Clear Skies?

Engineers hoping for work in the previously bustling airport market now face a classic bad news/good news scenario. The bad news: Airports are still primarily focused on security issues raised by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The good news: Addressing those security issues is forcing airport authorities and airlines to rethink virtually every other system in their facilities.

By Chuck Ross, Contributing Writer September 1, 2003

Engineers hoping for work in the previously bustling airport market now face a classic bad news/good news scenario. The bad news: Airports are still primarily focused on security issues raised by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The good news: Addressing those security issues is forcing airport authorities and airlines to rethink virtually every other system in their facilities. Experts say the resulting redesign efforts could mean big business for participating planning, design and engineering firms.

However, contracts for these large-scale efforts may still be some time in coming. The well-publicized business woes of many major carriers are forcing a realignment of airport-facility ownership structures. In many cases, this means financial control for capital improvements is shifting from airlines to governmental authorities, who are facing their own budgetary challenges. And, though federal funds have been promised to cover up to 75% of security-related construction expenses, those involved say these monies have been slow in coming, and reaching agreement on what constitutes a security-related expense is a difficult process. While the machinery itself is certainly covered, facility redesigns to accommodate equipment or personnel may not be.

Nevertheless, several big-ticket projects have recently been announced. Los Angeles International is planning a $9 billion, 11-year effort to completely re-plan the facility with security in mind. Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport has unveiled a conceptual design for a 960,000-sq.-ft. international terminal as part of a continuing $5.4 billion expansion effort.

New economy, 2003-style

Successfully garnering both large- and small-scale airport design and construction jobs first requires an understanding of how the airline industry has been changing over the last several years. As large carriers have cut flights and grounded aircraft to stay in business, less-expensive point-to-point players have maintained—or grown—their profitability. This scenario is forcing former industry leaders to rethink their business models and has airport officials considering their best options for protecting facility investments.

“The big network carriers have to create a new business model,” says Jerry Fitzgerald, president of Parsons Brinkerhoff Aviation, Inc. “As the airlines search for a new business model, asset management is changing. Is it the airport’s responsibility? Is it a third party’s responsibility? Or is it still in the best interest of the airlines to manage this asset?

“At the same time, the airport business model is changing,” Fitzgerald continues. In the past, he says, airports relied on long-term leases with major carriers, which gave airlines like United, American and Delta a great deal of control over—and financial responsibility for—terminals and concourses. Curtailed operations mean many of the gates they formerly operated are now sitting unused, and at the same time that budget carriers in many markets are clamoring for a greater presence.

“The changes in the business environment are having a tremendous impact on design decisions, because of questions of who pays and who owns,” Fitzgerald says.

Budget travelers returning

Aiding both airports and airlines is the return of at least some passengers to the sky. Some observers say the drastic drop in air travel that occurred in the wake of the 2001 attacks is, finally, reversing itself. Though fear remains, passengers are taking advantage of the discounted fares offered in this competitive environment.

“In terms of traffic, the trend is up,” says Joe Vaccaro, FAIA, senior vice president and director of aviation services at Leo A. Daly. “While it’s not recovered, it is continuing to improve. Most airport people I speak to are optimistic that the air traffic is going to come back.”

However, Vaccaro adds, full-fare business travelers—the driving force of the 1990s boom—have yet to return to the major carriers in force. The overall economic slowdown has forced many changes in corporate travel policies. Companies are requiring employees to use less-expensive budget airlines or forgoing travel altogether, relying on phone and videoconferencing instead of face-to-face meetings.

“That’s going to be one of the last areas, in my own judgment, to recover,” Vaccaro says. “It’s still very difficult, because businesses are very hard-pressed, so they’re holding the line on expensive business travel. They will go the extra mile to save money. Until there’s some relief in that situation, many times they will not go. I find that myself in my own schedule.”

Regardless of the price they pay for tickets, though, passengers are demanding more efficient and consistent travel experiences than many are currently receiving. Airport officials are looking at new ways to incorporate required explosive-detection equipment and to limit delays for passengers awaiting screening.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2001 attacks, airports rushed to meet government-mandated deadlines for installing sophisticated explosives detection system (EDS) equipment that can detect plastic explosive devices. Time constraints made ticketing-area lobbies the only option for locating this bulky equipment, eating up floor space desperately needed to serve passengers delayed by new security procedures.

Security designs evolving

Airports now are taking a long-term look at how they can better incorporate security machinery into their overall baggage-handling systems. This is an enormous undertaking that, in many cases, may force a complete replanning of all terminal facilities. Baggage areas are like manufacturing floors, needing extensive conveyor systems and room for those working around them. In addition to the floor space required for the new equipment, planners will need to consider the employees operating it and add facilities for dealing with suspicious bags. This has obvious implications for HVAC and electrical-system demands.

