Last December, the new terminal at California’s Sacramento International Airport (SMF) was ranked No. 5 on PC World’s list of the Top 20 Tech-Friendly Airports.

But being tech-friendly for airport patrons is just scratching the surface — the new terminal was completed early and under budget; the facility is LEED silver certified; and both the new Terminal B and the existing Terminal A operate under a shared use model that cuts IT costs and improves flexibility.

What’s considered a smallish airport in California’s capital is on the leading edge of operations and efficiency in facilitating air travel — and Sacramento County is at the helm.

Constructing the new terminal, owned by the Sacramento County Airport System, began in June 2008 and was complete in October 2011. The budget was originally about $1.2 billion, said Steve Baird, SMF’s deputy director of Infrastructure Support and Services Delivery, but the project came in under budget at $1.03 billion — partly because a planned hotel was deleted and construction of an additional parking garage was deferred. But the county also used several innovative cost-saving measures.

For instance, incorporating an automated people mover (APM) into the new terminal’s design allowed the county to construct the new facility while the existing terminal buildings remained in full operation. This also accelerated the project by three years and shaved a significant amount from its total cost, Baird said.

Watch video of Sacramento International Airport's new terminal:

“The project savings was a total of $120 million, less the cost of the APM itself, which was $30 million,” he said. “So you had a $90 million savings by installing this APM and being able to operate both terminals as they still existed at the time.”

The new terminal building also made extensive use of reclaimed construction materials. For instance, concrete from the previous apron area was broken up and reused as fill. And 68,000 board feet of reclaimed redwood, including portions of a demolished bridge, were incorporated into the ceiling of the new Central Terminal B.

Airports are divided into two areas: landside and airside. The landside areas generally include parking lots, public transportation stations and access roads. Airside space includes all areas accessible to aircraft, including runways, taxiways and ramps. Overall, 85 percent of landside construction waste and 99 percent of airside construction waste was diverted from landfills.


Photo: Steve Baird, SMF’s deputy director of Infrastructure Support and Services Delivery. Photo by Jessica Mulholland


“Everything that we could possibly reuse we did actually reuse in the construction of the terminal,” Baird said.

Other items that earned Terminal B the LEED silver certification include extensive use of natural light; dimmable fluorescent and LED lighting; a heat-reflecting roof; energy-efficient glass and exterior shade devices that block solar heat; low-flush fixtures and automatic water fixtures throughout the facility; and drought-tolerant landscaping surrounding the terminal, which is irrigated by groundwater.

Additionally, nine acres of asphalt parking were restored back to landscape and natural habitat to reduce greenhouse gas effects.

As far as being tech-friendly for patrons, Baird said airport staff took notice of electrical outlet and USB port usage in existing terminals to determine how to set up the gates in the new Terminal B. According to PC World’s 20 Best Airports for Tech Travelers, Sacramento was in the top 5 because the new Terminal B “is packed with outlets and USB ports ... [and] Wi-Fi is free.”

Wi-Fi has been free at the airport since 2006, and the new Terminal B has more electrical outlets and USB ports than any other airport on the list, with an average of nearly 30 per gate.

“When we constructed this project, we added furniture [that] has outlets and USB ports,” Baird said, “and a special power port, so if you have the adapter, you can actually power your devices through [what looks like] a little disk.”

More than 100 kiosks are also available throughout the airport for travelers to check in and obtain boarding passes.

Perhaps most notable about SMF is a shared IT system that is used by all airlines at the facility. The virtualized system is owned by Sacramento County and allows the airport to easily shuffle ticket counter and boarding gate space based on airlines’ needs.

It was this system that allowed the airport to relocate 10 airlines overnight before the new terminal building opened. In a single night, the airport performed a massive game of musical chairs that involved moving all airlines out of the old Terminal B building, which was being torn down, and into the new Terminal B. In addition, some airlines were moving between Terminal A and the new Terminal B facility. Baird said the common use system allowed airlines to quickly resume operations in their new locations. “It was seamless because they were using the same operating systems like they were before,” he said, “so nothing changed except their physical location.”

Opting for the shared use model also meant the airport saved money during construction. The original plan was to have 28 gates in the new terminal, Baird said, but going with the shared use model meant only 19 gates were needed since multiple airlines can use a particular gate.

Airport operations also are streamlined under the shared use model, since the airlines have more flexibility if they encounter irregular operations and need additional gate space. “They’re able to move down or call our operations staff and say, ‘Where can I park my plane and process?’” Baird said. “And it doesn’t necessarily have to be in the terminal they’re actually operating in.”

SMF operation staff also can move aircraft around in case of emergency. For instance, when nearby San Francisco International Airport has heavy fog, flights are diverted to Sacramento. “So now we can park them at particular gates that would normally be used by the other airlines on scheduled events,” Baird said.

The shared use approach is an emerging trend, but it remains unusual in the nation’s airports. Airlines typically own their own IT equipment, have their own IT closets and fly in their own IT staff when there is a problem, which means it could cost hundreds of dollars to fix something as simple as a broken printer.

Because Sacramento County owns all the computers, printers and monitors in both the counter and ticketing positions at Sacramento International, airlines now have maximum flexibility and a minimum amount of labor. And the shared use model shifts the responsibility, Baird said. “It is upon the airports to keep up with technology — and the airlines can do what they do best, which is fly planes.”

Jessica Mulholland  |  Web Editor/Photographer

Jessica Mulholland has been a writer and editor for more than 10 years. She was previously the editor of Emergency Management magazine, and she loves that she can incorporate her love of photography into her work as a part of the Government Technology editorial team. Jessica can be reached at jmulholland@govtech.com@jbronwen on Twitter and on Google+.