The impact of COVID-19 continues to test response and recovery capabilities across sectors and societies. How can airports leverage this experience as they move forward?
Tim Morrison: The last year has clearly demonstrated the importance of being agile or nimble, words not typically associated with airport infrastructure.
This agility is a function of mindset and behaviour and of the physical infrastructure. Experience over the past year has promoted a rethink regarding our surroundings and how to carry out business in an environment that will require business and industry to rapidly respond to more unexpected events; future occurrences will likely necessitate expediting or modifying plans to accommodate new needs.
Certainly, 2020 presented new considerations, such as how to integrate testing centres, quarantine hotels, alternative queuing; and how to use robots to maintain hygiene standards safeguarding staff and the public; it has also underlined the need for airports around the world to operate as highly diverse businesses in order to cope with the drop-off of traditional aeronautical revenues. Alternative non-aeronautical revenue opportunities include conference facilities, hotels, public arenas, sports facilities, pick-up points for internet retailers, leisure facilities, food and beverage destinations, quick-change stands or pop ups, and even pet kennels.
The agile mindset will help airports to embrace diversification of the traditional airport landscape. Contemporary airport designs have been exploring potential uses of airport spaces within and around these sizable built assets to make airports a destination and help them integrate further into their adjacent communities. This process started some years before the pandemic and will likely accelerate now—the pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of non-aeronautical revenue generation, which has typically been associated with the flying passenger.
You mentioned that agility is not typically associated with airport infrastructure. Can you explore agility in relation to new assets and existing assets?
Tim Morrison: Airports represent a massive investment in fixed assets. These assets—terminals, runways, taxiways, carparks, rail stations, offices—are all built with a purpose and a lifespan. To be competitive, airports will increasingly need to repurpose these assets—to reinvent the uses of the assets and/or ensure they can expand or contract over time to support travel demand2 and changing passenger preferences. The art of agility is to ensure the output solution to the original brief is not so rigid that the use is singular and therefore prevents any other use in the future, thus requiring a demolition to start again. This adaptability does not need to be accompanied by an increase in capital costs. In fact, the valuation of the built assets when they have this inherent adaptability will be greater as they will not have the traditional shelf life.
This ‘loose fit’ response to the brief does require a way of thinking that supports flexibility from the planning stage of infrastructure projects through the lifecycle of the asset. Using a digital toolkit, we are now more than ever able to create scenarios for well-considered decision-making. Indeed, the “what if” permutations are aplenty. The application of the digital tools by innovative thinkers also allows assessment of the asset’s investment value in terms of the embodied carbon, not just the operational carbon. This whole-life carbon approach to development analysis will come to the fore as aviation endeavours to meet its “license to grow” challenge. Whole-life carbon assessment is the rapidly emerging environmental measure associated with the built environment. This approach broadens consideration of carbon emissions, moving away from the focus on operational carbon in decision-making to tackle embodied carbon. Unlike operational carbon, which can be improved during the lifetime of a building, embodied carbon is all the emissions associated with the materials used—arising from extraction, manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance, and disposal.
The whole-life carbon analytical approach to the use of existing assets based on criteria such as embodied carbon will be driven by use of alternative materials in designs and digital tools that support such innovative applications.