Wichita’s Terminal Takes Off

May 27, 2015

When an airport resides in a city known as the Air Capital of the World, first and last impressions matter. So, when it came time to revamp Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower Airport, developers knew one thing for certain--whether they built a new facility or remodeled the existing one, the new terminal had to pay tribute to the area’s aviation roots.

Before the first shovel hit the ground, HNTB building architects spent months researching the city’s history and developing ways to incorporate Wichita’s aviation past into the new building’s design. They studied a history that goes as far back as the 1920s and 1930s, when businessmen and aeronautical engineers opened a number of successful aircraft manufacturing companies, including Beechcraft, Cessna and Stearman Aircraft. Today, the state’s largest city, which an estimated 387,000 people now call home, is known as The Air Capital of the World being home to Textron Aviation, Lear, Airbus and Spirit AeroSystems.

Recently, the city unveiled a sparkling new, $200 million terminal where every inch of its 275,000 square feet reflects the region’s aviation heritage, from its long swooping exterior that captures the motion of flight to its interior mix of stainless-steel and metal finishes resembling an aircraft down to the tiniest detail. Thin aluminum stripping adds an intricate design to the terrazzo floor evoking the feeling of an airplane’s contrails, while air vents are designed to look like jet engines, and the ceiling is shaped like the window or portal of a commercial jet. On the mezzanine level, six displays by Image Resources serve to educate and inform travelers about aviation in Wichita.

“The new terminal is truly is a reflection of Wichita’s aviation prominence as the Air Capital of the World,” says Victor White, director of airports for the City of Wichita. “It’s our gateway to the world, and the world’s portal to Kansas.”

Third Act

When it comes to building a new terminal, this is the small hub carrier and general aviation complex’s third act. The city opened its first airport terminal 80 years ago, its second new terminal 61 years ago and its new facility this month.

All three buildings were brand new facilities as opposed to revamps of existing ones. It’s not that the community prefers new to old, but rather when looking at what to do with an existing terminal, developers have found the cost to be roughly the same. In this case, the current terminal, last renovated in 1989, had become functionally obsolete. It didn’t meet current building codes, whether it was plumbing, electrical or seismic. And, it had become expensive to maintain.

“The decision was pretty clear after we did the financial analysis and looked at the impact to customers, airlines and tenants,” White says. “The cost was roughly the same but it would have taken twice as long to renovate the existing facility.”

Even so, developers had to verify these numbers three times over the course of the project. The City of Wichita approved building new in 2004, but put the project on hold for a couple years. When the community hired HNTB Corp. in 2006, they verified the numbers again to make sure building new still made sense. When the recession hit, the community tabled the project again until 2011, when Wichita Airport Authority finally pulled the trigger.

“Each time, the cost estimate showed that it was slightly cheaper to rebuild the existing facility, but would take twice as long and be highly disruptive to the operations of that facility,” says Pat McCollum, associate vice president, program management, for AECOM, the firm that managed construction for the project. “We ultimately decided to build new and keep disruptions to a minimum.”

In 2011, they finished the plans and specs, put it out to bid, and began construction in 2012. In less than three years, crews finished the new terminal with 12 gates, nine of which opened immediately. The airport also has the capacity to add gates at either end of the concourse to reach 20, without doing any major surgery on the facility, adds White.

The airport paid for the entire project with Passenger Facility Charges, rental car and parking funds, and concessions/retail rents, according to White. The airport also received approximately $60 million in FAA funds and $8 million from the TSA to offset the cost of the outbound baggage handling system.

They currently seek federal funds to demolish the old terminal building, which rests too close to gates 10, 11 and 12 to operate them. They hope to tear down the old building this fall, with the exception of the basement, which will remain in use.

“That’s one of the things that got airline support early on,” says White. “We shaved $5 million from the project by leaving the basement in place and just tearing down the structures above.”

Build it Bright

“An airport terminal is the first and last impression for visitors to the area,” says McCollum. “We felt it should speak to the capabilities of the people here, the aircraft manufacturers in town, and the high-tech businesses.”

They ensured this was the case by engaging businesses, citizens, customers and stakeholders in the planning process. “They said they wanted the airport to reflect that this is a growing town; a modern town,” White says, adding that the existing facility left visitors with a lasting impression but not necessarily a good one. “The existing facility was tired, dingy and not very modern looking at all,” he says.

One of the first things visitors will notice now is the bright and spacious feeling of the new facility, which is able to handle up to 2 million passengers a year—approximately 500,000 more than it does today. “One of the big things is just the sense of space you have in this building and the large generous areas you’ve got,” says Philip Hannon, architect, HNTB.

White admits the new building is “roughly the same size square footage-wise, offering just 10,000 square feet more,” but it’s more efficient. The traditionally shaped H terminal features walking distances that are half what they were in the current terminal because White says they “shrunk everything and made it more compact.”

