Meet the New Boss

Airport managers face a conundrum today. With passenger numbers approaching, and sometimes exceeding, those of pre-Sept. 11, 2001, facility growth is back on the radar. However, the continuing problems of their biggest financial resources—the major airlines—are raising new questions as to who, exactly, will pay for these much-needed expansions.

By Chuck Ross, Contributing Editor February 1, 2005

Airport managers face a conundrum today. With passenger numbers approaching, and sometimes exceeding, those of pre-Sept. 11, 2001, facility growth is back on the radar. However, the continuing problems of their biggest financial resources—the major airlines—are raising new questions as to who, exactly, will pay for these much-needed expansions.

In some cases, airport authorities themselves are taking on these new financial responsibilities, giving officials broader authority over facilities previously seen as the proprietary domains of individual airlines under long-term leases. Airport managers now see such control as essential at a time when the industry is in transition on several fronts.

A number of big changes are raising questions for the entire industry: The success of low-cost carriers is calling the business model of larger, old-school airlines into question; work continues on incorporating baggage-screening equipment into in-line baggage-processing systems; and new aircraft sizes at both ends of the scale are forcing a reconsideration of traditional gate designs. Additionally, forecasters now anticipate passenger growth will exceed airport capacity in numerous metropolitan areas across the United States. While these changes might prove trying for many airport authorities, the good news is that they are creating new opportunities for engineering firms with the expertise to address the challenges this unique market presents.

“The planning work is really busy and the design and construction work is coming on,” says Pat Askew, a senior vice president and director of St. Louis-based HOK Aviation. “It’s back to the good old days—knock on wood.”

Askew ticks off a number of projects where work is either proposed, underway or recently completed, including airports in Los Angeles, Seattle, Phoenix, Omaha, Philadelphia, New York City and Washington, D.C. Work abroad is also booming, as internationally, jobs are popping up in places like London’s Heathrow and Doha, Qatar, in the Middle East.

A busy future

Two recent Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reports help explain the renewed interest in airport expansion. The March 2004 “Terminal Area Forecast Summary” anticipates passenger emplanements at large hub airports to increase at an annual rate of 3.3% between 2002 and 2020. More specifically, medium-sized facilities, according to the FAA, will grow by 3% annually and small hubs should grow at 2.5% annually. This translates into a total of 1.1 billion U.S. passengers per year in 2015—up from 641.4 million passengers that flew in fiscal year 2003, according to other FAA figures.

“As we’re in the third year after 9/11, airports are again in that growth and rebuild mode,” says David Schlothauer, senior vice president of Parsons Brinkerhoff Aviation.

Although the airline industry’s financial problems have made headlines since 2001, airport managers still recognized the need to plan for future growth. Last year’s FAA projections only reinforced previous findings that growth in air travel, particularly in the South and Southwest, would necessitate facility expansion as well.

“A lot of our clients took this downtime to get their construction projects started,” Schlothauer says. “The growth projections that we were seeing from Boeing and the industry were significant enough that work needed to be done.”

“Every airport is seeing that there will be passenger growth,” adds Lalit Mehta, vice president and director of aviation for New York-based Syska & Hennessy, citing Newark’s Liberty International, where forecasters anticipate 60 million passengers a year by 2020. “More and more people are flying and many airports are concerned; everyone is going ahead with expansion as needed,” says Mehta.

Turning to new pockets

However, with many of the major air carriers facing bankruptcy, airport authorities now have to bear more of these costs themselves. As a result, these managers are also demanding increased flexibility from their new or renovated terminals so that financial returns don’t ride on the success or failure of one or two big airlines.

New technology is helping facility developers meet this goal. One major advance is the introduction of common-use terminal equipment (CUTE). These systems allow multiple airlines to access their proprietary systems via shared data transmission and delivery systems. With shared-use designs, today’s United Airlines check-in counter could, for example, become a Southwest Airlines counter tomorrow, without having to rip out and replace computers and flight-information screens.

Some in the industry are looking at recently completed renovations at Las Vegas’s McCarran International Airport as a possible model for how common-use schemes could boost overall efficiency. The airport is located in one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country, and traffic there remained steady despite the overall downturn of the last couple of years.

