A rendering of Sitka’s proposed airport renovation. The most obvious improvements: Separate areas for departures and arrivals, an expanded baggage claim area, and covered space running the full length of the loading/unloading zone. The not-so-obvious improvements: A two-storey departure lounge (at left), with large restrooms and a concession area. (CBS image)

Sitka’s airport terminal is overdue for a much-needed expansion, and the city anticipates that federal funding will help get the project off the ground this fall.

City engineer Michael Harmon recently updated the Sitka Chamber of Commerce on some of the ideas going into the updated terminal.

Sitka’s airport terminal is far behind the times. There’s not enough room for anything in the building, from a secure passenger departure lounge, to a place for the TSA to screen luggage.

The departure lounge is probably where most people register the building’s inadequacies. Harmon said this is a priority. 

“We want to expand the departure lounge and hold room,” said Harmon. “ I think all of us who go through that airport, especially in the summer, realize how that whole room is just woefully undersize. We had to remove a lot of the seating just so we have room for standing room-only. We have days where that room can be over 90 degrees, and folks just can’t tolerate it and have to leave which is very challenging given its security. It’s probably the area most notable as a passenger that you would notice going through our airport as a deficiency.”

Harmon says the plan is to create a much larger departure lounge, with all the trimmings.

“Large restrooms up here,” he said, pointing to the two-storey addition dedicated to departures. “We have an area to lease out for a lounge and concession space very similar to what you’d see in the Ketchikan or Juneau airports.  You’ll get food while you’re in there.”

The State of Alaska owns Sitka’s airport; the City of Sitka owns the terminal building. Harmon said that a major renovation is possible because the state has agreed to partner with the city to improve the building, and there is also money expected from the Federal Aviation Administration. The total project will come in at about $40 million.

There are several other major problems in the current facility that the renovation will address. The baggage claim is small, and arriving passengers who’ve retrieved their bags have to navigate back to the main door through departing passengers who are checking in.

It’s called cross-traffic, and a much larger claim area – and a new exit – should fix it.

“We have the room to put in an L-shaped baggage belt and when you put the shape to it, it significantly lengthens the belt,” Harmon said, “which translates to more ability for passengers – more length – for them to pull bags from and be more efficient.”

The basic plan is to build a two-storey addition to the east of the existing terminal building. There will be a glass skybridge connecting the new building to the old, which will be remodeled to eliminate departures, and focus instead on arrivals. The skybridge will connect to the existing jetbridge, and could be expanded should another airline come into Sitka and want to use another jetbridge. 

Currently, only Alaska Airlines uses the jetbridge, and Delta uses ground boarding.

The addition will limit the view from the Nugget Restaurant somewhat, but Harmon says there are possibilities for improvement there as well.

“The gift shop area still remains the same and the Nugget Restaurant remains the same,” said Harmon. “The funding that we’re receiving is not eligible to make any improvements to those private concession areas. It’s really up to the concessionaires to make improvements …  certainly the restaurant has an opportunity in the future if they wanted to, to expand out a little further here to get closer to that frontage view, which will be a little bit tunneled as this is laid out. They could also possibly go up two storey and then all the way out, getting close to that glassed-over jet bridge connection here that we have. And that’s why we have it glass. So there’s a lot of transparency and visibility through that for the Nugget if they do want to expand.”

Harmon says work on the addition could begin as early as this fall, pending federal funding, which is expected in August. The local burden on taxpayers is negligible, Harmon says, unless you fly. To get the ball rolling, the city issued just over $4 million in revenue bonds in 2019 to begin the planning process. The bonds are paid for by a PFC – a passenger facility charge – on airfares to and from Sitka.

But everyone else is paying the PFC too.

“It’s a little over $6 on each ticket that you purchase, coming and going for the airport,” Harmon said. “So every time you travel, you pay a little bit into this $4 million, but other than that there’s little tax burden for Sitka.”

If all goes according to schedule, Sitka’s airport terminal expansion will be completed by the end of 2025.