Closing the distance
Landrum & Brown’s Andy Lee, Jordan Roos and Karst Smit consider ways of shortening walking distances and passenger journey times through airport terminals.
Airport terminal typologies have evolved over the decades to respond to market, regulatory and technological developments.
Besides the evolution of aircraft dimensions, the two biggest events, deregulation and 9/11, led to the complete reconfiguration of some of the world’s larger commercial airports.
First, deregulation led to changes in airline networks that resulted in reorienting airports from serving O&D passengers to become hubs for connecting air travellers.
Second, the events of 9/11 led to the need to provide more extensive security screening of passengers and bags, which necessitated the reconfiguring and expanding of airport departure halls and outbound baggage areas to accommodate the new functions.
While all these changes occurred in response to real demands, the rush to address these challenges had the unintended consequence of increasing the distance and time passengers need to travel through airports.
This not only includes the cavernous gap between the kerb and gate for O&D passengers, but even the distances between the gates themselves for connecting passengers.
In our opinion, there are two reasons why kerb to gate walking distances have increased at US airports – the rise of hubs and new security screening requirements.
Airline deregulation and rise of hubs
The United States Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 enabled airlines to shift their business models from the traditional point-to-point networks serving O&D passengers, to hub-and-spoke networks connecting passengers through their principal airports.
Hubs allow airlines to make routes with low O&D passenger volumes viable, by filling up the remaining seats with connecting passengers. Examples of successful hub airports are Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL), Dallas/Fort Worth Airport (DFW), Chicago O’Hare Airport (ORD), Frankfurt Airport (FRA), Dubai International Airport (DXB) and Singapore Changi Airport (SIN), to name a few.
At the risk of stating the obvious, hubs work more efficiently when airlines bunch their flight arrivals and departures to minimise connecting times between flights. However, the bunching of flights increases the amount of space and facilities needed to accommodate a high volume of aircraft and passengers in a relatively short period of time.
Very large hubs have complex systems such as automated people movers (APM) and expansive baggage sortation and conveyor equipment that are expensive to build, operate and maintain, and can become single points of failure when airport traffic suddenly spikes.
Security screening requirements
Airport security measures became drastically more stringent and complicated after the events of 9/11 and greatly changed the layout of the terminals and the passenger experience, particularly in the US, where it was previously possible for non-ticketed passengers to go airside.
The industry responded to the new passenger screening requirements positively, developing equipment to help expedite the screening process in less than a year. However, with the introduction of millimeter wave passenger scanners, CT bag scanners and empty tub return systems, security screening channels have become longer and wider. This has further increased walking distances and travel times from kerb to gate.
So, what can be done to make airport terminals quicker and easier to navigate? We believe that there are five solutions the industry can adopt to ‘close the distance’ for passengers, four of which we address below.
1. In-town check-in and door-to-door baggage services
Our perception of a long walk is largely associated with how far we must drag our bags through these facilities, particularly prior to check-in or after baggage claim.
To help enhance the passenger experience, some airports have sought to separate bags from passengers before or as they arrive at the airport, and new generation technology and infrastructure have made this service more viable.
Solutions could include express trains coupled with automated baggage handling systems, using delivery services or express parcel services to provide an independent journey for bags, and bag robots that can assist passengers with their bags in almost any part the terminal or landside.
In addition to enhancing the passenger experience, the early removal of bags also enables new opportunities for terminals, including the integration of transit access at satellites and airside vertiports, both of which reduce the travel distance for the passenger.
2. Elimination of satellites/remote concourses
The traditional definition of a satellite is an airside concourse that is surrounded by aircraft stands to allow the maximum gating of planes. This configuration is most efficient for connecting passengers but less efficient for O&D passengers.
Airlines have evolved their network planning to consolidate their hubs at airports that also have high volumes of O&D passengers. Airports that have lost their hub status are reconfiguring their satellite concourses to include landside facilities. For instance, after Pittsburgh Airport (PIT) lost its USAir hub in the early 2000s, the airport authority opted to relocate the headhouse, so that it is directly connected to the formerly X-shaped satellite concourse.
This change greatly shortened the distance between ticketing, security checkpoints, baggage claim and landside amenities and gates. PIT also eliminated the old underground APM, removing the ongoing operating expenses and future replacement costs.
3. Direct landside (partial) connections to satellites
Instead of reconfiguring their airfield and terminals, some airports are taking a different approach to reduce kerb to gate walking distances.
One mega-airport in China is currently exploring the introduction of direct underground landside access to its future satellite concourses. This has become possible as rail ridership has exceeded its forecast share of demand when the airport was initially designed.
Those passengers that use the in-town terminal can proceed directly to security and Customs & Immigration (CIQ) screening in the rail station that is directly linked to these satellite concourses.
This concept could become a reality if the rail station, security and CIQ screening facilities can be added at a feasible cost, and a method to transfer bags from the in-town terminal to the outbound bag area is developed.
Direct access to the satellite concourse not only makes a passenger’s journey more convenient, but it also extends the lifespan of the existing terminal headhouse and its roadways. This approach maintains an airport’s satellite concourse configuration and improves access for O&D customers.
4. Integration of airside vertiports – advanced air mobility
Advanced air mobility (AAM) is a nascent set of emerging vehicle types and service typologies that have the potential to shorten journeys for travellers.
Indeed, airports across the globe are contemplating both landside and airside vertiport sites for Urban Air Mobility services that will accommodate a variety of Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) vehicles.
Airports could locate vertiports within large midfield concourses – if standards for distances from active runways are promulgated and met and the facilities can be developed without becoming obstructions to air navigation.
With direct tie-in to urban centres, an AAM solution provides air passengers with an expedited connection to the airport that bypasses major pain points within the airport from parking/kerbside to the gates.
While this is an emerging mode of transportation that is still under development with technological, operational and regulatory issues to still be worked out, airports should be exploring the integration of vertiports into their facilities so that they are better prepared to engage with airlines and other emerging AAM service providers.
Thoughts for the future
Airports need to close the distance between the gates and the landside and rescale their facilities to promote greater accessibility and improve overall passenger mobility and journey times.
As overall airport traffic continues to grow and the number of elderly air travellers continues to expand, solutions that facilitate passenger journeys, such as in-town baggage check, direct access to satellite concourses and emerging travel modes such as Advanced Air Mobility (AAM), will make airports far more accessible for all passengers.
About the authors
The article was written by L&B’s Andy Lee, Jordan Roos and Karst Smit with contributions by Richard Barone, Lisa Schafer and Matt Lee.