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Scott Macpherson considers the infrastructure challenges facing US airports and how best practices can help control their construction costs.

The aftermath of another hectic holiday travel season provides a great opportunity for a reality-check regarding the state of American airports.

Of the 32 million fliers who took to the skies during Thanksgiving 2019, many encountered facilities that were in the process of transformation. From landside to terminal to airside, construction seems to be a perpetual condition at large, medium, and even small facilities.

This activity isn’t all just cosmetic in nature. As the Federal Aviation Administration points out in its National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS), US airport infrastructure needs are propelled by several factors: current and forecasted traffic, use and age of facilities, and changing aircraft technology that requires airports to update or replace existing equipment and infrastructure.

The majority of investment at commercial airports remains in passenger-facing applications, such as new or upgraded terminals, consolidated rental car facilities (CONRAC), and ground access projects.

Airports are powerful engines for economic growth and opportunity. They account for $1.2 trillion in economic activity – or 7% of the total US workforce and 8% of GDP. And the industry outlook is positive: the FAA reports that 2017 marked the eighth consecutive year of profitability for the domestic airline industry.

Looking forward, there is confidence that US airlines have finally transformed from a capital-intensive, highly cyclical industry to one that generates solid returns on capital and sustained profits. Indeed, the FAA’s 2018 forecast projects that US carriers will experience passenger growth of around 1.9% over the next 20 years.

With so much economic clout – to say nothing of their primary function of moving people and goods around the world – it’s obvious that keeping facilities in top condition should be a priority.

Perhaps because we’ve reached a critical stage of maintenance – on average, infrastructure at US airports is 40 years old – there’s a substantial amount of airport construction work (both replacement and repair) that currently has a green light.

Through 2021, airports in the United States have infrastructure projects underway to the tune of nearly $100 billion; in the New York metro area alone, LaGuardia, Kennedy, and Newark airports are part of a $20 billion redevelopment plan.

Updating the passenger experience

There was a time when people used to dress to travel, flying was glamourous, and airport design reflected that with dynamic and cutting-edge structures. Over time, air travel evolved into mass transit and airports were designed for one principal purpose: a transportation gateway with a more bare-bones design reflecting a more transient focus.

Now though, the airport is evolving once again and they are designed as destinations in their own right, offering travellers (who spend a national average of two hours in the terminal) a full complement of amenities.

Food and beverage concessions run the gamut from fine dining to fast food chains to take-aboard snacks. Retail choices have outgrown newsstands and duty-free shops to include luxury goods, specialty boutiques, and pop-up stores.

Ticketing procedures and security screening and baggage handling technologies have greatly evolved (and continue to do so).

Terminal architecture has also become more sophisticated, with towering atriums, soaring pedestrian bridges, and other eye-catching features adding to the environment.

Evaluating choices

As essential as these design elements are, they increase the project’s complexity and, in turn, contribute to the cost of capital improvements. With the cost of new airport terminals often running at more than $750/square foot, every effort must be made to control expenditure.

Employing a lifecycle approach to the initial procurement may ensure a more fiscally responsible use of funds because it includes operation and maintenance costs, which are sometimes overlooked when making decisions about systems and materials.

A simple example: Though the upfront costs – in both dollars and time – of pouring a 200,000-square-foot terrazzo floor far exceeds the expense of installing the same quantity of carpeting in a terminal, an analysis of the two surfaces dictates that the wise choice would be the terrazzo.

Subjected to the heavy foot traffic of an airport, carpet wears out and requires periodic replacement – a shortcoming that doesn’t apply to the more durable terrazzo.

Understanding construction challenges

With airport work, phasing and co-ordination are often the biggest drivers of cost. Sometimes renovations can cost more and take longer than new construction because of phasing and co-ordination.

Cost planners must find the sweet spot between budget, schedule, and scope of construction to maximise the efficiency of the project. When well planned and executed, the risk of diminished productivity is reduced – a major goal for all stakeholders.

With limited land available for expansion, most airports are faced with squeezing more performance out of their existing buildings. And because they are active 24 hours a day, there’s no window of downtime during which construction can take place; this is a major reason why costs typically run about 40% to 50% more for airport construction than they do for a ‘conventional’ project.

It’s definitely not business as usual. Construction work of any scale has to have a minimal impact on airport operations, and therefore is most often conducted at night.

Logistical concerns can slow down the process, from construction workers having to park offsite, then take a shuttle bus to the job (a process that can double the time spent in transit – and correspondingly reduce the time spent at work) to staging material deliveries at a time and place that minimises the disruption to airport activity.

Behind-the-scenes issues include conducting background checks for workers to receive security clearances to gain access to restricted areas of the facility; in a tight market for skilled labour, this can be more of a problem than expected.

Surrounding the active construction zone, vehicular and pedestrian detours must be planned with an eye to safety, security, and convenience, as well as compliance with TSA and FAA protocols.

It’s essential that wayfinding signage posted in the affected areas of the terminal be visible and clear, as it may be directing passenger circulation through the building for years to come, in cases of major building overhauls.

Ensuring a smooth landing

While every airport construction project is unique, they share a common goal: to deliver a superior passenger experience through modern, responsive facility design.

With costs climbing to ever-increasing altitudes, achieving that target requires a knowledge-based costing strategy that is simultaneously detail-oriented and focused on the big picture, and applied with skill and vision.


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