But it’s not something visitors will notice because high ceilings; light colors; plenty of windows and skylights, all of which are blast resistant glass made to withstand severe weather conditions; make the terminal look larger than it really is. “Though similar in square footage, the new facility is roughly 60 percent larger in volume, which means it’s more open and more spacious,” McCollum says. “The high ceilings make it feel much larger.”

Easy Being Green

“Community leaders also asked that the building incorporate as many environmentally conscious features as possible,” says White.

In response, HNTB included sustainable systems designed to operate efficiently and adapt well to future technological advancements.

The project includes an energy-efficient HVAC system and lighting. The new facility has up to five times as many windows as the old one, which significantly reduces the amount of artificial light that must be created. Daylight harvesting systems dim or switch electric lighting in response to changing daylight availability, further reducing energy use. In-pavement heating systems by the curb limit ice and snow build up, and inside bag makeup rooms, keeps the area warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

However, though designed and built to LEED specifications, the airport opted out of obtaining LEED certification. “We felt it was appropriate to include the sustainable features, but not pay for the commissioning and actual certification,” McCollum explains. “It would have been nearly $300,000 to certify the building, and we felt that $300,000 could be used elsewhere.”

“We are making use of groundwater for parts of the heating and cooling process,” says Hannon. “In the bag makeup area, where airline ramp workers are loading bags onto the cart to take to the aircraft, we have underslab heating and cooling that will temper the space and make it more worker friendly.”

Put Passengers First

The community also asked that the new airport put passengers first by simplifying the stress of travel and building in the amenities they desired. The terminal’s first floor houses arriving and departing passengers, ticketing, baggage claim, and airline and operations support, while the second floor features exhibit space, security, retail, food venues, and departure and arrival gates. The terminal's new flexible gate system can accommodate a range of aircraft and incorporates the largest installation of glass passenger boarding bridges in the country.

The old ticketing area was “crowded, cramped, low and dark,” describes Hannon. The new one lets in lots of light. The ticket counters meet Americans With Disability Act requirements for height and accessability. Raised computer floor areas are in place 15 feet in front of the counters if airlines wish to reconfigure check-in operations. “There are actually three locations that they can put in kiosks,” says White. “They can put them at the counters, on the raised floor 15 feet away from the counters, or across in the front hall.”

“We tried to keep the ticket area as flexible as possible,” explains Hannon, “to address the changes that happen all the time in the aviation industry from a process standpoint.”

All checked bags go into a single inline baggage system, eliminating the need for passengers to hand carry their bags from ticket counters to TSA scanners.

Another passenger friendly feature is the fact that visitors no longer have to go up a ramp and through narrow lines to the security checkpoint. In addition, the security area is a beautiful space designed to calm the travel process. A honeycomb design on the ceiling filters natural light from 15 skylights overhead while the use of terra cotta tiles, stainless steel and blue glass further the sense of calm.

“Many times passenger screening areas, from a design and experience standpoint, can be pretty mundane spaces,” Hannon says. “We tried to incorporate some visual interest.”

White adds the airport keeps lighting lower in the security area than in other parts of the airport because it has a calming effect. “It keeps the area more tranquil,” he says. “We have pockets of brightness in the check-in areas, at the gates, in the walkways and restrooms, and areas like that.”

Passenger amenities also include new concessions and retail offerings—post security. The prior arrangement placed most concessions pre-security, which Hannon says meant travelers had to guestimate their schedules to make sure they had time to eat before they headed to their flights. “There weren’t any options after they went through security,” he says.

“We found out across the board that customers wanted conveniences we didn’t really have in terms of food and beverage concessions and retail offerings, and they wanted them in the right place,” White adds. “In the old facility, 90 percent of our concessions were pre-security. In the new one, 85 percent are post security.”

New concessions options, operated by MSE Branded Foods, include a Gab and Fly snack center, Dunkin’ Donuts, Chick-fil-A, River City Brewing Co. and Air Capital Bar. On the retail side, Paradies manages a CNBC Smartshop and the Air Capital Market.

Once at the gate, passengers will find plenty of plugs for their electronics—a fact brought up in every focus group the airport held. “We’ve gone overboard to some degree—nearly every seat has two electrical plugs and two USB plugs,” White says. Between gates, the airport also included a work area with bar stools that offer 10 power outlets to charge electronics.

Passengers get to their plane through air-conditioned and heated glass jetways—a big first in the airport’s history. “There will be a jetway at every gate,” says White. “We don’t have any today.”

A covered walkway keeps passengers out of the elements as they walk to the covered parking garage—also a first in the airport’s history. A consolidated rental car facility is attached to the garage. This was a $40 million separate project, says White.

“We did not originally plan to build a parking garage and rental car facility. We were just going to continue to operate with our existing surface lots,” he says. “But customers told us this was something they wanted. That’s why it’s a separate project. Overwhelmingly the public is thrilled by this addition.”

In recent months, Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower Airport, formerly known as Wichita Mid-Continent Airport, received a new name and a new terminal. Both meet the lofty expectations customers set when passing through an airport situated in the Air Capital of the World.