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Sonoma County airport finishes $4 million passenger tent project

The expanded passenger gate area at Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport is now complete following wildfire-related delays, setting up the regional air hub’s grander overhaul of its terminal with construction slated to start early next month.

The $4 million tent project was finished last week, moving a widened security checkpoint closer to the gates, increasing the size of the seating area for outbound passengers and establishing permanent bathrooms beyond the terminal.

The expansion project, which nearly doubles the size of the gate waiting area, originally was scheduled to be finished in August, but fell victim to effects from the Walbridge and Glass fires, which pulled staff and resources away from the airport, Sonoma County Airport Manager Jon Stout said.

For the first time, two security lanes will be available at the airport, permitting a separate TSA PreCheck and Global Entry option. Just one lane will operate until passenger numbers increase to prepandemic travel levels, when the local airstrip was consistently setting month-over-month and year-over-year records.

“The space does set us up for when we return to that level of activity to have both lanes and a much larger queuing space, so it will definitely be a great benefit,” Stout said.

Monthly passenger counts have been on the rise since public health emergency stay-at-home orders first took effect in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, though remain a fraction of where they were last year. Totals increased by 45% from August to September to nearly 17,200 passengers, but were still down 68% compared to this time last year.

Through last week, October passenger numbers are again slightly higher than the preceding month, up by about 8%, according to initial airport data. The increases aren’t a huge concern, given the local airstrip is still below the averages across the nation during the ongoing pandemic, Stout said.

“It’s creeping up. But the flights are spread out enough that we’re not seeing crowding, which is good,” he said. “And with new gate space opened up, it added additional square footage to spread things out more.”

The completion of the tent project makes way for the start of construction on the much larger, $31 million terminal renovation, which will add 30,000 square feet and relocate the baggage claim area, among other changes. The county was the recipient of nearly $24 million in federal grants to help cover the cost of the project, which is expected to be finished in fall 2022.

“The stopgap was the initial tent and it does offer some breathing room, but this really allows us to transition to a full terminal and, in my mind, to what is going to be not just the face but the operation of the airport for decades to come,” said Supervisor James Gore, whose district includes the airport.

Reno-based Q&D Construction will complete the work, which is scheduled to kick off a few days before a groundbreaking ceremony on Nov. 9. The first project entails a new Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant path to the temporarily relocated baggage claim area next to a modular building where passengers check in for flights with American Airlines and United Airlines.

The baggage area will be located there through at least spring 2022, while work is finished to permanently move it inside the updated terminal. Other things passengers can expect during the course of the phased construction include rerouting the path to the security checkpoint and changes to exits, Stout said.

By April 2022, the permanent route into the terminal and through security should be in place while finishing touches are made on the project.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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