Future perfect

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Left: Abu Dhabi Airport is a good example of an airport ready for growth

The history of airports is littered with examples of terminal designs that rapidly became obsolete. Technology has accelerated the pace of change and made it even more imperative to future-proof airport designs against costly errors of judgment. The best way to do this is for airport operators, architects and IT experts to collaborate at an early stage of development and build flexibility into their planning.

Without accurate forecasting, masterplans for new airports are doomed to failure, according to Graeme Power-Hosking, development manager for Bechtel’s global aviation business. Bechtel, he says, studies historical data about an airport’s expansion and predictions for GDP growth in the surrounding area. Sources of data include the World Bank, and major airlines such as Boeing and Airbus. Bechtel also analyzes the airport’s historical growth.

“For example, last year we were planning an airport in Tanzania, a country with huge potential to increase its GDP and lure in investors. All the data suggested that a new airport would be highly likely to attract airlines and passenger numbers would grow fast,” Power-Hosking says.

For most airport developments, however, long-term forecasts are tentative. Bechtel’s view is that a five-year forecast is “reliable”, but it is merely “informative” for anything between five and 10 years. For even longer periods, forecasting is “somewhat speculative”. A masterplan could be out of date before the airport is built. To avoid such a scenario, Bechtel adapts its masterplan during the construction process.

“Projects have a gestation period as planning approvals, final solutions and environmental regulations are sorted out. But time is not your friend when you’re making predictions. Most airports review their masterplans every five years. So you work on positive safeguarding and come up with a lot of detail between now and five years hence when it opens,” he says.

A prime example of this flexibility of approach was Bechtel’s masterplanning of Hamad International Airport, formerly New Doha International Airport. The airport was conceived in 2003 and construction began in 2006, but it did not open until 2014. 

“Qatar Airlines is so growth-hungry that its plans now are vastly different from back in 2003. The client’s brief also changed as predictions for passenger growth soared. The airport has responded to all those changes during the period of construction. It’s a good example of conceiving an airport from beginning to end, then making allowances for change.”

Right: Hamad International had a

flexible masterplan

Runway expansion

An airport’s most important assets, Power-Hosking says, are its runways, which have to be future-proofed for 30 years. Larger airplanes, for example, might one day require different designs and specifications. Runways might need to be extended. Aeronautical engineers need to make complex calculations to get it right. When it comes to future-proofing such an asset, there are two schools of thought.

“The first approach is to build for the next five years, but design it with enough flexibility so you can lengthen the runway as you might lengthen the drive of your house. The trouble is there’ll be a major impact on operations and you may never get it done,” he says. “The second approach, which I advocate for runways, is to build your prime asset to its fullest potential on day one. Then you’ll never need to do anything else to safeguard it.”

The latter principle, however, cannot be applied across the board to airport infrastructure. There are economic risks in designing large terminals for traffic which may or may not exist in two decades. “Terminals only need to meet the needs of the next five years as long as they can be extended easily. If you built a terminal on day one for 25 years, you could create a great cathedral of space in which nothing much happens.”


Middle East airports offer something of an exception to this rule, however. With two-thirds of the world’s population within eight hours, they have access to huge markets. “In the baseball movie Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner says, ‘If we build the stadium, the fans will come’. To a certain extent this is true in the Middle East. If they build it, passengers will come because there’s such growth potential. But most airports need to build in greater flexibility.”

John Murphy, aviation principal at Corgan, agrees that flexibility has to be the overarching principle. He says there are many examples of beautiful works of architecture for terminals that have become redundant, such as Eero Saarinen’s design for TWA at JFK Airport. On other occasions, airports have paid a high price for inaccurate forecasting. The TWA terminals at Kansas City in the 1970s became obsolete almost overnight, he says. Not only were they inappropriate for 747s, but new security checkpoints had to be installed after a spate of hijackings. This necessitated major redesigns that the airport could not afford.

