Next month Billings Logan International Airport begins a four-year juggling act, balancing a massive $55 million remodeling project while carrying on with daily operations.
As painful as the process may be, it's a welcome challenge, said airport director Kevin Ploehn. This project has been a long time coming.
One of the last major remodels of the Billings airport was right after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, when airports all over the country were required to completely redraw their security operations and funnel down every possible way onto the flight concourses to one entrance.
In Billings, that meant shutting down the grand staircase that used to take visitors and passengers from the main entrance straight up to their gates. A security check point was built just to the left of ticket counters on the ground floor and only ticketed passengers could pass though, riding an escalator to get up to the concourse.
As a result, most of the places to get food and supplies, and the majority of the building's bathrooms, ended up on the pre-security side of the airport, inaccessible to passengers who had already passed through security and were waiting for their flights.
The setup hasn't changed in nearly two decades.
In fact, according to the consultants hired by the airport to help envision its redesign, "Compared to most airports, you're ass-backwards," Ploehn said, paraphrasing the consultants' report.
Starting next month, the Billings airport begins phase one of a massive remodeling project that will expand its two concourses and increase the number of flight gates from five to eight. It will add a cafe, gift shop and bar, and include a wide-open "great room" with a wall of glass facing the runways, a fireplace and children's play area.
"It'll be really bright and well lit and really open," Ploehn said.
In 2012, the airport began working with consulting firms to identify the issues with the current airport and suggest changes and updates that would modernize the building.
The two concourses were small, the bathrooms were always busy, and until 2004 the only food or beverages for sale beyond the security gate were from a coffee cart. In 2004, the airport built the small deli that's there now.
The remodel will expand all of these services, increase the number of gates and add passenger amenities to the secure side of the airport. Visitors picking up or dropping off passengers are usually in and out of the airport pretty quickly, Ploehn said. It's the passengers waiting to fly who spend the most time there, and the plan is to make them as comfortable as possible with the services being added and expanded through the remodel.
The challenge will be keeping the airport operational while whole sections of the building are closed for construction.
"It's been a big part of our planning," Ploehn said.
When work begins in September, crews will be creating space in the airport to accommodate the larger construction projects that will begin next year. Most noticeably, workers will demolish the concourse deli, which will then become the temporary home of the gift shop. The deli will be moved to a location on Concourse B.
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The major concourse work will start in the spring and continue for the next two years. Concourse A, which sits on the west side of the airport, will be shut down first as it gets expanded, moving Delta's gate to Concourse B. The move will mean all airlines that fly in and out of Billings will have to operate out of Concourse B.
"It'll be a little bit of challenge," Ploehn said.
A challenge because the concourse will have to accommodate more airlines than it has gates. To solve that problem, the airport will load some flights from the ground outside the concourse. To protect from wind and snow, crews will build heated tunnels through which passengers will board.
As part of the Concourse A expansion, construction crews will also build the airport's new security screening area, the new great room, a new restaurant, the bar and the children's play area.
By August 2021, work will shift to Concourse B on the east side of the airport, shifting all airlines into the newly remodeled Concourse A where staff again will juggle flights with available gates and load some passengers from the ground.
The entire project is scheduled to finish by March of 2023 and will be paid for through FAA grants, airport funds and revenue bonds.
The whole goal of the remodel is to expand the number of flights and airlines the airport can accommodate, and to give the airport a modern look and feel.
Part of that will include artwork from community artists and from the Yellowstone Art Museum. An airport commission has recently put together an art committee with members of the community to plan what art will be reflected in the new airport.
Bryan Knicely, director of the Yellowstone Art Museum, will be working with the committee and is encouraged by the opportunity to showcase the region's culture.
"Anytime I travel I see art in the airports," he said. "It's like a cultural calling card for (that) city."
Throughout the remodel and afterward when construction work is complete, travelers now will experience the same thing when they arrive in Billings.
"You'll see art and culture up there," Knicely said.
The majority of travel through the Billings airport is business related, although tourism-related travel is starting to climb. Earlier this year, the airport added Frontier Airlines as one of its regular low-cost carriers, and that's allowed more Billings residents to travel for recreation, Ploehn said.
Still, he anticipates business-centered travel to remain the airport's principal function. Which is why the remodel project is important, he said.
"We're a business community and we really need to look like we're in business," Ploehn said.