For the first time Atlantic City International Airport is now equipped to handle scheduled foreign flights with the opening of a $25 million expansion project expected to pave the way for new service.
The 75,000-square-foot expansion unveiled Monday adds three new gates at the airport for a total of 10, and expands the baggage-claim area. A Federal Inspection Station will allow the airport to process about 200 international travelers per hour, and throughout the expansion there are indicators that foreign travel is intended to be a priority. Permanent signs installed are ready to direct passengers to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Atlantic City International Airport currently has just one carrier — Spirit Airlines — and does not have any scheduled international service. South Jersey Transportation Authority acting Executive Director Sam Donelson said with this project the authority hopes that will change, acknowledging that some have questioned the decision to build facilities to accommodate international flights when the airport currently has none.
“I can tell you without having this area that meets Customs and Border Protection's standards, there’s no way I’d ever even be able to have the conversation with airlines about international flights here,” Donelson said of the project that began in 2010.
Officials present for the official grand opening of the expansion Monday, including Atlantic City Alliance CEO Liza Cartmell and Casino Reinvestment Development Authority Executive Director John Palmieri, praised the expansion for its potential to draw additional travelers to the area and said it was critical for the city's growth. Last year, less than 1 percent of those who traveled to Atlantic City came by plane, SJTA data show.
"As we look to increase the activity of the area, we understand that this airport has been under-recognized, really under-appreciated, and certainly underutilized," U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, said.
Despite the low percentage of travelers using the airport to get to Atlantic City, overall passenger counts have been up. More than 1.2 million passengers have traveled through the airport so far this year, a 3.5 percent increase over the same period in 2011. By the end of 2011, nearly 1.4 million passengers were seen at the airport, nearly matching the operation's all-time high of just over 1.4 million passengers in 2010, according to SJTA data.
The new section of the airport is designed to feel more expansive with larger waiting areas near the gates and wider hallways. The waiting areas were designed with an eye toward passenger convenience, officials said, noting that several sections of chairs have built-in charging stations that accommodate both standard plugs and USB chords. Two of the three new gates can be used for international flights, and officials have the ability to segment off a section of the baggage claim for international travelers, if needed.
There is also room for additional amenities. About 3,000-square-feet of space could accommodate stores, a restaurant or bar, Donelson said.
While the international capability and expanded terminal space are centerpieces of the airport expansion, other upgrades are included.
When passengers deplane and head toward the baggage claim area, they'll approach a line of security pods — glass enclosed portals that perform a scan ensuring that once a person or object exits to baggage claim they cannot re-enter the secure area. Most airports have security staff at exit points visually ensuring that people do not re-enter secured spaces. The pods, however, negate the need to staff the exit, thus saving approximately $300,000 a year, officials said.
Installed at Atlantic City International about three years ago, the airport was the first in the country to use the technology, due to its ongoing relationship with the nearby federal Transportation Security Laboratory. The original pods, however, were installed in an existing space not intended to accommodate them. As a result, the placement of the new technology often confused passengers.
The new pods installed with the expansion are adequately spaced out and now are made of a clearer bulletproof glass allowing passengers to clearly see that they're exiting to baggage claim. Sensitive enough to detect an item as small as a quarter left inside, it takes 8 seconds to travel through the machine, an upgrade from the 12 seconds needed for the older models.
Still, on Monday, some passengers were visibly frustrated by the time it took to pass through the pods, which cost approximately $125,000 apiece. Some appeared to briefly panic inside the pods when doors did not immediately open. Donelson said the frustration comes as people are not familiar with the technology and could be unsure about what's happening. As many as six people can pass through a pod at one time, but instead passengers treat the pods like revolving doors, with just one person entering at a time.
The authority has placed signs in front of the pods explaining the security procedure and a message directing people to pass through the portals plays from loudspeakers when passengers enter the room.
"This technology is well worth the investment," Donelson said, adding the representatives from other airports interested in converting to the technology, including Syracuse International in New York, have toured Atlantic City's airport to view the pods in action.
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