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PASSENGER SERVICES Last modified on April 1, 2013

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Foster + Partners CEO, Mouzhan Majidi, talks about the importance of planning airports with user-friendly, integrated transport links and the potential benefits of the proposed Thames Estuary Airport in the UK.

London Stansted, completed in 1991, pioneered a model that has since been adopted by airport planners around the world. 

Its design achieved an unprecedented degree of clarity by moving the service installations usually concentrated at roof level to an undercroft beneath the concourse floor, freeing the roof to admit daylight. 

As well as containing baggage handling, this level was also able to accommodate a mainline railway station.

The original brief was for a spur off the line from nearby Bishop’s Stortford to terminate at a new British Rail station, set away from the BAA-commissioned airport. The station was brought into the terminal at a late stage in the design process, but the building’s inherent flexibility made the integration of the rail platforms straightforward. 

The complexity lay in combining the wayfinding, security and passenger systems of the two organisations. Even the operation of the luggage trolleys demanded special consideration, with airport trolleys braking on release of the handle and conventional railway trolleys working in reverse. 

The impact of the decision taken twenty years ago to integrate the airport with regular rail connections can still be seen today: almost half of all people travelling to and from Stansted use public transport, the highest proportion of any of the UK’s major airports.

Foster + Partners subsequent airport projects in Asia can be seen as an evolution of Stansted’s diagram, but at an unprecedented scale. 

When the Hong Kong government took the bold step of relocating the airport from Kai Tak on Kowloon, where space was tight and expansion severely restricted, to the island of Chek Lap Kok, they planned for all the infrastructure projects that would be needed to make this enterprise work. 

In addition to new road and rail bridge connections, new highways, new cross-harbour tunnels, a SkyPier provides ferry transfer to eight ports in the Pearl River Delta, opening up China’s most important trade route to around 170 destinations worldwide via the airport. 

Construction began in 1995 and the first flights touched down in 1998, the year after the handover to China. Today, HKIA is consistently voted by passengers as one of the world’s best airports.

By building high-speed, efficient connections, cities can reap the social and environmental benefits of locating major airports away from densely populated urban areas, while retaining the economic advantages of having an international hub. 

Physically, Hong Kong’s airport is almost 40 kilometres from downtown, but the seamless integration of surface transport has effectively moved the airport’s boundary. The 130mph Airport Express Line train carries up to 20,000 passengers per hour to the heart of Central, in a journey that takes just 23 minutes. 

A passenger can now check-in luggage at the rail station, go for a meal and take their seat in the cabin just an hour after paying their bill. In Beijing, the development of Terminal 3 was accompanied by a new ground transportation centre, with a dedicated high speed train from Dongzhimen station, making airport and city just 12 minutes apart.

The boom in aviation has made the sector highly competitive, particularly in cities with more than one airport. When passenger choice drives new development, convenience and ease of use are imperative. 

In airport design terms, the simplicity of Hong Kong and Beijing airports belies their scale and complexity; through the use of natural light, few level changes, direct visual connections between terminal and airfield, wayfinding is clear and intuitive. 

However, there is an antitype to these successful multi-modal aviation hubs. Some European airports, such as Heathrow, have expanded piecemeal without sufficient space and transport connections to meet rising capacity. 

And the failure of Montréal Mirabel as a passenger terminal, built as the main eastern gateway to Canada, can be attributed to its lack of surface access.

Consumer technology is having a significant impact on both the movement and expectations of passengers, as smartphones give direct access to real time travel information – and to the immediate, public forum of social media if things go wrong. 

As we develop the next generation of multi-modal hubs, their planning must be flexible to anticipate changing technology and patterns of use. 

The widespread adoption of contactless ticketing systems, such as London’s Oyster card, echoes that of online check-in for flights – they have speeded up the processing of passengers by enabling zoned, multi-modal tickets to be pre-purchased or airline seats to be allocated online. 

Today’s consumer is also faced with more transport options on arrival in a city, as new modes of transport, such as the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme in London grow in popularity.

The move towards greater integration has also led to the carrier taking on a more prominent role in shaping the whole experience. Foster + Partners worked with Cathay Pacific to create a unique sequence of lounges and spaces that can set them apart in a competitive luxury market. 

Similarly at Heathrow, the practice designed Virgin’s ‘Upper Class’ check-in facilities, maintain continuity in the experience of the brand from limousine drop-off to final destination. 

