Photos:
(Left) William M. Thomas Air Terminal lobby
(Right) William M. Thomas Air Terminal Building
Taking Travel to the Skies
By Emily Moore

Let's face it, before the William M. Thomas Air Terminal was built at Meadows Field airport, many of us quietly cringed when we picked up friends, family or business associates who had never laid eyes on Bakersfield and we realized their first impression of our town was the tiny, out-dated old terminal.

Luckily for Kern County our local leaders must have had similar feelings because they gathered $36 million for the new terminal, which opened Feb. 27, 2006. Was it worth it? Traveler Kim Coleman of Bakersfield says yes.

"It's beautiful, gorgeous. It makes me feel good about Bakersfield," said Coleman, who was picking up her bags at the baggage claim inside the new terminal.

"I think it's fantastic, it's a major, major upgrade for me," said her husband, Jorgen, who was picking her up.

In case you have not been inside, the spacious waiting area is surrounded by sky-high windows, and speckled with modern, comfortable chairs along with tables so people can pull out their laptops using the terminal's wireless Internet access.

To the southeast is a separate area for baggage claim and car rentals from four companies. To the northwest is a separate ticketing area. To the southwest is the secured passengers-only area, and a hallway to a spacious waiting area where the gates are.

"I think for the most part the public is happy with the convenience of the building, that there is food service beyond the security checkpoint. The fact that we have restrooms beyond the security checkpoint is huge," says Teresa Hitchcock, analysis and marketing manager of Kern County Airports, adding that at the old terminal people often waited until the last minute to enter the secured area because of the lack of restrooms.

Something else that's new? Beer and wine. Once ticketed passengers get beyond the secured checkpoint Blimpies can serve you a club sandwich, and a glass of beer to wash down those pre-flight jitters. And it's not uncommon to see passengers in that area doing just that.

Also coming to further soothe waiting passengers and visitors is more art. Next time you’re in the terminal, take a look around. The walls and ceilings are dotted with hand-picked works from local artists, although artists from all over the county submitted their work to be displayed, says Jill Egland, director of special projects for the Arts Council of Kern.

"We will continue to have art here but it was important that the first round of art be local," she said, adding that it was the local voice that was most important. Egland echoes the word of one of the local artist whose work is displayed at the terminal. "She said, 'Through this work let's remind ourselves and visitors of what we hold special.'"

While many larger airports have budgets for art, Kern County does not. So the Arts Council of Kern raised $250,000 from donations to purchase the paintings, sculptures and photographs on display. Inside there are plans to display a wall of art by children, which is being sponsored by the Kern County Superintendent of Schools.

And Egland says there is still much to do here in the way of art. "There are plans in the future for a gallery of local artists," she says.

And according to Hitchcock, people are not just taking to the new airport, even more are taking off from it.

There are now several daily flights to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix, and Denver, offering travelers excellent access to major hubs.

Roland Williams of Sausalito needs to travel to Bakersfield periodically, but he has never flown, until now. It use to be, he said, that "the only way to fly here (from San Francisco) was to go to L.A. and change planes. It was quicker to drive from San Francisco to here than it was to fly."

So what does Williams think of the new airport?

"I was noticing you have a lot of light and that's very important because airports can seem like dungeons," he said, adding that it's also very clean. Williams says from now on, he's flying to Bakersfield. So are many others. In fact, Hitchcock says most of the flights are full. "It's just an exciting time here," she said. "A lot of growth, a lot of new projects going on. The future seems bright."

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