It’s a new age of design and construction for U.S. airports. The major airlines, flush with cash thanks to decreased fuel costs and increased traffic, are more willing to contribute to terminal improvements. Fewer, bigger merged airlines operating fewer, fuller flights have complicated the situation for some medium-sized former hubs, such as Philadelphia, while peers such as Boston, Charlotte and Orlando are thriving due to booming local growth and lower-than-average costs per emplanement. And on top of all this is the inevitable cycle of renewal—airports are perpetual construction sites.
That construction activity is poised to accelerate at many of the 16 airports—Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Chicago, New York City’s LaGuardia and Orlando, among them—visited by ENR on its “Project Runways: America’s Airport Infrastructure” tour. A major takeaway from our scores of interviews is that new terminal designs are being informed by sustainability and sense of place. Also, project delivery methods for those terminals are diversifying, and political climate influences whether they get off the ground at all.
“For the past five to 10 years, the biggest airports across the country put their capital plans on the shelf,” says Perfecto Solis, senior vice president of aviation for Parsons Corp., noting that, when operating at razor-thin margins, airports were reluctant to contribute funding. But fuel costs have dropped, and airline competition has increased. “With the resurgence of profitability, the airlines are getting more actively engaged in terminal investment,” says Solis.
However, some things remain unchanged, such as the inaction of Congress on raising passenger facility charges (PFCs) from $4.50 to help fund projects or passing a multiyear aviation bill. “There continue to be politics,” says Nick Ivanoff, national transportation lead for the Louis Berger Group. “The aviation bill is stalled in Congress due to the desire by some to privatize air traffic control.” Airports remain more reactive to economic and societal events than other modes of transportation, Ivanoff adds, noting 9/11 and the 2008 recession. “These create a need for greater flexibility in terminals,” he says.
Despite the name of the tour, few brand-new runway projects appeared on ENR’s radar—notably, at Chicago O’Hare and Charlotte. There are always extensions and improvements, including implementation of federally mandated safety margins at the ends of runways. But the major emphasis is on upgrades and expansion of terminals. “We’re seeing a shift. There was a big focus on airfield enhancements—we spent a lot of time helping airports with runways, taxiways. Now, many airports have finished their safety projects. Many of the airfields are built out,” says Rob Millar, aviation department manager with HNTB. “Future work is more related to gate capacity and terminals.”
Of course, it all goes back to funding. Airlines now are investing in terminal projects—but at their preferred hubs, not so much at airports that lost out during the major mergers. “Airports once vibrant and with lots of traffic are now really struggling to keep air service options open,” says Joel Bacon, executive vice president of government and public affairs with the American Association of Airport Executives. “What to do to fix that? These are tough questions.”
On the federal front, Bacon finds hope in the fact that even some Republicans—traditional opponents of a PFC increase—are in favor of it. And after the presidential election, “we could end up at a better starting place,” he adds.
The strongest takeaway for ENR was the progress airports have made in sustainability. Paul Bradbury, the ebullient engineer who serves as director of the Portland (Maine) International Jetport, displayed a jar of fluid that represents his airport’s latest accomplishment. “We are the first airport to have an effluent Type 1 deicing fluid,” he said. “We can take a recycled fluid, reprocess it on site and make it an FAA-approved fluid for reuse. It will not have to be trucked off site.”
Underground tanks topped by a parking lot capture propylene glycol, used for de-icing at the jetport.
Inland Technologies International distills the liquid back to purity so that it doesn’t go into local estuaries and can be sold for other industrial uses. Other East Coast airports have begun sending their captured de-icing fluid to the facility at the jetport.
The effort follows the $75-million completion of a new terminal that is only the second to be certified LEED Gold. But Bradbury wants the jetport to push even further: A sustainability master plan suggesting $300 million in potential projects is under review by multiple stakeholders.
The first LEED Gold-certified terminal, at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), also is just the start for that airport’s sustainability program. “We are driving toward a net-zero footprint by 2022,” says Judi Mosqueda, SFO director of project management, design and construction. The airport just launched a $2.4-billion renovation of another terminal, awarding a program management contract to Parsons Transportation Group, Allen Group and EPC Consultants. A second terminal project is under procurement.
“We are asking project teams to help us figure out how to achieve net zero,” says Mosqueda. “We’re not dictating how.” Committees of engineers and architects have been appointed to approach the goal from a campus-wide perspective, she adds.
“We have 150 acres of rooftop space,” notes Erin Cooke, SFO sustainability director. “Solar wind? Battery storage? Energy automation and HVAC projects will be studied.”