“Their growth never really dropped off much,” says Steve Bennett, P.E., a vice president at Denver-based Swanson Rink. “They are just going back to their original plan because it still makes sense for them.”

Because the airport authority was able to provide its own funding for the project, rather than having to turn to individual airlines, designers were able to take a common-use approach that provides the airport with maximum flexibility to adjust to the turbulent airline industry with ease. For example, electronic check-in kiosks are non-proprietary and can be used by passengers of almost all the airlines now using the airport.

The system, which McCarran calls “SpeedCheck,” acts as a portal to each airline’s individual ticketing systems. In addition to making data systems more flexible, this approach also provides flexibility as to the assignment of related check-in counters. Currently, the SpeedCheck kiosks are only available for use by passengers who aren’t checking bags, but the next phase of the installation, set for this year, will add kiosks that can print baggage tags.

RFID makes waves

The tags the kiosks will be printing are part of a second advance adopted by McCarran’s designers—the first major U.S. installation of a radio-frequency identification (RFID) system for tracking all outbound baggage. Similar to the CUTE check-in system, baggage tracking is also non-proprietary, serving each of the two terminals rather than individual airlines. The RFID technology offers much greater bag-tracking accuracy, according to system designers, which improves both airline efficiency and overall security.

“RFID provides a higher level of reliability in tracking bags,” says Swanson Rink’s Bennett; his firm designed the Vegas baggage handling system. “Testing shows a 99.99% efficiency. That’s great for the airports.” Bennett adds that the commonly used bar-code-based bag tags top out at about 85% efficiency.

In addition, Bennett says the common-use approach to baggage handling means more efficient use of fewer explosive-detection systems (EDSs), while still meeting the goal of 100% in-line checked-bag screening. Moving the bulky EDS machines out of ticket lobbies and in-line with the overall baggage conveyor lines is a goal of airports across the country.

Automation taking hold

Tampa International Airport recently completed its own ambitious baggage-automation system, which was complicated by the facility’s hub-and-spoke design and the fact that airport officials didn’t want to disrupt ongoing operations.

“Hillsborough County [the airport’s owner] found the need to put EDS equipment in-line,” says John White, an executive vice president of Skanska USA Building Inc, the project’s construction manager, “so we had to redo all the baggage systems while maintaining operations of all the baggage rooms.”

The new design made use of the underside of the track for the people movers that carry passengers from the ticketing and passenger pick-up hub to the gate concourses located at the end of each of five “spokes.” Bag conveyors now incorporate EDS equipment and are suspended from the people-mover track, eliminating the need to cart luggage back and forth.

“A lot of the development of the technology came from the criteria developed by the TSA [Transportation Security Administration] for security screening,” White says.

Building a common platform

Common-use approaches don’t stop at the security checkpoint; they also extend to new ideas regarding airport-gate designs. Passengers of the traditional major carriers have long been accustomed to finding individual seating areas—”holding areas” in airport parlance—for each gate. Low-cost carriers, though, which make their margins on getting their aircraft back in the air as quickly as possible, often prefer common holding areas that may serve several gates. And, having dedicated signage and flight displays isn’t as important to the marketing brands of these carriers. “The advantage that the low-cost carriers have is that they’re not shackled to older systems,” says Al Lyons a principal in the New York City office of Arup.

By being focused on efficiency rather than branding, he notes, these newer airlines’ goals are often more in line with the needs of flexibility-focused facility managers. “As you get into shared systems, you get infrastructure that can be shared by lots of different businesses,” says Lyons.

This infrastructure can include things as seemingly basic as the dynamic airline and flight-information signage fronting each gate. In dedicated terminals, the information feeding these signs travels through proprietary data systems. Newer, more flexible systems create common cabling and protocols allowing gates to be used by any airline—and allow any airline to tap into its own proprietary database.

Lyons adds that such common-use designs reduce both space and energy requirements. This approach also allows airport managers to track how efficiently individual airlines are using overall airport resources. This can include things like how long an airline’s baggage-handling operation takes to get luggage from aircraft to the terminal.

“It’s basically sub-metering,” Lyons says. “It’s a different approach to sustainability. If the way the airlines are using [airport services] is inefficient, you’re still wasting energy; you’re still wasting resources.”

Speaking of sustainability, where civic pride once made community acceptance of airport projects a shoe-in, today’s developers are seeing new challenges from residents and activists concerned about the impact more airport traffic could have on local quality of life and the environment as a whole.

