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Fail to plan, plan to fail


RS&H’s vice president, senior principal aviation planner, Bart Gover, outlines ten reasons some airports choose to forego long-range planning.

It’s true that sometimes choosing to do nothing is the easiest decision to make. However, planning is essential to succeed and has long been considered a fundamental tool used to achieve a desired outcome.

Assuming this still holds true today, why do some airports fail to plan? In the case of long-range airport planning, some airports and their staff members have mixed emotions about the value planning provides when offset by what they see as its limitations.

Imagine yourself as an experienced airport planning consultant meeting with an airport for the first time. Your mission is three-fold: to listen carefully and gather information about their future activities or projects, to establish a professional relationship and credibility with airport staff, and to develop strategy for positioning your organisation for future consultant selection.

You pose a question to gauge your prospects with the client. “Tell me about how your airport uses planning to make future decisions?” What comes next generally falls in one of two scenarios summarised in the hypothetical conversation below.

Scenario A: We value planning and continuously update our plan to accommodate change

“That’s a topic we’ve discussed often since the COVID-19 pandemic,” says the airport manager. “Our most recent planning project was an airport master plan that focused on identifying the facilities we need to support our anticipated growth over the next 20 years.

“We use our plan routinely to make decisions about the timing and eligible funding sources for individual projects and balance them against the needs of our tenants, industry partners and public.”

These words are music to a planner’s ears! However, there may be a different response.

Scenario B: Let me tell you about our challenges in doing planning

The airport manager begins by admitting, “Planning is something we should probably be doing more.

“In the past, though, we have had challenges that make it difficult for us to take it on. The pandemic has shown us that planning for the unknown can be extremely challenging and difficult to justify during a period of decline.”

A planner must listen intently to understand this mindset and search for ways to proceed within that framework. After all, that is one of the primary purposes of any planning project – to chart a path forward based on past and present conditions.

Most planners consider long-range planning as a critical step for success and reaching a goal. Unfortunately, some airport management attitudes often stand in the way. The list below identifies ten common beliefs about planning. These include the following assumptions and opportunities:

1. Planning projects take too long to complete

Because the schedule for any planning project should be commensurate with the scope of services requested, the timeline for completion must be balanced with the airport’s ability to provide the necessary information, review the plan, and grant approval.

Some airports get bogged down with daily schedules and job responsibilities that make it difficult to respond quickly to consultant requests. Some airports view the amount of time they must spend planning and co-ordinating as a reason not to plan, especially given the time it may take the FAA to review projects in the US.

Reality: On the other hand, some airports might say their consultant is not giving their plan the priority it deserves. Consultants must understand these limitations and allocate planning resources including dedicated staff, teaming partners, and the use of specialised software or equipment based on the airport’s timeline.

Most consultants have significant bench strength to accommodate the client’s schedule; however, cost and value must be understood. Expectations should be agreed upon during the negotiation process to align the project scope, schedule and budget.

2. Planning is a lower priority than an engineering or development project

It is no surprise that most airports prefer designing or building something tangible rather than developing a theoretical plan that sits on a shelf. Failing to plan for a future engineering or construction project, however, can impact on long-term operational efficiency, future flexibility, potential environmental issues and financial feasibility.

Reality: If there is no planning over the course of many years, airports can experience significant challenges to accommodate future demand given limited available land, changes in federal standards, available funding, and eligibility requirements for a federal grant. In the US, the FAA strongly suggests that airports conduct long-range planning at least every ten years, or when significant changes at the airport warrant the need for a new plan.

3. The plan never plays out in reality

Plans do change, especially over time, but the lack of planning usually creates future problems. The process of planning requires that airports examine multiple scenarios which anticipate changes in the industry including travel patterns, air service, new businesses, upcoming regulations/standards, aircraft fleet mix, and the important factor of public support.

Reality: Planning is a process of continuous refinement, however, airports that value planning often appreciate the ability to update the plan to accommodate change quickly.

4. Existing/future tenants will view planning as a change resulting in higher costs

Some airport managers are concerned that planning projects are a catalyst for raising rates, seeking additional capital investment, and changing present day operating arrangements with its tenants.

This can be true if that is the goal of the plan, but modern planning practices seek to maximise revenue opportunities by enhancing services and building facilities which in turn benefit airport tenants.

