Airports Ponder Short and Long-Term Implications of COVID-19
The design team for Pittsburgh International Airport’s planned 650,000-sq-ft new terminal had nearly reached the 60% design mark in March, and the owner was preparing to release preparatory enabling contracts.
Then came COVID-19.
With passengers and revenue plummeting, airport officials pressed pause on the design and set up four workshops over the next several weeks, recruiting public health experts from the local community of research and university entities, says airport spokeswoman Alyson Walls. “We decided to take the opportunity to really look at our design and everything that was happening in terms of new health standards, new realities of air travel and what that may look like in the future.”
The design team of Gensler, HDR and luis vidal + architects tapped HDR’s health care team to inform the shaping of a post-pandemic terminal. “We’re looking at how to take our biocontainment expertise in hospitals and research laboratories, including lessons learned, and apply it to potentially help the environment within an airport to minimize the transmission of disease pathogens,” says Chris Bormann, HDR’s East region health director.
Two of the workshops took place in April and May. “It’s a little early to come up with takeaways, but the purpose is to identify priorities,” says Walls. “What are some of the short-term things we can do to make changes? Everyone is looking at hold rooms, gate area layouts, the security checkpoint, ticket counters—common areas where people congregate. What can we look at beyond stickers on the floor and masks? That’s probably not going to be enough for the future.”
Participants are assessing technologies that better control the flow of passengers through a terminal, such as a digital queue that would involve assigned times to go through security, biometrics, thermal scanning and potential separation of incoming passengers from outbound passengers at the gates. Elements such as UV lights, natural light, oxygen flow and cross ventilation, and touchless technologies are all in play, says Luis Vidal, the architect on the team.
Pittsburgh airport’s situation, where it has the opportunity to design one of the first post-pandemic terminals, is not common, says Bill Peduzzi, HDR aviation director. “The majority of our clients are either in a static position where they have a facility to maintain or they have a limited ability to change it at the moment.”
Airport officials across the country are expediting current construction, pondering the fate of some planned projects and examining the implications in the short, medium and long term.
Ryan Fetters, principal with Gensler, says several airports across the globe, including San Francisco International Airport, have participated in workshops to address these implications.
“SFO’s impression is this is like the day after 9/11, only it’s been ongoing for over two months now,” he says. “This is a paradigm shift for the industry. Right now, social distancing is straightforward since not many people are in the buildings, but what happens in the medium term when people start to fly again?”
He adds: “Now is the time to double down on empathy and how we work with our partners and clients to deliver these projects.”
Sharp decreases in passenger traffic have allowed the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to accelerate work on several construction projects, led by the $658.7-million Project Journey at Reagan National Airport, set for completion in 2021. Steel assembly is complete on both the new 14-gate, 225,000-sq-ft concourse and two new 50,000-sq-ft security checkpoint buildings. Utility work is progressing while glass and metal panels are being hung on the exterior.
Roger Natsuhara, MWAA’s senior vice president for engineering, says that recent months have seen a faster pace of construction, with overnight work shifted to daylight hours. “As we became aware of supply-chain issues in other sectors, we kept a close watch on material orders to ensure that deliveries continued without significant interruption,” Natsuhara adds.
Reduced aircraft activity has enabled MWAA to expedite installation of new hydrant fueling pits at Dulles International Airport, and runway and taxiway repairs at both airports.
Looking ahead, Natsuhara says that MWAA is examining its full slate of approved projects to prioritize those that should go forward and identify others for deferral in order to preserve capital.
“Repair and maintenance projects may move forward because of the availability of the facilities, while improvement and expansion projects may be delayed because of the delayed need for the project,” Natsuhara says. “We work closely with the multiple stakeholders including our finance team in determining when a project should proceed.”
Similar examples abound at airports with major modernization programs, such as Salt Lake City International Airport. Its $4.1-billion program will now finish two years early with an estimated cost savings of $300 million.
But what are the implications for contracts and future construction? “For the better part of April, the focus for most of our members has been to review what’s necessary for a financial sustainable trajectory,” says Chris Oswald, senior vice president for safety and regulatory affairs with Airports Council International-North America. “In the next six to 18 months, all your sources of revenue for operations and maintenance have been gutted,” he says, and that affects what airports can take on in terms of new debt burdens for capital programs.
ACI-NA, with the Associated General Contractors of America and the Airport Consultants Council, is hosting a series of webinars in lieu of their annual construction summit, examining implications for construction contracts now and later.
“Obviously we’re all dealing with trying to keep projects going,” says Frank Giunta, partner and president with HKA, Americas region, who moderated the first webinar. “We also got into discussing concerns—is this force majeure? What did the contract say? Is the guaranteed maximum price invalidated due to a once-in-lifetime condition?”
Sources agree that it’s too early to fully address the long term, considering the uncertainties around the duration of the virus. “Right now the focus is on communication and coordination, and then contract issues,” says Giunta.
While most contracts allow some relief for construction delays caused by certain enumerated or extraordinary events, the clauses may differ about whether contractors are compensated monetarily, notes Jim Newland, partner at Seyfarth Shaw LLP and another webinar moderator. On public projects, some states preclude the use of “no damages for delay” clauses that prevent contractors from recouping associated costs. But when they are enforceable, “generally speaking, owners may owe the contractor an extension of time, but no money,” Newland adds.
The need for better communication while social distancing aligns with the airport world’s trend toward design-build and construction manager-general contractor delivery approaches, says Oswald. “A major takeaway is the need and reality of cooperation among parties.”
By Aileen Cho, with Jim Parson