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Our ever-growing airports

Atkins | 31 Mar 2014 | Comments

The commercial aviation industry began 100 years ago with a small Florida-based operation that took one passenger at a time across Tampa Bay. Today, people around the world are connected by the scheduled air services we rely upon to keep the wheels of commerce and community turning. But can we maintain the infrastructure and the investment that’s needed to cope with future growth in air travel?

According to the International Air Transport Association, more than three billion people and 50 million tons of cargo are flown across the globe in an average year. This quick and mostly efficient system has transformed the way we see the world, connecting communities, businesses and cultures.

But the industry’s success depends on significant and ongoing investment in infrastructure and services. Tough economic conditions, rising fuel costs and airline consolidations in some markets have restricted spending in recent years, while the demand for air transport continues to grow.

If more people are passing through airports that are already operating at capacity, what can be done to ease the pressure while keeping costs under control? And how can we future-proof our airports, when analysts predict further increases in air traffic of up to 5% annually over the next 20 years?

Existing routes

“Airport operators face significant challenges as they plan to meet future demand for air transport,” says Justin Jones, senior vice president and aviation business sector manager with Atkins in North America. “Finding available land to facilitate expansion is just one of them.”

For example, Jones highlights Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida, where $800m is being spent on a project to extend the boundaries of the airport and create a new runway and associated taxiways. These changes are aimed at accommodating the future growth of passenger numbers as well as the arrival of larger jets.

“In this case, we’ve had to find innovative solutions to help the airport avoid capacity problems,” says Jones. “Otherwise it would miss out on the benefits that the expected growth of the industry will bring.”

The new 8,000-foot runway in Florida will be constructed on an elevated bridge and tunnel structure that extends over a fully operational railroad as well as US Highway 1. This is only the second time that a runway in the country has been elevated to take active road and rail lines into account.

Thankfully, it’s the second time for Atkins: the North American team was also involved in the construction of a 9,000 foot runway at the world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which crosses ten lanes of an interstate highway. At the time it was built, it was described as the most important runway construction project in America.

New builds

Investment is also being focused in New Orleans where a new terminal is being constructed to replace the current 50-year-old building. In this case, the driving force is not extra capacity, it’s lower operating costs. The building will make the most of modern construction materials, have high efficiency operating systems and consolidate the security checkpoints so the process is more streamlined.

“By making airports more efficient to operate, costs for the airlines can be reduced,” Jones says. “That makes business sense.”

Similarly, in China, where 69 regional airports are due to be constructed by 2015, adding to the existing 193, Atkins and China Southwest Architectural Design and Research Institute recently won a contract for the conceptual planning and terminal design of the new Qingdao airport. Qingdao, in the Shandong Province of China, is an important economic centre and seaport, and gateway to Northeast Asia. Cost effectiveness and efficiency are at the heart of the airport designs.

“We can’t build airports like we did in the past,” says Philip Chiang, who is a director at Atkins in Asia Pacific. “We need to think about ways of getting the most out of the infrastructure and ask how we can make the airport function more efficiently.”

He gives the example of drawing on Atkins’ expertise in North America to model different runway scenarios in the hope of reducing queues and delays to aircraft, and looking carefully at the shape of the terminal to find ways to improve the passenger experience. But Chiang is also keen to stress that the impact of airport development extends well beyond its boundaries.

Connecting communities

“An airport is just one small piece of a puzzle,” Chiang says. “Building a new transport hub or increasing the capacity of an existing one has an affect on the people and services surrounding it. Greater connectivity can boost local tourism, generate new industries and contribute to economic development. But if we get it wrong and develop air services in isolation, it can increase traffic congestion, noise pollution and the impact on the environment. Operators need to consider the wider implications and give surrounding communities the best chance to benefit from the new development.”

The Malaysian government’s investment in Subang Skypark is a case in point. What was once the country’s main airport is being converted into “Asia Aerospace City”, with cutting-edge research and development facilities, office suites, academic campuses, a convention centre and residential areas.

In so doing, MARA, the government agency responsible for education and entrepreneurship, is hoping to attract business from aerospace engineering services around the world.

Atkins is acting as lead consultant and masterplanner on the project, and has to take into account everything from the nearby populations to volatile weather patterns and the facility’s economic viability, in order to create a truly sustainable model that goes far beyond a typical airport.

Soft landing

While some parts of the world strive to meet future demand through expansion and evolution of airport facilities, the debate surrounding the expansion of London’s Heathrow Airport highlights the difficulties involved in striking the right balance, especially where space is at a premium.

More than 70 million people arrived at, or departed from, Heathrow Airport in 2013, making it the busiest year on record. Heathrow operates just below capacity and, for many years, there have been calls to expand the airport to better manage the current and expected traffic. As yet, no decision has been made.

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, believes that London’s position as a world city is being threatened by what he describes as the “aviation crisis”. The solution, he says, is not in expanding Heathrow, but in building a multi-runway hub airport in the south east of England.

The Mayor appointed Atkins to play a leading role in assessing the options for a new hub. This included a review of the key components for a successful airport, from its design and layout to noise implications and wider environmental issues, as well as proposing sustainable ways to deliver significantly more passengers and employees to and from the proposed new locations.

“This project is not just about the creation of a new hub airport, it’s about forming the foundations for London’s future development and reaffirming its position as a key international centre,” says Mike Pearson, airports director with Atkins in the UK.

“International air connectivity is critical to underpinning the UK economy, as well as driving wider regeneration.”

A number of other proposals for increasing airport capacity and connectivity in the UK have been suggested and an interim report from the country’s Airports Commission published late in 2013 assessed these options.

Those added to an initial shortlist ranged from adding a third runway at Heathrow or a second at Gatwick, to lengthening an existing runway at Heathrow to increase capacity. The Mayor’s preferred option will be assessed later this year.

As a consequence, any upgrades must be innovative in their approach, addressing capacity and cost concerns without the option of a major expansion.

For example, Atkins will be designing Heathrow’s programme of asset replacement, part of a £1.5bn effort to upgrade the airport over the next five years. This represents a strategic shift away from major civil engineering projects.

“In the UK, there’s been a significant cut in the amount of money that airports are able to charge airlines, money that would be put towards building new facilities,” says Pearson. “The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority, through a complicated mechanism of pricing, has required Heathrow to significantly reduce their operational and capital expenditures.

“Asset management happens to be the largest piece of the expenditure puzzle for Heathrow. Asset management and asset replacement require a different kind of thinking about how the business is funded and where savings can be made.

“Heathrow Airport Limited is an airport operator, but it’s also an asset operator. And to operate the asset effectively and more efficiently, and therefore to be seen to be doing the right thing by the regulator and the airline community, they have to start thinking about this much more heavily, much more carefully,” he says.

Pearson points out that this can be something as mundane as assessing the number of light bulbs that are switched on across an airport’s facilities.

“You’re talking about millions of pounds being spent on utilities, energy management and energy conservation issues,” he explains. “Asset management can be as simple as reviewing how you employ technology, how you could change those technologies and bring in new and different types of equipment that lasts longer and lowers energy consumption. These choices can have significant impact on savings and efficiency, which will help them future-proof their facilities.”

While different regions and even each airport may have to overcome different obstacles to ensure they remain vital links in the future, business leaders and airport operators continue to warn of the effects of inaction if they are not up to the task.

As Heathrow CEO Colin Matthews said in a statement earlier in 2014: “The continued growth in traffic to emerging markets reflects the need to capitalise on regular, direct links to fast growing economies which bring trade and growth to the UK. We would like to welcome more new routes… but a lack of hub airport capacity means we are less well connected than we could be.”

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