Most passengers travelling through US airports today are passing through facilities that were originally built in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
While many of the terminal facilities have had facelifts along the way, peeling away the stainless steel, paint, tile, and carpeting will reveal an underlying infrastructure that is older than most of the passengers that use it, and was not designed to accommodate and support the realities of today’s aviation environment.
While there are some major modifications currently underway at several large-hub US airports, there are many others waiting for their turn for infrastructure upgrades to keep pace with existing and future capacity requirements.
We have heard the verbal battle many times over that US airports are in dire need of upgrades and are falling significantly behind their international competitors from one side, and from the other, that the rhetoric doesn’t match the reality. How do we know what is true?
One thing is certain, trying to match our international competitors – airports like Singapore Changi, Incheon, Munich, Tokyo-Haneda and Hong Kong – is a lot like trying to call a pig a unicorn. You can wish for it, but it’s probably not going to happen.
Our airports are where they are, and have been where they are for the past 45 to 65 years. During this time, most airports now find themselves landlocked out of significant new, greenfield developmental space.
Secondly, the US aviation market is different in many ways – including dwell time – from the often cited overseas markets, and third, the appetite to fund projects such as this, doesn’t currently exist.
For many, the conversation has shifted from competing ‘tit-for-tat’ with our international brethren, who leap-frogged us by developing their aviation network/facilities well after ours and have learned from us on what to do better, to finding better ways to use our existing facilities.
Or, as I like to call it, ‘how do we move the cheese’, as illustrated in Dr Spencer Johnson’s book Who Moved My Cheese?
In a special report by the ACC, Development at US Airports: A Summary Look at Future Trends and Opportunities, the authors state: “Airports cannot build their way out of congestion but must find ways to use existing infrastructure more efficiently.”
Assuming this to be true, and that the way to success is through a much greater adoption and implementation of technology, not only do US airports need significant investment in technology, but also a significant investment in the rebuilding of the underlying infrastructure to support the technology and the anticipated doubling of passengers by 2030. Oh, and remember this, most of our airports were never designed for the baggage, security and passenger loads they are managing today.
Remember the story about our nation’s bridges failing due to infrastructure neglect and the increased loads that they were never designed for? Same story here, just without cars falling into a ravine or a highway below.
So, what are we talking about? ACI-NA, in their Airport Infrastructure Needs 2017-2021 publication, state that the estimated cost of US airports’ infrastructure needs for this period, adjusted for inflation, is nearly $100 billion.
Over the five years of this projection, that is around $20 billion a year, which is significantly more than current available funding through traditional aviation funding mechanisms.
Statistics in the ACI-NA publication show that 54% of this funding need is for terminal projects, while another 25% is for landside projects. Quick arithmetic will inform us that 21% of the remaining funding need is for airside projects, the projects that typically benefit the most from State of Good Repair (SOGR) projects generally funded, in part, through grants from the AIP program.
Is it ironic that most of the needed funding comes from capacity issues that are influenced, in part, by a robust economy and the continued increase in demand for air travel? Probably not if we look at the changes being driven, to our terminals, by a global economy and risk mitigation.
While traditional ticketing and check-in facilities are quickly going the way of the dinosaurs, the space they once required is being gobbled up by baggage and security screening.
Inline baggage systems and their associated screening components continue to require significant unobstructed real estate in our airports. For most airports, this is real estate that is difficult to configure, and therefore, significantly more expensive due to the adaptive reuse of space that is less than optimal for its intended use.
Similarly, the continued and expanded space requirements and enhanced structural support systems to support new explosive detection systems for passengers and carry-on baggage at our passenger security screening checkpoints remain a stress-point for our older facilities designed without this requirement.
Transportation Network Companies (TNCs), which seemingly arrived out of nowhere, now create stress points on our landside kerb fronts where accommodating traditional commercial vehicles, as well as passenger vehicles, challenge our ability to keep pace with the often changing volume on our roadways and kerbs.
This, accompanied by the anticipated development of autonomous and self-driving vehicles, creates a guessing game as to the real impact, over time, on landside needs, arrival curves, and the development of ‘one-seat’ rides that air carriers may offer by teaming with TNCs to provide a more complete and managed passenger expectation/experience from start to finish during travel.
And back to technology for a minute. How do we know where this is going to take us? As I now believe we hold in our hands the technology to create a personalised experience for every passenger with a smart device. Will our airports become a holodeck – a Holographic Environment Simulator – that is managed through Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) through a handheld device that we carry?
One thing is for certain, everything we do in an airport now requires data and it is a truth that our applications will hunger for more and more bandwidth as we continue to create the perfect passenger experience.
Perhaps data or a data driven airport facility (terminal and concourse) will be our leapfrog event to the next world stage of the passenger experience and the key to tomorrow’s ACI’s Airport Service Quality (ASQ) and SKYTRAX awards.
In order to get there, we will have to have a data pipe that can accommodate not only today, but also our best guess for tomorrow. Not only will we need to reinforce and rebuild our physical infrastructure to accommodate the loads that are coming – and they are coming – but also build the infrastructure necessary for truly smart terminals that will begin to rely more on data to solve our capacity problems than the physical relocation of building elements.
So, where do we go from here? Airports and their related trade associations have been calling, for years, for more investment in aviation infrastructure. Investment, not in the form of unified taxes spread out to the general population, but rather user fees supported by those that use the services offered by airports.
This user fee will give many airports the locally controlled self-help they need to move forward with infrastructure investment.
This modernises existing airport funding methods by removing some of the restrictions on projects that can be funded from one method or another, and relieving costly land-use regulatory burdens on airports can also help airports with the pent-up demand of infrastructure investment.
There are also things we can do today, if we have the courage, to instantly create a much more robust environment.
An environment than can, and will deliver, the passenger experience we all talk about; the profits that the air carriers desire; and the world class experience that is expected from US airports and carriers alike, while staying current with the capacity requirements of a mature but still growing aviation industry.
However, it will not happen if we all sit on our hands and do nothing more than nod in agreement. The game has changed. Just because something is measured no longer means it gets done.
We, all of us, must make it important because as Ray LaHood said in 2014 – “Politicians in Washington don’t have the political courage to say, this is what we have to do.”
Airports are political pawns in the US, we either play the game or get played.