Jan. 25—The walk to security will be a little shorter, and food choices on the other side may be a little more diverse following a major Albuquerque International Sunport overhaul expected to begin in early 2023.
The planned remodel — which Mayor Tim Keller described as the airport's biggest renovation in 30 years — will move and modernize the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint, rebuilding it just steps off the escalator where the defunct Tia Juanita's restaurant now sits idle. The checkpoint's northward move, meanwhile, will increase post-security space by 24% for a new food court, city officials said during a news conference Monday.
The project will also update mechanical, plumbing and HVAC systems, transition to LED lights and add what officials say is much-needed fire suppression equipment.
The renovation comes about two years after crews finally completed upgrades to the airport's exterior and to the ticketing and baggage areas. Keller said this project is more transformational than anything the Sunport has experienced since the 1990s.
"We have done some other renovations behind the scenes and so forth that are very important, but this is one that is going to change the experience of the airport for the next generation," Keller told a crowd of reporters as midday Monday air travelers walked past.
The city last week put the construction project out to bid. Officials estimate the work will cost $85 million — paid for with the airport's own revenue and federal grants — though the mayor said he expected that number would ultimately rise. The project will be mostly in the design phase this year, and construction will likely start in early 2023.
The Sunport is by far New Mexico's largest airport. Though traffic plummeted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it has gradually rebounded. The Sunport has averaged about 363,000 passengers each month since July.
While the forthcoming renovation will bring some dramatic changes, city officials stressed that it will not affect the Sunport's overall look, from the brick floors to the distinctive brown chairs.
"The one thing we aren't going to change is the aesthetics and the motif of what we see that's truly iconic for Albuquerque and New Mexico, which is the Southwest architecture, and the beautiful facility that we do have here. That, to the extent possible, we'll preserve," Albuquerque Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Rael said.
Officials stressed their desire to ensure the food court has New Mexico flair too.
The Sunport now has four food and retail vendors whose contracts expire this year, Sunport Development Manager Lisa Leyva said, but management is working on extensions to ensure continued operations through the project. The city eventually will put contracts out to bid, trying to attract local businesses through "outreach events for restaurateurs and retailers to learn about doing business at the airport," Leyva said.
More specific details are likely still years out, as the food court is the last phase of what's anticipated to be a three-year project, Keller said.
"This will be way down the road, but, you know, (the food court) might even include iconic local shops and businesses, whether it's Dion's or Laguna Burger or whatever," he said. "That's certainly part of the plan."
The new security checkpoint will be "state-of-the-art," Rael said — renderings show a winding conveyor belt that looks more akin to a baggage claim — and moving it upward finally reflects a post-9/11 world in which travelers are less likely to eat or relax until they clear the TSA line, he said.
"A lot of folks get really nervous about not getting through TSA right away, so this brings them up" closer to the entrance, he said.
The Sunport's last significant renovation — which covered pre-security areas and started in early 2017 — ran millions of dollars over-budget and took twice as much time to complete as anticipated.
Officials say they hope to avoid a similar fate by using a different type of contract. Described as "construction management of risk," interim Sunport Director Richard McCurley said it means the construction manager will be on board during the design phase and will provide a defined project schedule and guaranteed maximum price.
FBT Architects is already working with the city on some designs.
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