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Thunder Bay airport renovations heading toward completion

Larger departure lounge, food service upgrades, security enhancements to be complete by July

Air traveller amenities and security requirements have changed dramatically since the ribbon was cut back in July 1994 on the passenger terminal at Thunder Bay International Airport.

“When we opened, customer expectations were different,” said airport authority president-CEO Ed Schmidtke, a 29-year employee.

He recalls what an upgrade the spacious and airy three-storey building was from the old terminal, a “dark and dingy” structure cobbled together with three extensions over 30 years.

“At an airport the size of Thunder Bay in 1994, you didn’t expect food service post-security, but you certainly expect it now.”

The terminal building is undergoing extensive renovations for the first time since the early ‘90s. Most of the work will be completed in July.

The physical footprint is being slightly enlarged but the real expansion is coming from shifting a few things around inside.

With the Transport Canada offices moved upstairs, the second-floor departures lounge is expanding from 6,100 square feet to 9,500 square feet.

The customs clearance hall space is more than doubling in size to support three primary inspection lines, instead of two. The arrivals area will also have more room.

Schmidtke said the available space for food services was way too small. Significant changes and new offerings are in store although he wouldn't reveal any of those details.

The interior aesthetics will improve with new finishes incorporating wood and stone to resemble the Canadian Shield landscape.

The project designers are a partnership of FORM Architecture Engineering of Thunder Bay and BBB Architects of Ottawa, the latter firm designed that city’s terminal building. Tom Jones Corp. of Thunder Bay is the general contractor.

Outside the terminal, a small addition is being grafted on to accommodate the customs, roughly a 50-foot building extension. It will be complete at the end of October.

The total cost of the renovations is not being disclosed since there still parts that remain open to public bid.

The Northern Ontario Heritage Fund announced last March it was chipping in with a $5 million contribution but the rest is coming from the airport authority, a not-for-profit corporation.

What’s prompted the changes is growing passenger volume flowing through the northwestern Ontario facility, buttressed by the resurgence of the mining and mineral exploration industry, the public sector and post-secondary institutions, and Americans from Minnesota and Wisconsin who find it more affordable and faster to fly out of Thunder Bay to European destinations.

The terminal handled more than 844,627 passengers in 2017, up 4.6 per cent from the previous year, making it one of Ontario’s busiest airports behind Toronto’s two airports – Pearson International and Billy Bishop – and Ottawa MacDonald-Cartier.

Schmidtke said the number of people moving through security screening during daily peak hours has more than doubled from when the terminal first opened. “It’s a significantly undersized departure lounge,” he explained.

"It's definitely cramped for anybody who's been here at six o'clock (a.m.) trying to grab a flight. They know that it's hard to get a place to stand, never mind sit.”

That morning rush congestion should be alleviated when most of the renovations are finished, he said.

The nature of international traffic in and out of Thunder Bay has also changed. Years ago, it consisted of five-day-a-week propeller aircraft flight to Minneapolis.

Today, they’re processing hundreds heading south aboard charters to vacation hotspots.

“Now that we have flights to sunspot destinations, customs was woefully undersized, something had to be done to provide a sensible level of customer service,” Schmidtke said.

Included in the renovations is in the installation of a new passenger security screening system, a CATSA (Canadian Air Transport Security Authority) Plus.

Usually these systems are reserved for Canada’s largest airports, but a smaller version is being farmed out to secondary markets. Thunder Bay will be the first or second mid-tier airport to get one this year.

The net effect should be a faster and easier pre-boarding process.