A line of travelers heading for early morning flights snakes from security to the ticket counters.
It has become a common sight with growth at Pasco's Tri-Cities Airport.
The number of passengers boarding flights was up 6 percent last year, making it another record-setting year.
Airport use has grown by 100,000 passengers in the past six years.
It illustrates why an expanded airport terminal is needed in the future, said Ron Foraker, airport director. Officials expect to design the first phase, including expanding the security area and adding full-body scanners, this year.
Last year's boarding boost happened without adding any new destinations or flights, he said.
While there was a dip in boardings after federal stimulus money ended triggering layoffs at Hanford this fall, Foraker said December still was a record month with 30,570 passengers boarding flights. That is up from 29,040 passengers in December 2010.
The 6 percent increase was "solid," with 326,797 boardings last year, compared to about 308,000 the year before, Foraker said.
The airport saw a 23 percent growth spurt in 2010, he said. Flights to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Phoenix-Mesa, Ariz., were added in 2009 and 2010.
While population growth helps, Foraker said the airport also is drawing passengers from a larger area. Other area airports have cut service.
An increase in the Transportation Security Administration employees assigned to the airport could be on the horizon.
For the past three years, the airport has seen more than 250,000 boardings annually. That means TSA may recognize the Tri-Cities Airport as a larger airport and could increase the number of TSA employees from 35 to 50.
TSA also expects to install advanced imaging technology equipment, which performs the full body scans, at the airport sometime this year, Foraker said.
Foraker said he does not know if the airport will receive equipment based on technology developed by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland.
One of the advantages of flying out of the Tri-Cities is how fast people can get through security most times of the day, said Carl Adrian, president and CEO of the Tri-City Development Council.
When it comes to business recruitment, Adrian said he gets asked a lot about air service. It's something that is considered when company officials look to open administrative businesses and headquarters and by companies that require employees to do a lot of traveling.
For its size, the Tri-Cities has good service, Adrian said.
"Frankly, it's something we brag about," he said.
And the Port of Pasco has plans to make the airport better.
The first phase of the terminal project will be a remodel of the terminal near TSA's security area. The bathrooms will be moved and the area will be opened up so that a queue can be formed for security, similar to at larger airports. The airport hopes to have that project ready to bid by the end of this year, Foraker said.
Anything the airport can do to make it easier to go through security will help make travelers more comfortable, said Amanda McClure, public relations for Travel Leaders, which has several offices in the Mid-Columbia.
And comfort is something leisure travelers think about when they decide where and how to travel, she said.
The terminal's second phase of improvements will involve extending the secured boarding area to the left and right to add gates, with more room for concessions and services and an expanded seating area.
That phase can't happen until the Federal Aviation Administration allows the port to move a very high frequency omnidirectional range radio beacon that is used for navigation, Foraker said.
The beacon is supposed to have a 1,000-foot clear zone around it, but the FAA's air traffic control tower is on the edge of it and the terminal expansion would likely infringe on the radius too.
Foraker hopes to be able to have the beacon moved by 2014.
Both phases may cost between $7 million to $10 million, he said. The first phase will be paid for using passenger facility charges.
Right now, the airport is out of room to grow services like additional concessions. That's why Cindy Goulet, owner of Florentyna's, a restaurant, would like to use the additional space the expansion will create in the secured boarding area.
"The growth has been great, but it's caused some space issues," she said.
There are already more options at the airport when compared to two years ago, she said. Goulet opened 3-Eyed Fish, a bar, about a year ago and expanded the River Snack Bar, both in the secured boarding area.
More boardings have meant more sales, she said. Most of that growth has happened past security. People want to get past security before they shop.
Most business travelers expect to have access to services once they get past security, Adrian said.
The expansion will help improve the first impression travelers have when they arrive in the Tri-Cities, said Kris Watkins, Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau president and CEO. The airport has always been well-maintained and service conscious.
Having flights available to different major cities helps when trying to attract conventions to the area, Watkins said. The Tri-Cities is becoming known as a Northwest regional destination, she said.
Convention travelers tend to spend more money than leisure travelers, Watkins said. Visitors spend about $350 million in the Tri-Cities annually, with $47.8 million spent at retail businesses and another $118 million in restaurants.
"The airport is literally a portal to our region," she said.
* Kristi Pihl: 509-582-1512; email@example.com