San Diego International Airport Federal Inspection Station

© 2018 Paul Turang | All Rights Reserved

Facing an ambitious timeline, the 130,000 square-feet Federal Inspection Station (FIS) at the San Diego International Airport was completed in 14.5 months. The design-build LEED Silver project uses the latest technologies from US Customs such as mobile passport control and biometric technology. Additionally, using a bags-first system significantly improves the screening process. With features such as an expanded baggage claim, an enhanced passenger area, and a public art showcase, the new FIS provides an improved international travel experience. 

Syska Hennessy Group provided mechanical, electrical, plumbing, IT/telecommunications, security, Audio-Visual, Vertical Transportation, engineering services in addition to new and renovated lighting systems in all public spaces, back‐of‐house areas, gatehouses and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) spaces.


LEED Silver certification

This fast-track schedule—which is approximately half of what design teams typically view as comfortable for a project of this scope—was perhaps the greatest obstacle of the project. To meet the LEED Silver requirements and those of the California Energy Conservation Code, it was necessary to retrofit the existing systems. Setting a standard for all other airports and their commitment to driving sustainability, the San Diego International Airport FIS and Terminal 2 West are the first to have ever received the LEED Platinum certification.


To achieve San Diego International Airport’s commitment to sustainability, the project includes design features that were in line with LEED Silver and California Energy Conservation Code. The FIS is powered by on‐campus solar panels and uses natural light to help offset energy consumption. Water efficient plumbing systems help to decrease overall usage by 30%. In addition, the roof drains were designed to connect to the existing storm water recapture and filtering system from the airport’s roofs allows water to be treated and circulated through an existing on campus modular wetland system.


Following the architect’s design vision, Syska approached the lighting on this project as a traveler’s journey from the mountains of San Diego down to the beaches. Lighting is used to subtly provide wayfinding to the next part of the journey and through to the FIS process.


Upon arrival, travelers are greeted with hints of colored light reflective of either sunrise or sunset. There is also a custom back-lit wall that depicts San Diego’s hillsides. When transitioning between floors, visitors experience an arrangement of floating light discs that simulate a journey through the clouds. Along the path through the FIS process, light was used for unexpected moments that subtly provide direction. Each of the unique elements of the design were weaved into the overall lighting scheme to provide a welcoming environment and the appropriate illumination for airport tasks.  The journey culminates in the Meeter Greeter Hall where lighting brings to life a large public art piece.

Passenger Comfort

With the increasing number of travelers due to the addition of international flights the primary focus of the engineering design centered around passenger comfort and convenience. The sophisticated building management system provides a comfortable, energy-efficient environment by optimizing building operations and limiting the utility service demand on the existing infrastructure.


Traffic flows were analyzed to develop the right specifications for cooling in order to provide a system that creates a comfortable environment, even when hundreds of people disembark from a jumbo jet into an empty space all at once. Careful study of passenger movement throughout the space informed our engineers of optimal placements for vertical transportation to minimize the length of queues. The cooling system was designed to provide a comfortable thermal environment, regardless of the widely fluctuating number of people at any given time. The airport is provided with chilled water (CHW) and heating hot water (HHW) from a central utility plant. Terminal 2 West utilizes existing tertiary CHW and HHW pumps to distribute water throughout the new expansion to the FIS build out. Six new air handler units were installed to accommodate relocations and new areas of the new FIS facility. The new rooms were served by variable air volume (VAV) boxes with reheat coils. However, the MDF/electrical room, etc., were served by six CHW computer room air conditioning units (CRAC) with secondary direct expansion (DX) coils.

Project Execution 

Collaboration was the name of the game from the moment the RFQ hit the street on this design-build project. Four teams responded to the RFQ, three were selected to receive the RFP, two dropped out of the competition due to what was referred to as the impossible schedule, leaving only our team.


Team coordination took on new meaning for everyone. To keep things moving, we worked with the airport to modify their often-conflicting policies and standards on how our team could access and work on site. The team was co-located where all decision-makers – from owners to the design-build team – committed to making and sticking to decision on key project elements.

For example, extensive team collaboration over several meetings was needed to coordinate separating the FIS’s electrical distribution from the airport’s when providing the required branch circuitry for services outside the new facility. Generally, this would have taken four times the effort, but the team’s experience, and commitment quickly built a high level of trust with the airport. This resulted in the team being able to quickly design the branch circuitry.

 By meeting with stakeholders and discussing both the advantages and disadvantages of each design option, the design team was able to gain consensus via close collaboration and dedication. The team was able to meet the airport’s strict deadline, which was only 14.5 months from the notice to proceed as well as obtaining its Certificate of Occupancy within 12 months. 


International passengers are benefiting from faster turnaround at the new FIS—most passengers can now get through customs within 10 – 20 minutes. This significantly improves the overall international travel experience and helps jet-lagged passengers quickly conclude their long journeys and get to their desired destinations.

As the San Diego International Airport offers more and more nonstop international flights, their recently completed 130,000 square-feet Federal Inspection Station provides an expanded space for the increasing number of travelers due to the addition of international flights. With an open, intuitive layout, new reduced wait times, and more queuing space, the FIS provides a more positive and welcoming arrival experience for tourists and visitors alike.