Airport’s New Terminal Open for Business

Travelers Share Their Impressions as Flights Arrive and Depart

Santa Barbara Airport remodel grand opening celebration June 17, 2011
Paul Wellman

After more than two years in the making, Santa Barbara Airport’s new terminal opened Wednesday night at 10 p.m. to incoming flights. Then, at 3 a.m., workers finished sweeping and polishing, so that Thursday could see the flawless flow of passengers all day long.

“We are absolutely thrilled,” said Terri Gibson, marketing director for the airport. “It’s gone so smoothly. Everything has come together.” Although, she said, there certainly was a last-minute push to put everything in place before the grand opening. This includes tasks like cleaning. “Those last-minute touches make a huge difference,” she said.

With its size (more than 10 times bigger than the old terminal building) and four gates, the new airport terminal streamlines passengers in a way the historic building—with only two gates and winding, seemingly nonsensical bends and turns to get through ticketing and security—could not. It also gives passengers access to restrooms, restaurants, and shops after, rather than before, they clear security.

“Airline managers have said that passengers have been a lot calmer after security. It’s a lot easier now,” said Gibson. Not only does the airport design save passengers time, but it also saves them effort. Checked bags, for instance, now go straight through the check-in counter to loading docks, an improvement over the old system which required passengers to lug bags on their own.

Ben Kehela, one of about 12 airport ambassadors (the nice, uniformed folks who greet and guide travelers at the airport entrance) enjoyed working the opening day. After working as an airport ambassador in the old terminal for some time, he said he sees the new airport facility as “a big improvement.” His job is also a lot easier now, he said, because everything is so clearly marked.

At baggage claim, which is now indoors rather than outside under a tent, I met a batch of recent arrivals from Los Angeles. When asked his opinion on the new terminal, one man, a former Santa Barbara resident who has flown in and out of SBA many times, said, “Are you kidding? It was so small before!”

Other fliers were less enthusiastic. “It’s bigger, which does not necessarily mean better,” said a man picking up his daughter. She had departed from the historic terminal two weeks prior, not realizing her take-off would be one of its last. “I really love the old one, but I also love the artwork and interior design [in the new one],” he went on. “And it’s certainly not hard to navigate.” Specifically, he said he misses stepping off the plane and already being outside — a feeling that has been replaced with air conditioned glass-walled loading ramps that offer travelers views of the ocean and mountains.

The extensive art projects in the new terminal building were first opened to the public on June 17 for “The Art of Travel” Gala.

The project to restore and move the oldest part of the historic building to the area outside the new building’s northern rotunda entrance will begin soon, said Gibson. Also on their way are an information booth and a Coffee Bean in the area by the main entrance of the airport, between check-in counters and baggage claim, and at the bottom of the stairs that lead up to security and shops.

According to Gibson, the $54 million project was unaffected by the FAA shutdown that began at midnight Friday, July 22, after Congress let funding expire for the FAA. Temporarily in jeopardy was a $2 million chunk of funding, which would have been taken from airport reserve funding and later replenished, said Gibson. Furthermore, while airports nationwide faced delays due to the shutdown, traffic through the historic terminal remained unaffected.


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