Checked-baggage security faces major efficiency hurdles. The number of employees handling passenger baggage has increased by a factor of four since new security measures have been implemented, says Mira Martin, an aviation planner with Atkins Americas. Today, an average of six to eight employees handle every piece of luggage. Additionally, airports are having to shoehorn in massive new equipment.

“Infrastructure has the biggest impact,” she says. “The machines are huge.”

The new equipment can boost HVAC and electrical-system demand in a given area by 40%, Martin notes. And that’s just in the situations where room is available to accommodate the machinery.

“In a lot of small areas, you can’t do it,” she says. “You’re having to go back and redesign for the added square footage.”

Despite the expense, however, experts say the need for efficiency improvements in baggage screening is clear. Before the downturn in air travel, delays tended to be traffic related, Martin says. Runway capacity problems meant a buildup of passengers in gates and other waiting areas—what planners call the “air side” of an airport. Today, however, with traffic down, security has become the primary reason for delays, Martin says, adding to the space demands on the “land side” of facilities.

“We’re trying to figure out how you’re going to line people up and where you’re going to line people up,” she explains. In some cases, she notes, far-sighted planners designed for airline expansion, making security-related redesign easier. For example, Terminal 4 at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport was constructed with additional piers outside the building’s perimeter, so architects and engineers there will have an easier time if more space is needed for security reasons.

However, congestion at some airports is reaching a crisis point. Chicago’s Midway Airport, a major center for budget carriers Southwest and ATA Airlines, is one example. The airport completed a major expansion in early 2002. Planned and designed long before the 2001 attacks, the facility’s security checkpoints have become operational choke points. All arriving and departing passengers are funneled across a single pedestrian bridge connecting ticketing and baggage areas to the gates, with checkpoints located at the bridge’s gate-end.

Monday morning business travelers at Midway have learned to arrive up to four hours early to make it through lengthy screening lines. On one morning in early August, the 1,000-passenger line stretched more than 500 feet and ATA representatives reported that 75% of its morning flights were delayed as a result.

Midway Airport officials have announced plans to add two more pedestrian bridges, each with additional security stations. The $40 million design would take two years to build, and in a stalemate playing itself out across the country, city and federal officials disagree over who should foot the bill. In the meantime, 12 more gates are expected to open next year, which could make for even longer delays.

Flexibility key to new plans

Even in the face of current urgency, officials recognize that a long-term approach to combined security and growth issues is essential to the future of their facilities. Airport authorities are now considering how to incorporate new security concerns into existing five- and 10-year growth plans.

“We’re seeing an awful lot of movement in the security area—numerous security master plans,” says Barry Kendrick, senior vice president and director of aviation at Hanscomb Faithful & Gould. He cites Los Angeles International and O’Hare, along with the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, as airport owners now assessing and implementing various requirements of the Transportation Safety Act.

As part of these plans, engineers are seeing a greater emphasis on flexible systems and integrated controls. Flexibility in the design of mechanical and electrical systems allows airports more options as priorities, such as security and passenger convenience, shift in the future. It also could make aircraft-related gate renovations less costly in the future. Aircraft can differ in such factors as hatch and fuel-tank placement. Adding new models or replacing old ones can force expensive redesigns to accommodate changes. A plan that allows for easier ventilation or electrical system moves could make a big difference to an airport’s bottom line.

Flexibility in data transmission can help create common platforms for such functions as reservations and electronic signage, making it easier to reassign gates as airlines expand and contract their operations. Currently, many airlines use proprietary systems to meet these needs, so reassigning gates can require rewiring and other hardware and software changes. Making gate areas available to all carriers could allow a more efficient use of gate resources going forward.

“The airports seem to be more interested today in common-use facilities,” Kendrick says. He adds that financial considerations have overridden airlines’ previous objections that common platforms compromised their competitive advantage.

“Now they can’t afford to not like it,” he says. “Whoever brings the dollars, brings the power.”

Integrating control systems is seen as a way to improve both security operations and building efficiency. Numerous scenarios have occurred over the last two years in which a single passenger’s improper clearance of security has forced entire terminals, or even entire airports, to be evacuated. If the facility is a hub, such events can have wide repercussions, forcing delays and cancellations across the country and even around the globe.

“If you have a security breach in one part of the airport, you have to immediately alert everyone else,” says Leo A. Daly’s Vaccaro, including passengers, baggage handlers, ramp operators, police and other security personnel and air traffic controllers. “For the most part, these systems have existed independent of one another.”

