Why Airports are Taking Off

Our world is changing fast and air travel is one of the sectors where it is the most visible.

We fly like never before and there is no slowdown in sight. In 2016, over 3.5 billion people boarded an airplane; that’s 2 billion more than at the turn of the century.

This growth has far-reaching implications. Airports must increase their capacity to meet today’s requirements and adapt to meet today’s customer expectations. Think of LaGuardia, one of the three major airports in New York. It was rated as the worst major airport in America because of frequent congestion, overcrowding and delays. 

With reason. “Terminal B was built in 1964, and at the time it was designed for 8 million people per year… Today, more than 13 million people use it. It’s just overcrowded,” says Maxine Hill, Senior Project Manager - Alternative Delivery Vice President at WSP.

That’s why authorities have decided to tackle the problem and agreed to a $4 billion project, in one of the most important public-private partnerships in the US. Together with partners, WSP is building a 1.3 million square foot, 35-gate terminal and its associated infrastructure, while keeping the airport fully operational. 

Airplanes Are Getting Bigger
Tina Millan, Senior Vice President and US Director of Aviation gives another example of the challenges facing airport owners and operators. “Today’s aircrafts are much bigger than they were 20 years ago. The Airbus A380 or the Boeing 747-8i have 500 seats, and when they land, you need to be ready with enough capacity for luggage handling, security screening, waiting rooms and other amenities.”

It’s all about the experience. Passengers must easily find their whereabouts and walk as little as possible. They should quickly recover their belongings and they want to have a good time at the airport.

Still, the real challenge is trying to achieve this while maintaining activities. Operating an airport is already a huge task, with airplanes taking off and landing at any time, with stricter security measures, and so on. Imagine having to reorganize all the logistics to accommodate construction.

“At LaGuardia, one of the key reasons for our success is the excellent relationship we have with our partners. This is so important because any change can affect so many people,” adds Maxine Hill. 

Airport Asset Management

Because working on a greenfield site is an exception, knowing the ins and outs of airport design is a must. “We took the suggested design at LaGuardia and did our best to make it more flexible. It was a good design, but we thought we could make it better by working with our partners,” explains Maxine Hill. 

The result is impressive. Our experts came up with innovative solutions and designed one security area and one main retail area, rather than two as initially proposed. “We entirely changed the terminal. The result is a more compact, but taller building,” says Maxine Hill. 

But more importantly, her team used computer modelling and other tools to reduce the number of construction phases, and limit the negative impact of construction on airport operations.

This holistic approach is very important, as Tina Millan points out: “There are so many elements to look at, from sustainability to innovation and workflow management.” Today’s airport improvement projects need to take into account energy use, commercial mix, accessibility, etc., and how they all interconnect now and in the future. That is why Tina Millan believes that integrating ISO 5500 and asset management best practices helps in decision-making. “Most airports operate as private enterprises. At the end of the day, operators and owners must be able to make sound decisions. We help them in the process,” she explains.

The Future of Airports

Where do we go from here? What kind of developments should we expect in the near future at airports around the world?

Accessibility is a concern since it has a direct impact on the user’s overall experience and because it directly affects the built environment.  “At the present time, you can only get to LaGuardia by road , and that results in frequent congestion,” says Maxine Hill. The state is looking at ways to alleviate the problem, for example with a proposed AirTrain.

But that’s not all. The rise of Uber and the arrival of driverless cars also have an impact on how we use space. Imagine yourself as an airport owner. Will you invest money in a 3000-car parking lot, or will you invest in ensuring seamless traffic, with enough pick-up and drop-off zones.

Airports and passengers will also benefit from better technology integration. “It’s all about the experience, and the best tool to use is something that is already here: the personal device,” says Tina Millan. Smartphones could indeed help improve airport logistics, the same way they do in city centers, but with more integration for security reasons.