Breaking with Customs: The Federal Inspection Station at San Diego Airport

What’s the first thing you want to do after you disembark from a long international flight?

  • A. Take a shower
  • B. Drink some strong coffee
  • C. Nap
  • D. Wait in long lines at customs

If you chose option D, then you might not appreciate the new federal inspection station (FIS) at San Diego International Airport. Completed in June 2018, the facility uses the latest advances from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to speed up and significantly improve the screening process for international passengers.

One of these advances is “mobile passport control,” which is based on biometric technology and eliminates the need for extra kiosks or printed forms. With mobile passport control, most international passengers interact with only one customs official. Another advance is a “bags first” system, in which passengers pick up their checked luggage before proceeding to a single checkpoint. They no longer have to clear one checkpoint before baggage claim and another after.

Thanks to these advances, most passengers get through customs in 10-20 minutes.

Ease on the front end, however, is based on hard work on the back end. The FIS project team faced several unusual obstacles. Two of the team members — Ben Regnier of Gensler and Sean Marcel of Syska – describe a few:

Accelerated Schedule

Perhaps the greatest obstacle was the fast-track schedule, which spanned only 14 months from start to finish. Normally, a project of this scope would take approximately How long would it normally take? “Our client called it a ‘mission impossible,’” says Ben. “We had to be nimble for an extended period in order to ensure that everything got done on time and that we didn’t miss a deadline.” He praises Syska for playing an invaluable role in this process: “We didn’t have to worry about mechanical, electrical, or plumbing. Syska provided packages for the equipment early on.”

Ben was especially impressed with Syska’s coordination of vertical transport, which involved the procurement and installation of four escalators and three elevators. “Vertical transportation companies are notoriously difficult to get on a schedule,” he points out. “Syska made sure that there was room for everything and that deadlines were met.”

Is there anything more we can say about how Syska managed to be so efficient for both MEP and for vertical transport? E.g., use of REVIT?

One effect of the accelerated schedule was the need to accommodate changes to plans without causing delays. The smoke control system is a good example. Originally, plans called for all smoke control systems to be passive. But subsequently, the client decided that one area should have active smoke control, despite limited space for such a system. “We eventually tied a dedicated exhaust fan for the fire dampers into the existing ductwork,” says Sean. “This eliminated the need for a dedicated duct, for which there was no room.”

Another example is the emergency generator, which was sized at the beginning of the project. Subsequently, the client requested additional capabilities. Sean recalls: “We had to be very careful to avoid overloading the generator, given that it supports so many embedded systems and technology, and we were locked into a certain size.”

Can we add some detail about how Syska avoided overloading the existing generator?

Everything worked out, however. “I think we set a local record for the speed with which we obtained approvals for the generator and the smoke control system,’ says Ben. “Syska did a good job of commissioning before the inspector came to test them both, so everything ran perfectly.”

High Security

Some of the embedded systems and technology are of such high security that they cannot appear in drawings. As you can imagine, this posed a major challenge to the project partners, whose work is largely informed by drawings. How did the partners resolve this?


In 2014, San Diego Airport became the first airport in the world to receive LEED® Platinum certification. For the FIS, the team is aiming for LEED Gold, which Ben and Sean note is roughly equivalent to the 2014 version of LEED Platinum.

To meet the requirements of LEED Gold and those of the California Energy Conservation Code, Syska had to make the existing systems as efficient as possible while connecting to an older plant. And, of course, this work had to take place while construction was in progress. The efforts led to success, however: Today, the FIS features such sustainable elements as roof insulation, water efficiency, full LED lighting, and economizers on all mechanical equipment. Can we add some detail here about the problems involved in connecting to an older plant and how Syska resolved them?

Emphasis on Passenger Comfort

Ben explains that the design approach was “inside out,” from the perspective of the passenger. “We wanted to make the environment as intuitive and calming as possible,” he says. To that end, Gensler used a variety of textures and colors to ease passengers into the new environment and assist in wayfinding. Lighting design, which Gensler and Syska both worked on, helped to instill a sense of calm through ample daylight.

Cooling is another important component in passenger comfort. Sean offers a typical scenario: “You’ve got a jumbo jet that’s going to dump hundreds of people into an empty space all at once. How do you ensure that the mechanical systems kick in so that the airport isn’t 90 degrees when everyone disembarks?” For Syska to answer this question, the team had to develop a thorough understanding of projected traffic flows through the airport. Is there anything we should note here about the cooling specifics?


Gensler and Syska are not the only parties thrilled with the results of this fast-track project. The client is happy, and so are passengers. Business travelers with carry-ons needn’t wait in line. Families who don’t require complex processing also appreciate the fast turnaround. As Ben observes, “What people hate is being jet-lagged and standing behind a line of 50 people and not knowing what’s going to happen next. This project has pretty much eradicated this scenario. There’s a lot of goodwill as a result.”

He encourages travelers to check out the project themselves: “If anyone wants to fly to San Diego, the airport is open and waiting for you.”


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