious to keep the bears," he said.

Staff writer Stefan Milkowski can be reached at smilkowski@newsminer.comor 459-7577.

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