It had been a good number of years since Paul Able had flown into Reagan National’s historic Terminal A. He grew up in the Washington region and left more than 20 years ago. But on Able’s most recent visit he had one observation:

“It looks exactly the same,” he said.

It was not necessarily a compliment.

Around the airport, signs proclaim: “Change is on the horizon at Reagan National Airport.” But to many of the travelers who move through its gates daily, Terminal A is still the airport of their childhood: quaint, but cramped.

Parts of the historic structure, which opened in 1941, still boast artful gold flourishes. Near the operations center, the wood-
paneled Roosevelt Room is largely untouched from the days when its namesake president lounged there before a flight.

But what some describe as a much-needed update is underway at National. The $37 million project, which will modernize the airport’s look by bringing in brighter lighting, more windows and new flooring, is the airport’s most ambitious facelift in decades.

Traffic is at an all-time high at National. In May, a record 1.9 million passengers moved through its gates. And there is no sign that growth will slow. In 2012, 19.7 million passengers flew through the airport. And officials think they could easily see 20 million passengers in 2013.

“We always expected to get to this point,” said the airport manager, Paul Malandrino Jr., who has spent so much of his tenure finding ways to create space where none seems to exist that he could have a future in Manhattan real estate. “We just didn’t expect to get to it this soon.”

A few years ago, officials converted storage space into what is now the ticket counter area and a baggage claim for JetBlue. An off-limits section in the oldest part of the terminal has been converted into a sleek new conference room available for rental. Now the old passenger waiting and boarding area — no longer usable because of security regulations — is being repurposed as a special events space. In June, the airport hosted its first wedding in the room.

“We’re taking advantage of every piece of space we can,” Zach­ary Coleman, acting department manager for engineering and maintenance at National, said on a recent walk around the airport as he dodged an orange cone.

Completing the work, while running an airport operating at record capacity, does present challenges, Coleman said.

In the busiest part of the terminal, where Southwest, Frontier, Air Canada and others have their ticket counters, passengers must weave past mobile wooden barriers, which shift week by week, as sections of the new cream-colored flooring, accented with a gray stripe, is installed. Both the Travelers Aid booth and a stand with information screens on arrivals and departures have been put on wheels so that they can be moved, depending on where work is being done on a particular day.

The remodel won’t result in a significant increase in square footage, but officials hope that lighter paint, additional windows and natural light will give the impression of a larger space, Malandrino said.

The narrow hallway that leads to the boarding area will be widened to squeeze in an additional security line. The stucco accent along the wall will be replaced with a smoother, more modern finish. In the hallway between the JetBlue ticket counters and the main terminal area, Malandrino is hoping to remake the bar and magazine stand into a full-service restaurant with windows that offer a view of the runways.

The goal is to have the work completed for the fall and winter holiday travel season.

Able, who plans to return to the D.C. area to celebrate Christmas with family in Fredericksburg, is looking forward to seeing the “new” Terminal A.

“It’ll be interesting to see what they do with it,” he said.