Bringing these various systems together to allow more centralized command and control is seen as essential to improving security operations. Vaccaro says most airports have begun to implement such plans.

“Airports and airlines have realized that there should be integrated communication that would combine flight information and display systems, with security systems and passenger and airline-information systems,” he says. “So, when you have a change in any aspect, it is immediately transmitted through the system.”

Hanscomb Faithful & Gould’s Kendrick notes that airports in Atlanta, Dallas/Ft. Worth and Houston have been sourcing vendors to integrate CCTV, paging and mechanical systems, among others.

In the most advanced systems, designers are also tying the HVAC and electrical systems into flight-information data (see “Controls Integration Taking Off,” p.44). This approach allows programmed gate functions, such as air conditioning and lighting, to change as flights are delayed or cancelled. Designers say efficiency concerns are becoming a higher priority for airport authorities. In fact, some are requiring engineering vendors to be certified by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design (LEED) program.

“That’s starting to come into conversations with airports,” Kendrick says. “In the 1980s and 1990s, they would never have thought of that—it’s almost a paradigm shift for some operators.”

So, it appears tomorrow’s airports will look and work differently from those of today. More space will be incorporated for passenger processing, flight information and other data, which will travel over common backbones, allowing for easier gate reassignments, and greater controls integration will allow more efficient operations. Additionally, a more holistic security process will improve baggage handling, replacing today’s somewhat ad hoc approach.

Business still seeing delays

But when can passengers expect to see these new, improved airports? And when can engineers hope to see design contracts issued? Though the need is well-recognized, industry participants say the RFPs are still somewhat slow in coming.

“There are a lot of us in the business that are just waiting for these projects to come out,” Kendrick says. He notes that his firm has recently begun work on projects in Spokane, Wash., Seattle and Portland, along with a $180 million expansion in as part of Atlanta’s Hartsfield expansion. However, he says, competition remains strong, with recent, relatively modest Reno, Nev., plans drawing 17 bidders, where only three or four might have been expected in the past.

Others expect predicted economic recovery to bring a rush of new work, as authorities restart efforts that were stalled by what they see as an aberrant drop in air travel’s otherwise bull-market future.

“Without question, there will be a backlog of planning for projects that should be going on right now, but airports are reluctant to undertake because they don’t have the traffic to justify them,” says Vaccaro. “We’ve just suffered a slowdown of growth in airline traffic in this country. I’m certain it will return to its escalation in the very near future.”

Controls Integration Taking Flight

Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson International Airport is currently in the midst of a $4 billion expansion, and controls integration is a primary goal of the facility’s managers. They’ve called on Johnson Controls to incorporate a new generation of the company’s Metasys products into the design. Building operations, including temperature and lighting controls, lighting, and fire and life safety, are grouped into one integration, while security functions, such as CCTV and employee identification, are under a separate umbrella. Communications to various control points is accomplished via the TCP/IP Internet protocol.

The client now will have access to video devices via the Internet, which will allow for display of specific access points in an alarm situation. The system is not yet optimized to allow building systems to “talk” to each other—to adjust programmed lighting or temperature settings automatically as a result of adjusted flight information, for example. However, the capability is there for this next level of integration as airport demands grow.

Giving Data an Unrestricted Fare

They look so unassuming, those flight-information monitors seen everywhere throughout airport terminals and concourses. Though the data they display may seem similar, regardless of the carrier, the systems used to communicate that data are often proprietary to the airline involved. As a result, airport authorities can face expensive technology retrofits as airlines expand or contract service to a particular facility.

Officials at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport are implementing a common flight-information data backbone to make such adjustments easier and less expensive. Called a multi-user flight information display system (MUFIDS), the $8 million installation will tie into airlines’ existing host systems for flight information, as well as Federal Aviation Administration data coming from the airport’s control tower. Local airline staff will also be able to make changes to displayed information drawn from their carrier’s host system if it incorrectly reflects updated local conditions.

Airlines often have argued that proprietary flight-information systems give them a competitive advantage. However, says Wendy Wilke, a senior project manager with project engineers Ross & Baruzzini, this approach allows airlines to maintain their own systems for back-office operations. But airport officials get the benefit of increased flexibility in public-area display systems. So scenarios like the purchase of bankrupt hometown carrier TWA by American Airlines—and American’s contemplated service cutbacks—don’t require complete system overhauls.

New display equipment is also planned, Wilke says, including 40-in. liquid-crystal display (LCD) monitors, dynamic signage at all gate podium areas and a ramp information display system. Additionally, monitors will be tied into the airport’s public-address system, allowing visual display of all announcements.