Reality: Many long-range plans go beyond basic airfield and facilities planning to include financial feasibility, sustainability, and resiliency elements that reflect an airports’ Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) goals.

A plan should identify an airport’s return on investment in a way that benefits its stakeholders such as identifying lifecycle costs, funding sources, and schedule for implementation. Successful planning projects include an outreach programme designed to foster support and keep tenants satisfied.

5. The plan is outdated the day it’s printed; it is only a snapshot in time

This can sometimes be true if the scope of the plan narrowly focuses on an individual project location, if expectations change during the planning process, or if airport decisions are not shared with the consultant. Narrowly scoped planning projects should identify the problem(s) to be resolved, the airport’s goals, and all available information to make a sound decision.

Reality: Many airports have transitioned away from awarding individual planning projects. Instead, they advertise for large scale on-call planning contracts. A consultant is selected based on an individual firm or team of firms’ ability to complete a list of potential planning needs that may arise over a defined period, usually three to five years per contractual agreement. On-call planning contracts provide the maximum amount of flexibility for airports to keep their plans up-to-date and avoid lengthy procurement processes.

6. FAA cannot amend planning grants

Current FAA regulations in the US prohibit federal funded planning projects from being amended for cost after the contract is awarded, however, planning projects may be amended for time (schedule) if requested by an airport sponsor.

Reality: In some unique cases, the FAA may approve extension of a project schedule if the airport has experienced a significant event such as a natural disaster, act of terrorism, or new large scale air service announcement that drastically impacts airport facilities and long-term needs.

This decision is left up to the FAA Airports District Office or Regional Office and requires an official request from the airport sponsor. In other cases, the FAA can approve a request from the airport sponsor to accelerate the project schedule to close out a planning grant for a project earlier than originally anticipated. FAA stresses the importance of completing a planning project within a three-year grant obligation period.

7. The airport has no experienced staff to conduct long-range planning

Many airports have limited staff resources and even fewer staff with planning experience, which is important when interacting with federal and state agencies involved in the approval process. Agencies may require permits for potential environmental resource impacts including wetlands, air pollution and noise.

Reality: Most consultants employ experts with experience obtaining permits and have established working relationships within the agencies. Additionally, the FAA has an approval process that includes a forecast of future aircraft activity levels, critical aircraft, and an airport layout plan which graphically depicts future development at the airport. Airports having limited staff typically use consultants to reduce their burden by shifting it to the consultant.

8. Planning is expensive, what is the ROI?

The cost of any planning project should be aligned with the importance of the planning project goals. If the project is critical for future funding, the cost of a planning project is a small percentage of the actual cost of future development. Beyond the actual cost, the intangible value planning provides an airport is huge.

Reality: Planning projects provide an opportunity for an airport to engage its tenants, stakeholders and the public to provide their input on the plan and demonstrate support for the plan’s recommendations.

Planning also helps position the airport as a good neighbour and avoid any surprises that may result from development. Finally, planning enables airport staff to inject creativity into the plan. Many planning projects are scoped to include other ancillary needs such as improvement in customer service, amenities and conveniences desired by its passengers.

9. The airport has limited funding available, and we are focused on projects that contribute to the bottom line

While a planning project alone will not directly produce revenue, a carefully crafted plan can include a list of future projects that will create revenue for an airport.

Reality: The amount of estimated revenue over time is a key component of most plans. Qualified planners who have worked with airports of all sizes and types bring their real-world experience and lessons learned to develop realistic revenue projections. Planning projects also include a list of eligible funding sources. Airport managers especially appreciate the ability to put their own funding plans together during annual budgeting.

10. We have no appetite to draw attention to weaknesses of the airport

This reason is rarely verbalised during a client meeting, but it can live deep in some airport managers’ minds. Experienced planners notice this quickly if the airport has not changed in years and operates about the same from one year to the next.

Reality: It is the planner’s job to convince managers to invest in planning. The best way to do this is to ask what the airport’s most important asset is.

If the response is a physical facility, the planner can propose a planning project which focuses on airport development such as a master plan or a terminal area plan.

On the other hand, if their most important asset is “the staff or the people who work here”, then the planner can propose a strategic business plan focusing on the airport’s opportunities and constraints, organisational transition, capital budget and local economic contribution to the community. After all, nobody wants to feel like they could have done more to protect the airport’s most important asset.

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