INTERVIEW: Parsons Corporation reveals the latest airport construction challenges

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On day two of Passenger Terminal Expo & Conference, Marios Sentris, program director and practice lead for aviation at Parsons Corporation, presented a session titled ‘Airport design, planning and development – Middle East and Asia’. Following his talk, Passenger Terminal World caught up with Sentris live at the event to find out more about his insights into airport design, planning and development.

When seeking funding and investment for an airport program, what are the key factors, post Covid, that encourage or cement investment?
Until the pandemic, airports were considered low-risk investments. Unless you had some geo-political or large technical failures, it was almost certain your business project would be achieved, as would the project’s return on investment (ROI) and the reselling value.

Post Covid, people, especially investors, were very cautious about decisions regarding investment. There has been a shift in the airport investment decision-making process; investors now want to see specific mitigation plans that will enable them to prepare for situations like the pandemic, where quick actions and decisions need to be made. Before the pandemic, it was only about numbers and profitability; business plans had the capacity to increase, regarding freight and passengers, and it was accepted within the airport industry that passenger traffic was expected to double in 20 years, which, with the view of the overall long-term profitability, had the effect of attracting private equities.

Post Covid, it is now also about maximum flexibility and constant re-assessments. Investors are now also interested in maximum flexibility in liquidity when it comes to construction phasing, and they are also interested in the technical aspects of the projects. That’s where me and my team at Parsons Corporation come in. We establish flexible construction models that are more ‘context’ aware. Our team analyzes short-term or low-intensity capital expenditure (capex) as part of the overall investment. This gives an added level of reassurance to Parsons’ investors that it has accounted for all the different scenarios and developed mitigation plans for them.

The second element has to do with the technical aspects. Previously, investors were much more interested in the ‘wow’ effect of the airport. Now, post-Covid, I believe we have added the space element in the flexibility: we need more space but we are not sure we are going to use it. This requires certain building agility where the purpose of the space is adapted to the need. This space can change from food and beverage (F&B) to a temporary art exhibition or to additional space for passengers if social distancing is re-instated.

Parsons has learned to work in this new ecosystem by developing new forecasting tools with more accurate cost estimation taking into account various economic fluctuations, such as commodity price, shortage in containers, workforce shortage, etc. An example of one of these forecasting tools is a white paper the company developed for the Middle East, analyzing the different ‘next day’ scenarios that will be applicable to a future pandemic.

These included a pessimistic ‘protected’ mode, where the company will face reduced traffic due to regulatory restrictions; a baseline ‘optimized or agile’ view, where social distancing restrictions will need to be maintained, but with pre-Covid or current traffic numbers (in this case, the buildings are under stress, and this is where you need to have sufficient agility to accommodate such procedures); and an optimistic ‘smart’ view, where we need to add to the baseline elements that are of interest to the new generation (Generation Z), such as sustainability and well-being.

During the design and construction stages, what are the most common challenges, and the solutions for them?
The challenges are always the same, but the solutions differ now. In terms of design, it is all about having functional, durable and compliant facilities. In terms of construction, the challenge is to build what was designed on time and on budget, with expected quality.

More specifically, the challenges during design are consecutive changes from the client that frustrate the contractual relationship with the designer/consultant; design changes brought about by regulatory changes or advancements in technology, health and safety, civil aviation and environmental (airports are capex-intensive, long-term infrastructure projects and it is always better to incorporate the latest changes); and the environmental and biophilic conscience of the public.

From Covid, we’ve learned that we need more space and agility in the building. I always appreciate hearing the chairmen of one of our clients say, ‘As long as it is on paper, we can make the changes’. Overall, we have to make sure the design is functional, compliant and durable.

During construction, the challenges are primarily finding an available, adequate workforce and finding equipment on time. Within the construction industry, there can be delays in the delivery of the material as the order queues are longer. Additionally, airport traffic is picking up fairly quickly and has now reached pre-Covid numbers. As such, all projects are critical, so they are carried out concurrently. This means proper phasing is required, especially in operational airports so as not to disturb normal operation. The simpler solution would be to hire Parsons or another consultant to identify, measure and manage the challenges and risks during the design and construction stages! Joking aside, I think that consultants and airports need to work together in design and construction, especially when there are constant changes. There is no reason to reach a dead-end that would ultimately hurt the project and lead to contractual fights; we want a symbiotic environment where entities with different targets and scope work harmonically for a common goal.