Left: Abu Dhabi Airport’s terminal is large enough to cope with future expansion

“Giving buildings larger spans means they can be updated for economic or security reasons,” explains Murphy. “More rectilinear geometries also give terminals greater flexibility. In China, where organic shapes are common, they are creating problems for the future if traffic increases and they need to bump into the outside of the building to expand it. Organic shapes can work, though. Abu Dhabi Airport’s shape is somewhat organic, but it’s so large it allows for flexibility,” he says.

The Chinese attitude to airport expansions, however, is changing. Greater prudence has crept into their calculations as they realize the importance of future-proofing. Murphy says Corgan’s design for a new terminal at Shanghai’s Pudong Airport is a case in point.

“Although it will have more than 100 boarding gates, making it the largest satellite concourse in the world, our design was ‘right-sized’. The selection committee was not only interested in great architecture and passenger experience, but also considered functionality, constructability, cost, operations and maintenance,” he explains. In the USA, priorities can be somewhat different. In such a mature market, new airports are rare and most of the terminal contracts involve upgrading antiquated structures, or ones that are simply too small.

Right: Airports are adopting wearable technology

Going digital

Technology is playing the central role in transforming airport infrastructure and SITA has been at the forefront of the changes. The company has been

working with airports to future-proof their infrastructure against technological change since the 1980s.

Matthys Serfontein, VP airports at SITA, says the major focus of modern technology is to improve passenger and baggage throughput. Technology, he says, can speed up passenger check-in and boarding, optimize aircraft servicing, and personalize the retail experience.

Another major focus is improving the digital experience of the connected passengers – which is nearly everyone now. Serfontein says 97% of passengers carry a smartphone, tablet or laptop and the challenge is to enable them to remain connected throughout the journey. It’s best to build in this technology from the outset.

“It’s much less costly to put a future-proof suite of integrated technology into a terminal while it is being constructed than to retrofit one. Working closely with the right technology partner right through the design and construction phase, gives the greatest chance of delivering an ‘intelligent’ airport terminal. It’s important for modern airports to use the technology to create a unique ‘sense of place’. Whether it is an interactive display, or pushing a promotion for a location-specific retail or food offer, airports are interacting with the digitally connected passenger like never before to reflect their sense of place,” he says.

Left: Increased demand for self-service is changing airport design


Serfontein says that one important trend changing airport design is self-service facilities. For example, self-service kiosks for check-in will become almost universal and traditional check-in desks will no longer be an important feature. “Self-service will have to be incorporated into designs because it will have an impact on passenger flow. A thorough understanding of flow will be as important as the technology,” he says.

Another growing area of self-service is unassisted bag-drop, which will be mainstream by 2017. Check-in counters will need to be retrofitted to allow the kinds of unassisted bag-drop operations SITA has implemented at Brisbane, Melbourne and Singapore Changi airports.

To ensure airports get these changes right at the outset, there need to be strong collaborations between architects and IT specialists. Increasingly, SITA, Serfontein says, is often brought in at an early stage of design to masterplan the process. “For example, by starting with a shared infrastructure for check-in and combining it with self-service, airports can move the check-in process out of the airport to train stations, hotels or other venues. This reduces the area needed to process passengers. A design that incorporates a mix between self-service kiosks and traditional counters reduces the number of physical counters, which means more retail space,” he says.

To deliver the data that underpins the intelligent airports of the future, an agile and connected infrastructure needs to be planned at the design stage. According to Serfontein, it has to accommodate both current and new technologies, such as near-field communications (NFC) and wearable computing. It must also meet the demands for connectivity and bandwidths of new-generation aircraft such as A350, B787 and A380. 

This article was first published in the January 2015 issue of Passenger Terminal World

December 4, 2014 

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Kirstie joined the team in early 2017 and brings writing, communications and client experience with her. Now an assistant editor, she produces content for our magazines and websites. Away from the office, you will find her blogging on her lifestyle website or searching the internet for photos of sausage dogs.

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