On the West Coast, there is a fierce but friendly competition among airports regarding sustainability. San Diego notes that it has the world’s first LEED Platinum terminal, and Seattle-Tacoma (Sea-Tac) officials point out their electrified ground-support fleets and the system that allows cooled air to flow to parked planes, enabling pilots to turn off their engines while passengers stay comfortable. They have a goal of 50% reduction in greenhouse gases from 2005 levels by 2035.
Sam Sleiman, director of capital programs and environmental affairs at the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates Boston’s Logan airport, is equally passionate. He described the agency’s many unmandated community services, such as donating asthma kits to health centers and promotional calendars describing its green activities to schools and civic centers.
The airport requires the use of more eco-friendly warm-mix asphalt for every paving job. It also is embarking on a project to measure the carbon footprint of all emplaning passengers, starting from their homes. “We will develop a program that informs passengers about their options to reduce their footprint,” Sleiman says.
The goals, complicated by changes in technology and transportation, are challenging airport planners. For example, Uber and Lyft—and someday driverless cars—“are going to radically change how airport facilities are designed and managed,” according to Carol Lurie, director of sustainability for VHB, which has helped to create sustainability master plans for the Portland jetport, SFO, Logan and others. “We worry if we’re overbuilding parking garages. Roadway planners are concerned about the curbsides—should they be expanded to accommodate drop-off and pickup? Will there now be more vehicle trips to the airport?”
Airports’ definition of sustainability extends not only to community impact but also to resiliency and asset management. After Superstorm Sandy and a brutal 2015 winter, Logan airport officials began formulating flood guidelines for new assets, says Sleiman.
The Minneapolis-St. Paul airport also has conducted resiliency assessments and is developing a climate-adaptation report and plan, says Donny Goris-Kolb, VHB sustainability planner. Further, VHB’s Lurie notes that the Airport Cooperative Research Program, run by the Transportation Research Board, has developed reports with guidelines for vulnerability assessments and climate-adapation tools. “Sensible asset management is making sure you have the longevity built into your infrastructure,” she adds.
A big challenge is to build longevity and resiliency into an airport and balance those efforts with trying to reduce energy use and carbon footprints, says Dwight Pullen, senior vice president for aviation with Skanska USA Inc. “We have to get smarter about aging infrastructure’s responsiveness to events and, also, how to build mission-critical [IT infrastructure] facilities. Do we embed them in terminals? Is there the real estate, the space?” he says.
Larger sets of utilities, backup generators and other assets useful in an extreme event also contribute to increased maintenance costs and energy consumption, Pullen observes. “It makes future-proofing facilities extremely challenging,” he says.
Future-proofing includes trying to anticipate what will happen next with security and terrorism threats. “We had a concept of increased security around [boarding] the plane,” says Steve Anderson, Houston-based manager of projects for Turner and Townsend. But that concept is being challenged in the U.S. due to recent bombing events in places such as Brussels and Istanbul, which had security checkpoints on roads leading to the airport.
And then there’s the issue of how to streamline the security checkpoints within the terminals themselves while anticipating new technologies on the horizon. “Checkpoint issues, international arrivals issues—they’re changing,” says Tony Gonzales, architectural lead for the western division of HNTB. “Self-ticketing, baggage-tracking tags, international processing [technologies]—we’ll have to apply different types of interfaces.”
The $4-billion public-private partnership to build a new central terminal at LaGuardia airport is technically not the first for the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. In the late 1980s, the agency began a design-build-operate-maintain project for the AirTrain to John F. Kennedy airport. And it has used design-build for many other transportation projects, although most of the bid awards still were based on lowest cost, says James Starace, the agency’s director of engineering. “The port authority is developing further criteria that will allow for the use of a best-value selection on future procurements,” he says. Here, the Skanska-Walsh design-build team is not only part of the concessionaire team; it also must coordinate closely with Delta Airlines, which is planning its own $4-billion renovation of two terminals that will connect to the new central terminal. This trend is reflected in airports throughout the U.S.
“The airports are telling the airlines to go renovate their terminals,” says David Burrus, LAX midfield operations manager with Turner Construction, noting that working for airlines may offer greater room for contracting innovations than work done for airport clients. “We can come up with new solutions and methods and change on the fly a lot faster,” he says.
Although often bound by their municipal nature, airport agencies are trying to be progressive, with CM-at-risk increasingly common on big projects. At DFW airport, officials implemented indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts (ENR 7/25-8/1 p. 6). “There’s more of an approach by clients to utilize a task-order-type structure,” says Christopher Gubeno, vice president of aviation for Urban Engineers.
Gubeno works with Philadelphia’s airport, where officials are hoping someday to have options other than design-bid-build. “Pennsylvania has archaic project delivery laws,” says Diego Rincon, the airport’s deputy director of capital development. “We have a multiple-prime configuration for big projects.”
