With a dramatic downturn in passenger traffic in early-to-mid 2020, the industry has observed a steady return of activity close to pre-pandemic figures.
An easing of Covid restrictions has brought long lines and hours-long waits to airports around the globe as passengers jump on the opportunity to travel again after two years of being grounded. Between this growing demand for airline travel, along with the pressure for airports to strive for net zero carbon emissions, there are many things to consider addressing these changes without sacrificing profitability.
While the last few years of travel have hardly been normal, it may be something of an indication of what is to come. Worldwide, airport passenger traffic is set to double to 8.2 billion by 2037 from 3.979 billion in 2017, with the Asian market showing the greatest gains.
To meet the staggering demand, airports around the world are wisely updating at a rapid pace. Los Angeles’ LAX is on a massive $6 billion upgrade schedule, not just in advance of the 2028 Olympic Games but because the city has become a tourist destination of its own in the past few years. New York’s LaGuardia Airport continues apace with its long overdue $8 billion re-do, while JFK’s planned $9.5 billion upgrade includes a much-needed new international terminal.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) is also addressing these needs and supporting airport improvements with a $5 billion Airport Terminal Program, one of three aviation-specific programs created by the IIJA. With a strong return in passenger count and a renewed focus on sustainability, automation, futureproofing, and passenger experience, interest continues in aviation-related construction.
Sustainability and the Passenger Experience
The aviation sector as a whole is pushing for net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and airports are already reflecting the changes. In 2010, Logan Airport in Boston was the first to be fully LEED certified by the U.S. Green Building Council and most other airports are falling into line as sustainability gains steam in airport design and operations. Some of the measures Logan took included recycling construction and demolition waste, adding a reflective roof membrane and installing light shedding systems within the terminal. LaGuardia, Chattanooga and Istanbul are three other airports that also have LEED certified components, and overall, certification is becoming the standard as the industry’s position on sustainability and environmental impact evolves.
Sustainable building practices help manage public perception as well as helping achieve that net zero status. Many of the green building practices help address the noise and air pollution related to the 24-hour-a-day operations. The materials and technology used also help efficiently address the large volumes of air-conditioned space and the overall energy usage too.
For example, temperature control is a key issue, and for many airports, the goal is to reduce air conditioning use by preventing a terminal from heating up in the first place. A reflective roof membrane like the one at Logan can help keep a terminal cool, and photovoltaic panels are also a highly recommended addition to the design. They cost half what they used to, and can provide cheap electricity to augment what comes from a municipal power grid, keeping operating costs down.
Triple-glazed windows that darken with the rays of the sun – like photochromic sunglasses — can also make a huge difference. They help keep interior temperatures lower by blocking hot sun but not blocking desirable natural light or expansive views of nature like Mt. Ranier at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. There will also be green roofs and interior gardens for anyone wanting to forest bathe while waiting for takeoff, and Seattle’s Sea-Tac also has a rainwater harvesting system that will save an estimated two million gallons of water annually.
Trees are not just making an impact in green spaces, but also as a building material as more airport architects are specifying timber framing. Portland International Airport has an extraordinary timber ceiling that mimics the forests in the Pacific Northwest, complete with natural light filtering through the protective canopy to the area below. At Sea-Tac, a vast coffered ceiling and central pillar constructed of Douglas Fir timbers frame a concourse with amphitheater seating, amenities inspired by Seattle’s famous markets, and views that take advantage of natural light and the natural beauty of the surroundings.
Timber framing has environmental advantages and contributes to creating healthy interiors, especially in the wake of the Covid pandemic. It’s obviously a renewable resource, but wood also has carbon capture benefits, low thermal conductivity and fewer toxic emissions. Another advantage of timber is that it doesn’t represent any great labor cost increases as contractors typically know how to work with timber framing materials.
Much of the talk around the aviation industry being carbon zero by 2050 centers on the plane fuel, but airports are also taking measures to encourage passengers to leave the cars at home. Gatwick is instituting a drop-off fee to encourage passengers to take public transportation, and airports like Tampa and Dulles International have added multiple electric vehicle charging stations in anticipation of growing demand and most airports have adopted electric people movers.
Sustainable building practices historically had been thought of as adding costs without a measurable return on the investment. Today, there is a real understanding about what the true value beyond that capital cost.
Every airport has its own technology masterplan and future proofing is critical to help avoid unnecessary disruptions. That means installing multi-use conduits for electrical wires and fiber optic cables that will be adaptable as technology changes, avoiding the need for massive, costly structural changes at a later point. Where a uniformed attendant once stood, there’s now a machine, but the conduits and cables behind the scenes are the same if the installation has been done right. A return on this type of investment in the future is something you don’t see straightaway, but savings later on will be considerable when you have to update screens or other equipment as new ones come to market. Being able to do it without a major remodel is a distinct cost advantage while guaranteeing less disruption to passengers.
Technology can be used to keep airport operations running efficiently during any renovation projects too. The smooth movement of passenger traffic has to be the top consideration during any construction because airports can’t close, nor can any airport in a major city be razed and rebuilt from the ground up. To keep them running as well as possible, renovations should be designed with 3D modeling that creates a digital twin, allowing architects to see what works and if all necessary components are present before the section is actually built. This helps all stakeholders, from airline personnel to concessionaires, understand the phasing and cost of the closure of any section. From a passenger point of view, it enables the airport to plan ahead, minimize disruption and keep things moving smoothly.
With airport work, phasing and coordination are often the biggest drivers of cost, especially with renovations where owners must find the sweet spot between budget, schedule, and scope of construction to maximize the efficiency of the project. Because airport operations can’t be interrupted during renovation, it can be a major driver of costs and can run up to 50 percent more than new construction. But, when well planned and executed, the risk of diminished productivity is reduced which is always a major goal for everyone involved.
To make a minimal impact on airport operations, construction is most often conducted at night. Overnight work brings its own set of logistical concerns that can slow down the process, including finding and retaining a workforce to work the off hours. Other airport-specific challenges including offsite parking requirements which double the time spent in transit, and correspondingly reduce the time spent at work. Staging material deliveries at a time and place that minimizes the disruption to airport activity is also a challenge. Other logistic challenges including securing security clearances for the construction work force on site and can often be more of a problem than expected, along with overall compliance with TSA and FAA protocols.
With the construction unemployment rate at 3.5 percent, contractors will likely struggle to find enough workers as demand for construction outpaces the availability of the workforce, especially with the challenging logistics of airport work. Inconsistent material lead times also can be a challenge, as it is difficult to secure the tradesmen for those materials that drive airport schedules and costs, like major mechanical and electrical equipment, curtain walls and roofing. Given that, thorough consideration of alternative procurement approaches such as bulk-buying, early-release packages, and pre-purchasing need to be considered.
Realistic budgets need to be set and expectations adjusted as necessary, as budgets set even just six months ago may change due to the rollercoaster supply chain we’ve seen in the past year or so. It’s important to use both real-time and historic data to predict cost trends and ensure the schedule captures project risks.
Ensuring a Smooth Landing
While every airport construction project is unique, they share a common goal: to deliver a superior passenger experience through modern, responsive facility design. With costs climbing to ever-increasing altitudes, achieving that target requires a knowledge-based costing strategy that is simultaneously detail-oriented and focused on the big picture, and applied with skill and vision.