We try to put the contract in the closet and deal technically with the matter. This requires a change in mindset for all participating entities. We share the pain and we share the gain. We don’t think about how to exploit the other party, we think about how to help the other party. This is a very important element of project management and I believe we can achieve a lot through it. Parsons’ role as a project manager requires us to proceed with various determinations and decisions but, in the end, this is for the common good. This symbiotic management requires first a change to the mindset but also to have joint all-hands activities, sharing the same offices and having open and honest discussions before putting anything in writing.

To support this goal, Parsons has introduced new digital tools to monitor spending and progress. The company has tools that integrate with BIM that read in 360° on the site. This can be used in the future for claim settlements and for payments.

We’ve also introduced the building agility concept with flexible partitions between areas with different purposes. A holding room is expanded by relocating separating wall partitions with a change in security and change in cooling requirements.

What impacts will these challenges have on the future passenger experience?

I believe that social distancing and the Generation Z profile have taken the passenger experience to a commodity level. Passengers are more receptive and acceptive of technical means for checking in, shopping, migrating and boarding. Due to this, there are initiatives with check-in companies to allow an end-to-end frictionless traveling experience. Parsons is lucky to have an understanding and forward-thinking, relatively centralized public authority, which is facilitated by the UAE.

Smart travel is based on the development of a token when entering the airport and the token disappears when you depart. It is also easier in the Middle East (Dubai or Doha), where the three features (duty free, airline and airport) can be established.

We are moving to the commoditization of traveling, where the traveler will be stress-free due to the frictionless journey and will be able to focus on experience-related activities, such as art exhibitions, visiting, shopping, movies, etc.

Can you offer us any additional tips for meeting the operators’ expectations during the commissioning stage?

This is an excellent question, and one of the most important elements for the successful handover or opening of a facility, terminal or airport. You have to engage with the operator from inception to commissioning. Get proper sign-offs and challenge the changes, if any. It goes back to this notion of being symbiotic. After all, in the end it is the operator’s terminal.

Create and establish decision boards that allow for the quick resolution of issues. In one of Parsons’ projects, a decision went back and forth for 18 months because the decision process was not in place for the budget to increase.

I also recommend separating the technical process from the commercial process. The worst thing that can happen is to have good technical staff starting to make references to FIDIC [International Federation of Consulting Engineers] clauses and talk about money. For Parsons, this is a bad sign.

What would you say, post-Covid, are the most important design elements to incorporate into airports?

Parsons, of course. To answer seriously, I would say that the most important design elements for airports to maximize are space, agility, sustainability and technology.

Some of the must-have construction technologies I recommend clients incorporate into their new projects are BIM [building information modeling]1,000% at all levels; MIS [management information system]Power BI for accurate monitoring of cash flow, time slippage and progress on-site; and laser scanning on-site progress. After BIM, digital twin technology would be the next stage, but it is still in the early stages of development. Some use cases are in place but the time-to-market will require a few more years.

For airports, I would advise considering smart airport and end-to-end contactless travel processes; crowd management and congestion avoidance systems; and PV [photovoltaic]panels and electric vehicle (EV) charging stations. Collaboration decision-making systems (CDM) are also a good investment, as pointed out by the Airports Council International (ACI) acknowledgment that CDM can help with running an airport and terminal more efficiently. However, this is dependent on the type of airport. For example, airports should think about whether it is a final destination or not, and if there is a big home carrier.

During a long-term construction process, what are the most common challenges you face and how do you overcome these?

In long-term projects such as new terminals or new airports, the most common challenge is design changes during the design or construction process. After that, we may struggle with resistance from the operator to accept the building as it’s constructed because it is not necessarily fit for its intended purpose. Alongside this, securing the budget or budget overrun can often create an issue. These are public funds or private equity funds and any increase has to be solidly justified. Finally, by the time the terminal is completed, the technology used is outdated and requires refreshing.

To overcome disputes between contractors/consultants, I advise taking a moment to measure, decide and manage – because if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. It’s also important to ensure early engagement with the decision makers and constantly monitor and report on financial risks and cash-flow projections.

Do not be afraid to make changes but only make them if they are necessary and solidly justified. Make sure to also establish a lean decision-making body with briefing sessions and decision sessions. The briefing is important to manage the expectations and avoid ‘corridor management’.

How has business changed for you post-pandemic? Has investment been trickier to secure in this new landscape?

Yes, the pandemic made us understand that we are in a line of business that is equally vulnerable. It has made Parsons better understand the needs of their clients. It has humbled us. In one of our projects, we agreed to reduce to 65% of our billing while maintaining staff full-time. Parsons has extended the payment duration to allow more flexibility to clients. We’ve established a closer symbiotic working environment where they agreed to share the pain and share the gain and are ready to do this again.

Have you read the June issue of Passenger Terminal World yet? Access your copy online: June 2023 issue is now available online! – Passenger Terminal Today

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