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Overcoming cables


Santiago Beron reminds airports about the importance of identifying all existing cables before commencing expansion projects based on TLC Engineering Solution’s experience at two Florida gateways.

As the pandemic has shown, any disruption to air travel has real world impacts, from airport operations to business expenses as well as personal budgets for families on vacation.

It also doesn’t take a massive disruption to make a significant impact. Something as simple as cutting a fibre optic cable, for example, can bring operations to a halt as it can impact security, communications, baggage handling and check-in operations.

Improvements to aging physical infrastructure represent some of the greatest opportunities for disruptions. Moving services, gates, and terminals that can date back 40 years and include a sea of electrical, copper, and fibre optic cables powering all operations, becomes a complicated process because of the unknowns hidden underneath the surface of those cables.

While not at the forefront of most airport infrastructure improvements, cable identification at the start of a construction project is vital to projects in a continuously operating facility like airports.

Diligently planning and researching the services supported by the highways of cables running through facilities gives teams a road map to how and where cables can be moved safely during projects. As case studies show, such work can avoid disruptions and help airport managers perform infrastructure repairs quickly and effectively.

Transfer level expansion project

As with all airports, the literal layers of operations mean that improvements to one portion of operations can require a significant shift in a different part of operations.

For an infrastructure expansion in the transfer level of the main terminal at a Florida airport, the improvement project was located directly below where passengers catch a shuttle to other parts of the airport.

Vital for moving passengers efficiently through the airport, to maintain the service, all four shuttle lobbies had to be relocated.

The area had an axle configuration, creating a tight space that was small and crowded. To expand, the team had to push out the shuttle and enlarge the area that went through to the air shafts. Beneath the four shuttle lobbies there was an array of infrastructure equipment for basic power, baggage handling systems, telecommunications and even the shuttle systems themselves.

All the communication cables for the airside of the building went through those cables. Any change was going to have a major impact.

In order to move the shuttle stations and expand the floor plate, the team had to move equipment and identify what aspect of operations each cable supported. To do this, they tagged the cables with numbers and then recorded as much information as possible to identify the cables: size, colour, markings. The team created a spreadsheet to track all the cables identified and services supported.

Especially in older facilities, it can be difficult to find original blueprints documenting this kind of information. Additionally, cable infrastructure is added at various times as technology advances, so not a single consolidated set of as-builts is available to the design team. This project was typical of many airport facilities.

Finding the source of all the cables in a project like this can be daunting. The first 50% may be fairly obvious but then there are always stragglers that can’t be found easily and about which there is no information available. There is not one consolidated source for the information – some of the cables were installed two years ago, others were installed 30 years ago.

Finding the answers involves a mix of educated guesswork and testing. In many cases, the best way to find this information is to ask people who work in the facility and are familiar with that equipment serviced by the cables in conflict.

For the more difficult cases where cables are not shown on blueprints and airport employees aren’t familiar with them, the first step is to understand who is using the cable – an airline, aviation authority, the TSA, or a telecom service provider, such as Verizon or AT&T.

Finding the source of the cable may lead to someone who knows where it terminates. With the identifying information collected and recorded earlier in the project, team members can go into all the telecom rooms on the airside of the terminal and find out the location and use of the cables there by matching up those previously identified.

For this project, the team tracked down and categorised 150 cables. It is time-consuming research, but an imperative step before hiring electricians and other subcontractors for the project. While those professionals can help sort out cable locations, it proves more costly and prevents them from completing the expert work they were hired to perform.

The information gathered by this early research and documentation provides a detailed scope of work that can help airport project managers solicit accurate quotes from subcontractors.

Benefits of this approach? In addition to efficient documentation because of the team’s singular focus, the largest benefit for project managers following this method is the removal of uncertainty, particularly with predictability of cost and budgeting for the project since the documentation provides a detailed plan for contractors to follow.

If all the information is available upfront, contractors can move on to the next thing if they hit a snag, mitigating unexpected downtime for owners to contend with.

Another benefit is that the data used for the initial project, once collected and catalogued, can become a library of useful information about the facility for future infrastructure projects.

Runway and concourse expansion project

While different in form, a runway expansion project at a different Florida airport faced some similar issues that required creative problem solving.

A nearly 50-year-old T-shaped terminal interfered with the planned runaway expansion. Demolition and rebuilding the terminal to accommodate the expanded runway was made challenging by the communications cables that had to be moved to the main communication room, which were running through this soon-to-be demolished terminal.

The team used the same process of tagging and categorising cables that had been successful in other projects. Slightly more efficient because all the cables were coming up from the ground, the team determined where each cable was going and communications that they accommodated.

Research showed that many of the cables belonged to AT&T, so the team worked with their engineers to re-route the cable since the service provider is the only one allowed to move their cables.

As with any large projects, co-ordination can be challenging when not regularly on-site. It can be somewhat difficult to find answers to questions, and the logistics of gathering information and then analysing that information in an off-site location puts a premium on planning and executing the work appropriately and efficiently.

For this project, like others, information gathering was the first step, and typically teams will take a first, second, and third pass through this step to thoroughly gather the data and analyse it before the actual work begins.

Analysing the data inevitably generates more questions, and with each pass and the mounting questions, logistical planning and co-ordination become vital to properly manage the scope and scale of the project.

For a small, off-site team, having a detailed planned throughout the project becomes vital to managing the schedule efficiently and effectively. A point person on the airport side also helps facilitate the information gathering process as that person can find or identify others who can be a resource for answers.

Each airport infrastructure project has its own set of challenges and creative solutions to those challenges, but the managers on those projects typically have a common goal – to effectively manage the cost and schedule and avoid delays and overruns.

Most times, those delays come not from the big items but from the small details that are often unseen until they become an issue.

Cable documentation at the start of an infrastructure project helps mitigate such issues by eliminating the unpredictable associated with moving copper and fibre optics supporting the services vital to continuous operations.

The details documented by the team provides the accurate information project managers need to scope and budget appropriately. The more research that airport managers and their teams can do in the beginning of a project, the better informed they will be when it is time to hire contractors and make inquiries about the existing utilities.

Gathering good information is dependent on people asking the right questions who also have the experience to know what questions to ask and from whom. Airport communication infrastructure is not static, and the continuous improvements implemented in facilities that can be decades old means that there are many variables which can disrupt any part of an airport’s operations.

An experienced team not only identifies those variables, but they provide project managers with the knowledge they need to execute physical infrastructure improvements without disrupting operations more than necessary – keeping business and leisure travellers safe and happy.

About the author

Santiago Beron is a senior project manager with TLC Engineering Solutions. He can be reached via santiago.beron@tlc-eng.com

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