The culprit is the Separations Act, passed in 1913. It requires public entities to solicit and award separate contracts for plumbing, heating, electrical and ventilating work for projects over $4,000. The issue has not encouraged anchor tenant American Airlines to readily invest in infrastructure upgrades. “It’s a huge challenge,” says Rincon.
Being a U.S. airport is sometimes akin to participating in a large-scale popularity contest—vying with each other for regional passenger traffic, airline tenants, reputation—and, of course, funding.
Currently, airports such as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Pennsylvania are runners-up, due to the “de-hubbing” of airlines as they merged and purged resulting redundancies. The withdrawal of one major anchor tenant can have a big impact.
At Boston’s Logan airport, the facility is consolidating terminals formerly anchored by American and US Airways, which are now one airline, says Sleiman, adding, “No one airport can control us. There’s no one ‘big gorilla.’ ”
It helps that the airport is part of an independent authority, rather than the city, Sleiman concedes. Charlotte airport recently went through a failed attempt by some city and state officials to create such an authority. The airport also was a hub for US Airways; fortunately, “where we are, American needed to be,” says airport COO Jack Christine.
Whether run by a city agency or an authority, airports planning major capital programs still must answer to the public—as seen in Kansas City, Mo., where plans for a sorely needed $1-billion new terminal have not moved forward, despite airline support (ENR 7/25-8/1 p. 6). Hollywood-Burbank Airport finally may build a new terminal after years of wooing the public—and overcoming historic rancor among members of its airport authority.
It took a combination of the above factors—threats by major international airlines to pull out and find a new West Coast hub, a zeal for infrastructure by the former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and now an Olympics bid—for LAX to get its multibillion-dollar programs going. And LaGuardia Airport’s program got a jumpstart from a barb by Vice President Joe Biden.
One of the most striking themes found in visiting 16 airports in four months is a universal pragmatic philosophy: making the most out of the reality that security screening, congestion and fewer, fuller flights require passengers to spend more time at the airport. “Having better amenities after the security checkpoint is one tremendous change in the past 15 years,” says the architect Curtis Fentress. “It’s a big part of every program we’ve done.”
Fentress Architects even teamed up with chair manufacturer Arconis to create gate seating that offers integrated power outlets and USB ports, extra space for baggage, cup holders and wide armrests. Boston Logan International Airport’s Terminal B is adorned with such seats, along with spacious, computer-friendly countertops, lounge-like coffee tables, interactive kiosks to locate amenities and displays of Massachusetts history.
When it was built, the new Denver airport “turned over a leaf in airport design,” adds Fentress. “It became about how the building could express a sense of place.”
“More of a passenger’s time is spent in terminals,” says Ripley Rasmus, senior design principal with HOK. “We’re looking at buildings and sites that represent specific places.” HOK leads a team that is designing a $200-million domestic terminal improvement, part of a $6-billion, 20-year program at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. “The original architecture was very simple and direct, not the kind of thing that represents the city with the world’s busiest passenger terminal. They’re interested in reclaiming some of the quality of the experience of the 1970s.”
So is United Airlines, which is embarking on a $377-million program to refurbish two terminals at LAX. The goal is to change the terminals from “machines for processing passengers” into an “experiential space,” says Gonzales with HNTB, which is designing and engineering the upgrades. Peter Aarons, HNTB’s western division aviation lead, adds, “New terminals are designed to bring your blood pressure down.”
Terminals are increasingly sporting shopping centers, dining destinations, art galleries, playgrounds and even exercise facilities. From San Jose airport’s yoga rooms and San Francisco’s interactive playgrounds to Logan airport’s soundtracks of native birds to Portland, Maine’s moose-themed stores, airports are being designed and rebuilt not only to increase non-aeronautical revenue but also to make passengers want to spent time and money in them.
But the new realities are challenging some aspects of designing for optimal passenger experience. Shifting patterns, such as bigger aircraft, also create the need for bigger terminals, which means longer walks to gates. “Every airport will have a runway requiring clear space on both sides, and the concourses will be consistent with that—not angled or curved,” says Wilson Rayfield, aviation market head for Gresham Smith and Partners. “Wider wingspans push gates farther apart.”
That creates new challenges in designing terminals with passenger experience in mind. Moving walkways can be dangerous for special-needs travelers, and the utility vehicles that transport some of them can create a hazard when rolling through a crowded space. Design elements can help, such as providing places to sit or stanchions to lean on, Rayfield adds.
The Orlando airport’s new terminal will feature such elements but no moving walkways, which “are expensive to operate and maintain,” notes Fentress. “We’re getting a better understanding of that after 20 years and looking at the energy consumption.”
With constant changes in technology, aviation and society, airports are better understanding how to prepare for the next 20 years, as well.