Sacramento International Airport is scheduled to open a $1 billion terminal Thursday, replacing a structure that is four decades old with a building that is designed to be a striking entrance to California's capital region.
The $6 million in public art includes a distinctive centerpiece that is certain to generate attention, a suspended-in-air, 56-foot-long aluminum red hare leaping into a suitcase that dominates the glass-and-steel entryway.
"People will remember this airport," said construction worker Monique Hawn.
The terminal is among the largest construction projects in Sacramento County's history and created 2,400 jobs during the 2½ years it was being built, the heart of a recession that has left state and regional unemployment hovering around 12 percent.
The new terminal, elevated people mover and concourse are designed to expand the airport's capacity to 16 million passengers a year, a surge that had been expected in about a decade, county Airports Director G. Hardy Acree said.
Those expectations have been downsized with the recession. The economy contracted just before groundbreaking in 2008, and the annual passenger count fell by nearly 2 million, from nearly 11 million in 2008 to 9 million last year.
What had been a nearly $1.3 billion project shrank to $1 billion after officials delayed construction of a hotel and parking garage. Instead, they built a terminal with walls designed to be expanded as the airport grows.
The airport, the fifth busiest in California and 39th busiest in the nation, expects to return to its 2008 passenger peak in five years. Officials said it will not hit its expected capacity until sometime late in the next decade.
Passengers and airlines will pay for the new terminal's construction costs over time.
An existing $4.50 ticket surcharge and revenue from parking fees will pay half the cost of building the terminal. Another 26 percent will come from fees airlines pay to use the airport. The balance comes from several sources, including federal grants and fees paid by rental car companies and restaurants and shops inside the terminal.
The airport is negotiating with airlines upset that the fee they pay for each passenger has risen significantly to help pay for the new terminal and as subsidies from other airport users have ended since 2009.
Southwest Airlines, which accounts for 55 percent of all Sacramento flights, paid a fee of $6.05 per passenger in 2008, but is projected to pay $16.15 next year and $19.67 by 2013.
"It really does put tremendous pressure on our ability to be successful and maintain profitability in Sacramento," said Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins.
The airlines and airport are negotiating lower fees, likely made up by spreading the increased cost to other users, including passengers.
Amanda Thomas, the airport's deputy director for finance and administration, said airline fees industry-wide account for just 4 percent to 6 percent of airlines' operating costs. Moreover, the airlines helped design the new terminal, she said.
"It's not as if we've gone forward with this project without their input," Thomas said.
Numerous airports have expanded or replaced aging terminals in recent years, and some of those also had to scale back their original plans when the recession hit, said Chris Oswald, a vice president with Airports Council International-North America.
Los Angeles International, Long Beach, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and Santa Barbara all have replaced or redeveloped terminals in the last few years, said Oswald, who represents a trade association for airport operators and aviation-related businesses in the U.S. and Canada.
Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Harrisburg, Pa., Indianapolis, Miami, New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport are among others that have undergone construction.
Sacramento's new terminal replaces the airport's original one, which will be demolished, and includes the latest security upgrades. The old airport was built in 1967, in the days before passengers were required to go through metal detectors. Passengers merely showed up at the airport, boarded their flights and took off.
In the new terminal, passengers will walk through next-generation scanners that present a modest, chalk-outline view of travelers instead of showing actual body contours.
The terminal features shops and offshoots of local restaurants on both sides of the security checkpoint. Padded seats have cup-holders and built-in electric outlets so waiting passengers can plug in their laptops, cell phones or electronic notepads.
Passengers will be directed in part by the distinctive artwork that officials hope will leave a lasting impression on visitors.
"The rabbit's diving down to a suitcase," said Shelly Willis, public art director for the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, which coordinated the terminal's 12 art pieces. "It's obvious you're supposed to go down there to retrieve your bags."
Some of the pieces are meant to symbolize aspects of California's Central Valley, home to the largest freshwater delta on the West Coast and a major stop for migrating water fowl.
A luminescent flock of sandhill cranes flies over international passengers toward the exit, subliminally showing visitors the direction to go. A 30-foot chandelier in the shape of three intertwining Valley Oak trees is designed as a natural gathering place and is visible throughout the concourse area.
"This is certainly a palace," said Hawkins, the Southwest spokesman. "It's kind of that new car smell — times 1,000."
Sitting between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe, the Sacramento airport also acts as a gateway to Sierra skiing and Northern California wine country. Officials at Squaw Valley USA touted the new terminal in their recent announcement of an expansion, which is partly an attempt to attract more visitors who see the Tahoe area as a destination resort.
Aeromexico, Alaska, American, Frontier, Hawaiian, Horizon, JetBlue and Southwest moved to the new terminal, with Continental/United, Delta and US Airways remaining in what had been the airport's main terminal.
The airport plans a 4 a.m. Thursday ribbon-cutting ceremony at the automated people mover. Then three flights are scheduled to depart at 6 a.m., the first to leave the new gates.
The first passengers to use the terminal actually were scheduled to arrive late Wednesday night.