Alongside passenger developments, there are also opportunities to open up new logistics channels. The opening of Hong Kong airport was closely followed by the HACTL SuperTerminal 1, which can process 2.5 million tonnes of cargo a year and has the largest fully automated, combined racking system ever built. 

The second largest facility at the time was Heathrow and HACTL offered more than double the capacity, reasserting Hong Kong as a leading centre for international commerce in South East Asia. Today, it is the busiest freight airport in the world (see page 30).

In a globalised world, this connectivity is the lifeblood of an economy. Working with a team of technical advisors that included Halcrow, Foster + Partners developed the Thames Hub vision to ensure that Britain can retain the competitive advantage of having an aviation hub, while transforming both freight and passenger connections across the country. 

A proposed new four-runway hub airport on the Isle of Grain in the Thames Estuary would be able to operate 24 hours a day. The solution offers the benefits of locating an airport away from the densely populated city centre, removing the air and noise pollution that blights the lives of millions of Londoners, and its greater distance is countered by greater connectivity.

The approach to surface transport is comprehensive and holistic – the proposal goes beyond local connections to offer an integrated vision for Britain. A new orbital rail tracing the route of the M25 connects HS1 to HS2, avoiding London and providing a fast connection from the cities of the north, as well as opening up a route between Europe and the airport. 

The journey from St Pancras Station to the hub by high-speed train via a spur from Ebbsfleet would take just 20 minutes. Crossrail would also extend eastwards from London to the airport to serve suburban passengers. 

The orbital rail would serve passengers and freight, releasing the pressure of freight on London’s rail network, freeing capacity to improve commuter services and easing traffic congestion by taking more trucks off the roads. 

To maximise the benefits of the project, the principles of integration are taken further to embrace new energy, environmental and development opportunities. 

The hub includes a new Thames Barrier at the Isle of Grain, which would incorporate power generation as well as tunnels for road and rail. The barrier would provide flood protection for a vast area of East London – and new land for much-needed residential development.

Predicting future aviation capacity is never an exact science, but the failures of Mirabel and the successes of Hong Kong demonstrate the importance of planning airports with user-friendly, integrated transport links. 

Britain can lead the way with the Thames Hub. Like Stansted, it offers the potential to reinvent the way the next generation of airports are designed. And for the first time, the UK could position itself as a true hub for connecting global trade and welcoming international visitors. 

In an expanding world economy, Britain would leapfrog the competition – and we already have the skills to make it a reality.

 

The case for the Thames Hub

To secure sustainable economic growth and jobs, Britain desperately needs more hub airport capacity to connect and trade with the world’s growing economies. 

The UK’s only hub airport, Heathrow, is full and expanding European and Middle Eastern hubs are seriously eroding its competitive position. Heathrow cannot expand because of noise. 

A quarter of the people within Europe who suffer from aircraft noise live around Heathrow and the proposed third runway will only make matters worse. Any aviation solution will take seven years to achieve planning consent before construction can begin. 

A third runway would be full within a decade of opening and therefore can’t deliver the long-term level of hub capacity needed. Its construction requires reconfiguration of an airport already struggling to maintain a good service for passengers. 

A split hub, with a rail link between Heathrow and Gatwick, would not provide any additional hub capacity and would result in unacceptable transfer times for passengers, further eroding the UK’s hub airport status. 

There is spare capacity at other airports such as Birmingham, Luton and Stansted, which could be better used, but this will not deliver the hub capacity that Britain requires. 

The UK can only sustain one hub airport and Heathrow’s inability to expand means that a replacement hub is required. This has to be sited close to its largest market, London, but the crowded South East severely restricts potential locations. 

A four-runway, 150mppa capacity hub airport in the Thames Estuary offers an opportunity to address the issues of noise and delays that plague Heathrow, and to deliver the long-term hub capacity Britain needs. 

Located on the sparsely populated Isle of Grain in Kent, and connected to London via a spur onto HS1 and an extension of Crossrail, the airport could operate 24 hours a day with aircraft predominantly approaching over water. 

It could be constructed in seven years following planning consent and its €23 billion cost funded by a mix of landing charges, property taxes and receipts from the redevelopment of Heathrow, with compensation provided to Heathrow’s shareholders. 

It could be developed with a new Thames crossing and flood barrier providing major regeneration for the Thames Gateway.

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