Sustainable design taxiing for takeoff

Recognizing the importance of limiting ill effects, airport managers are putting a new emphasis on sustainability, many by including Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards in their project specifications. “A lot of our clients are either going toward a LEED-certified building, or one that can be [in the future],” says Skanska’s White. “They’re looking at things like lowering exhaust from construction equipment, local purchase of materials, onsite batch plants and recycling of construction debris. A lot is being driven by municipalities; Atlanta, for example, has a very strong plan.”

And, perhaps because more of these projects are being driven by airport managers rather than individual airlines, clients are showing a willingness to take on a higher first cost, in return for lower operating costs going forward. In addition, the LEED program helps provide some quantifiable guidelines and metrics to better choose between options, experts say.

“Many sustainable design technologies can ultimately lead to lower costs over the long term,” says Holland Young, LEED AP, a senior principal consultant with Parson Brinkerhoff Aviation. “This is a question of degrees—clearly, you’re not going to want to pay three times more. But you try to recognize technologies that provide the greatest return. The LEED program has brought in a more structured approach” for evaluations.

Dick Powers, vice president and chief engineer in HOK’s San Francisco office, notes that his firm is seeing notable interest in sustainable principles from a number of airport clients.

“Almost all of our clients want to incorporate a reasonable level of sustainable design, even if they don’t go for LEED certification,” he says.

Askew notes that a number of big upcoming projects, including a new terminal being planned in Indianapolis and budgeted at nearly $1 billion, are emphasizing sustainable technologies.

Energy efficiency is a big target for airports, as is improved use of daylighting—which, obviously, can also help lower energy use. Some designers are looking to European facilities for good examples of successful designs.

“Take Schiphol Airport, in the Netherlands,” notes Nancy Hamilton, a Chicago-based principal and head of the aviation division for Arup. “It’s in their building codes that any occupied space must have natural daylight. So, you go into their baggage-handling rooms and there’s actually natural daylight.”

New frontier

The question to ask is, “Are these examples trends or isolated instances?” Integrated control schemes that tie building services for specific gates to flight information, so that gate-related mechanical and electrical systems only operate when needed, aren’t quite here yet, several engineers say. Others are hopeful that current approaches are just the start of what they see as a more environmentally friendly future.

“My take is that we’re just at the beginning,” says Young. “I think there’s a long and very productive journey ahead.”

Terminal Security

While it appears that baggage-handling systems are capturing the biggest share of airport-security spending right now, attention is being paid to some engineering-design approaches that could minimize other forms of terrorist threats. For example, engineers are now reassessing some previously standard approaches to ventilation.

Specifying air-intake locations to ensure that jet fumes don’t enter ventilation systems has long been a no-brainer for airport designers. Now, engineers are working with other design professionals to make it more difficult for airborne contaminants to be deliberately introduced into air-distribution systems.

“The simplest thing is, we can work with the architect to try to ensure it is out of reach,” says Lalit Mehta, vice president and director of aviation for New York-based Syska Hennessy. This means making air intakes inaccessible to someone attempting to throw or propel a contaminant-delivery device from a public area.

Other tactics now being adopted could help limit the damage such contaminants could cause. Dick Powers, a vice president and chief engineer at HOK’s San Francisco office, says that previous mechanical designs might have incorporated a fewer number of large air-handling units that would each handle a “slice” or large cross-section of an airport. Now, though, he says engineers will often segregate functional areas—such as offices, gate areas and sterile corridors—with separate systems, so a single contaminant release can’t take out an entire facility.

Engineers and facility managers realize that more can always be done; however, each incremental security improvement comes with its own incremental cost. In some cases, engineers are making allowances for future improvements for which budgets do not yet exist.

“We’re also allowing for space in the air-handling units to install UV lamps or HEPA filters in the future,” which could kill or capture contaminants. Most airports aren’t opting for such additional protections now, he says, because of the added costs they might entail. However, he notes, regardless of potential improvements airports could make going forward, these facilities certainly are more secure than they were in the past.

“The concern is, how far do you take it?” Mehta says. “There really is no limit. Everything is associated with a cost. But if you compare what we used to have before 9/11, it has been beefed up a lot.”