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Bigger, faster, more efficient airport unveiled

Thunder Bay Airport unveils $9.5 million in improvements to customs hall and departure lounge

Travellers coming to the Thunder Bay Airport have a lot more room and soon more amenities as soon as they get in the terminal.

The airport authority unveiled upgrades and expansions at the airport on Oct. 24 to the media.

Those improvements include a brand new customs area for international flights, a larger departure lounge and security screening area, aesthetic improvements to the entrances and exits, and upcoming improvements like transferable check-in software at terminal gates, and more food and beverage options.

Airport authority president and CEO Ed Schmidke said these improvements total $9.5 million and are part of consulting with airport users and stakeholders.

“Our passenger volumes are increasing every year and the facility was not meeting needs any longer,” he said in an interview. “We have limited space in our location, but we found ways to increase space and improve the experience for travellers.”

The main suggestion was to improve the customs process for incoming international flights. The solution was to build a larger facility on the west side of the terminal right behind Gate One. It includes an escalator that takes travellers down to a large room with security screening with up to three customs officers.

Overall, the customs hall has been expanded 331 per cent, from 57 square metres to 257 square metres.

“Before, international flights would land and go down what was essentially a fire escape for customs and have two officers for an average of 180 people for a single flight,” Schmidke said. “Now, they will be brought to a larger, brighter facility with faster service and more room.”

The room itself was built with both security and aesthetics in mind. The west and south walls are equipped with large windows to let in more natural light. The walls are adorned with cedar and pine panelling, as well as granite accents. These touches are to pay homage to the Boreal Forest and natural stone cliffs surrounding the city.

“We live in the Pre-Cambrian region and we really need to celebrate and be proud of our natural heritage, put it on display for everyone to see,” Schmidke said.

Those natural accents continue in the main entrances, with more wood panel and granite trim in the doorways.

Schmidke said the plan is to make the Gate One bridge the permanent home of all arriving international flights, including those coming from sun destinations during the winter.

For departing passengers, there is also more room. The departing lounge has been increased by 55 per cent, from 570 square metres to 883 square metres.

“Anyone in this lounge knows that there were times where it was difficult to find a place to sit, or even stand,” Schmidke said. “The Christmas holidays, especially, it was a cramped place to be with little to do.”

Most of the expansion occurred around Gate One. Walls were knocked down, and the airport added seats and charging stations for electronics. The security screening area is also being expanded for faster service.

How airlines manage their flights is also being improved. Instead of each check-in gate being exclusive to an airline, software is being introduced that will allow airlines to change gates quickly to get flights boarded and planes moving faster.

Windows are also being incorporated to add more light.

“This will mean planes will be spending less time sitting on the apron outside the terminal waiting for passengers to board. If a flight needs to move to another gate, the passenger lists can be quickly transferred to another gate,” Schmidke said.

Another feature coming to the departure lounge will be more food and beverage options. Near Gate One there will be food service and liquor options. Currently, the only food service in the lounge are a Tim Hortons kiosk and vending machines. The only bar and hot food available is outside the departure lounge.

The kiosk will be removed. Schmidke could not elaborate on what kind of dining options will ultimately be in the lounge.

Aesthetics are also playing a large role in departures. More TV screens, wood panelling and granite blocks, and new carpeting are being installed. Schmidke pointed out the ceiling lighting, when viewed from either Gate One or Gate Three, is designed to look like a time lapse of the runway lights at night when a plane is taking off.

While construction is in its final stage, Schmidke said they expect the new customs hall to be ready in time for the first international flight from a sun destination in early November. All construction is scheduled to be finished in mid-December, in time for the Christmas travel season.