The US is home to nearly half of the world’s 30 busiest airports and an aviation market that handled some 756 million passengers on domestic flights in 2014.
It is, of course, one of the world’s most mature aviation markets, yet its airports continue to break records for both the volume of flights and passenger traffic.
Chicago O’Hare International Airport, for example, recently claimed the title of the world’s busiest airport for air traffic movements based on handling nearly 900,000 flights during 2014.
While Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport remains the busiest airport on the planet in terms of annual passenger traffic, accommodating just over 96 million passengers last year.
Looking ahead, the FAA anticipates that by 2035 more than one billion passengers will board a plane at a US airport each year.
And growth is just as robust, if not more so, elsewhere in the world. In 2014, for instance, Dubai International Airport overtook London’s Heathrow Airport as the busiest for international travel, when it handled a record 70.4 million international passengers.
This year looks just as good with IATA predicting that around 3.5 billion passengers will fly globally this year.
But is our global aviation infrastructure up to the challenge of accommodating these rising numbers? Airports are facing the need for renovation and expansion as passenger traffic increases, and so far construction has not kept pace.
Communication during the design and build process is vital to each and every renovation project. One communication tool that aviation builders use extensively is modelling project phasing virtually, prior to construction, in order to demonstrate an approach that minimises the impact of construction on the passenger experience.
Our team utilised this approach at Philadelphia International Airport in August of 2014, where six months of planning and virtual modelling of the project paid off as we completed a complex bridge erection project overnight.
With intense co-ordination with all stakeholders, we erected the 91,000lbs, 100-foot-long pre-assembled baggage-conveyor bridge over the main airport departure road in less than eight hours.
In this case it made sense to use prefabrication, effectively minimising impacts to the departure roadway.
Funding these types of renovation projects is one of the biggest hurdles to updating the US’s airport infrastructure. While the controversial idea of raising the cap on the passenger facility charge (PFC) is one way to help fund new construction and upgrades, airlines are strongly opposed to an increase.
Indeed, they strongly prefer utilising revenue sources that they can have more direct control over, such as concessions upgrades, which besides raising revenue can also add to the passenger appeal of their hubs.
What is not in dispute is the fact that US airports generally have
to work within tight budgets when it comes to upgrading infrastructure, which experts predict will require $14 billion worth of investment per annum between now and 2017.
Below are some key trends in airport design and construction that we see emerging in the US as airports build for the future.
Starting with the tarmac, airports can maximise efficiencies by building for larger aircraft that hold more passengers. For instance, the B737-900ER is a fuel-efficient option with a 25% bigger wing area, a 16-foot longer wingspan and 25% more seats than the B737-400.
And what about the impact of those increased passengers? With more seats available per flight comes the need to accommodate more travellers. Airports are upgauging in response, building for bigger planes and incorporating bigger waiting areas by design.
Furthermore, airports are anticipating the needs of more travellers by upgrading and adding more and larger amenities, from restaurants to restrooms.
At Los Angeles World Airport (LAX), Skanska USA is creating space to allow for a new terminal that will accommodate larger, longer-range aircraft such as the B737-800.
This process includes in-depth site investigation to identify and then relocate various airfield utilities while finding any system conflicts with the future terminal site.
Replacing an inefficient ground loading area through accelerated work will prepare LAX for a new midfield concourse that will be a more efficient facility for larger-gauged aircraft of the future.
Aside from maximising facility efficiencies on and off the tarmac, contractors should also carefully communicate and co-ordinate with all stakeholders during the renovation process to facilitate a more efficient project.
Airports are also seeking more flexible spaces – both for the sake of efficiency and the customer experience while travelling.
Reconfiguring security checkpoints to be centralised is one way airports are adapting through design. We recently worked to consolidate existing security checkpoints within Terminal C at Boston–Logan International Airport (BOS).
Passengers previously had to leave the secure area and be re-screened in order to walk to a gate at a different pier. By consolidating TSA checkpoints, we created a corridor behind the ticket counters that allows a passenger to walk between aircraft boarding piers without the hassle of rescreening.
An emphasis on flexibility in airport construction goes hand in hand with making operations more efficient, as owners and operators can save on costs while passengers benefit from reduced wait times as a result of these changes.
For example, airports have increasingly moved toward common-use gates, which have traditionally been subjected to strong air carrier opposition. During renovations or as new terminals are built, airports can choose to cluster activity around certain gates – accommodating more airlines through temporary reconfigurations and saving on cost.
Better passenger experience
Many airport renovations are fuelled by an interest in upgrading the customer experience, with a corresponding benefit in the increased revenues that can come from those improvements.
In our work at Tampa International Airport (TPA), we’ve seen this emphasised through the redevelopment of the airport’s concessions as well as improvements to wayfinding signage and seating.
At TPA (pictured above) we are leading the main terminal and airport concession redevelopment programme, bringing 200,000-square-feet of renovations to the main terminal and airside buildings. We can compare the work being done at airports like Tampa to the mall experience, where amenities such as the family restroom have become common in recent years.
The modern airport terminal will focus on creating a passenger experience that is attractive to customers, in which they feel comfortable and enjoy spending time and money on state-of-the-art concessions.
Addressing an airport’s complexities head-on is important in each renovation or expansion programme. Since aviation construction often takes place in the heart of an airport and can be highly invasive, construction firms need to co-ordinate with airport authorities, air carriers, concessionaires, the TSA and FAA and passengers in order to minimise any impacts during the renovation and expansion process.
Getting stakeholders involved, beginning with design review, is an important consideration.
Behind the scenes of costly airport renovations and expansions, contractors are emphasising efficiency and flexibility while making improvements to the passenger experience in order to meet the needs of airports and airline carriers while exceeding the expectations of travellers.
From the smallest regional facilities to international hubs, airports are making changes to benefit passengers and improve the customer experience.
Upgauging, focus on operational efficiency through flexible design, and passengers’ interest in new retail and restaurant options will continue to drive changes in the way we design and build airports and are ushering in an exciting era of aviation construction.