According to ACI-NA, North American airports served 1.96 billion passengers (+5%) in 2018, and while demand has steadily increased, much of our infrastructure has aged and struggles to accommodate current demand.
The FAA continues to predict strong growth over the next decade and many airports will not be able to serve the additional demand without increasing capacity.
Traditionally, discussions about increasing capacity have revolved around building new runways, taxiways, and terminals. As you can read on page 18, ACI-NA estimates that airports across the United States need $128 billion for infrastructure needs over the next five years to accommodate the increasing demand.
Even though building new infrastructure delivers an increase in capacity, it is often expensive and is constrained by extended timeframes. Increasing construction costs coupled with stagnant PFC charges and strong competition for AIP funds have resulted in significant challenges in securing project financing.
Moreover, the planning, design, and approvals process has resulted in major infrastructure projects often needing a lead time of 7-15 years.
In this challenging environment, operational improvements and/or technology can help facilitate that extra bit of capacity out of existing infrastructure assets.
An example of an operational improvement is the ability of closely spaced parallel runways to have simultaneous dependent arrivals by altitudinally separating the approaches to the two runways. The success of this technique has prompted regulators to explore if altitudinally separated approaches could be used on single runways to improve capacity.
Similarly, the use of Equivalent Lateral Spacing Operation can provide additional departure headings, which reduces departure separation requirements between successive aircraft and increases runway capacity.
These operational changes unlock latent capacity by allowing the airport to accommodate more operations with the same runway infrastructure and are enabled by new technology that allows controllers to separate aircraft more reliably in the airspace.
Closer to the ground, traditional aircraft pushback manoeuvres require the aircraft to pushback 90 degrees onto adjacent taxilanes, which is slow and could block aircraft on adjacent gates from pushing back. When apron depth is available, new procedures allow aircraft to push back at a 45-degree angle and beyond the rear taxilane, which saves time and enables simultaneous pushbacks on neighbouring gates.
This modification reduces delays and makes gates available earlier for arriving aircraft, thus increasing gate utilisation and efficiency.
The use of technology within terminal environments has increased efficiency and improved the passenger experience. For example, augmenting traditional counters in check-in and immigration areas with check-in kiosks enables the airport to serve many more passengers within the same building, because kiosks occupy lesser floor space and reduces processing time for passengers.
Similarly, common-use self-service (CUSS) facilities have significantly decreased counter and kiosk requirements, enabling airports to accommodate additional flights and airlines within the same footprint. CUSS improves asset utilisation by enabling the sharing of resources between airlines and taking advantage of natural ebbs and flows of the schedules of various airlines.
Airports have adopted two operational measures to improve terminal capacity. The call-to-gate, where passengers wait in a central concessions area until shortly before their flight boards, and the second being the shared holdrooms, where multiple gates share a common large holdroom rather than have individual holdrooms.
Both maximise the utilisation of available holdroom areas; therefore, this adoption allows airports to accommodate more flights within the same terminal.
The TSA innovation security lanes are a combination of technology and process improvement, which provides up to five divestment points and automated tray returns. This improvement reduces the queue behind passengers who need extra time or assistance.
Processing passengers faster has reduced queues and enabled airports to accommodate more passengers, thus unlocking latent capacity.
By implementing a combination of operational changes and technology, airports can maximise their existing asset capacity and accommodate passenger growth while planning for the future.
These improvements only provide limited additional capacity and are not intended to replace long-term infrastructural capacity, but it provides temporary relief while we plan, finance, and build the projects we need in order to modernise our airports.