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Airports - Great Minds Think Alike

Are airports reflecting the new realities of the airline industry? Designs and charges must be brought in line with the demands of 21st century travel

Collaborative approaches are on the rise in the aviation industry. Developments in safety and the environment, for example, highlight the progress possible with a united stance.

The trend needs to continue. It is particularly crucial in airport development. The symbiotic relationship between airlines and airports suggests that it should come naturally, but this has not always been the case. As was most recently highlighted by the new Durban, South Africa airport at Le Mercy, there is a danger of too many gateways being built for building’s sake.

And these buildings cost money. Jeff Poole, IATA Director, Industry Charges, Fuel and Taxation, says even the recession has failed to curb airports’ urge to hike prices. In 2009, IATA achieved savings of $1.5 billion in airport charges for the industry. These were more than wiped out by increases of $2 billion.
But there is a silver lining. Despite the setbacks, it seems airports are becoming more attuned to airline realities. “The big rises in charges were largely the result of earlier decisions,” says Poole. “Recently, airports have been listening more to airlines. This is because the drop in traffic hit them too. Having no customers hurts both airlines and airports.”

Infrastructure trends

Airlines need efficient, cost-effective infrastructure. There are some encouraging signs that airports are responding to this need. Check-in areas, for example, are taking advantage of airline shifts to self-service. The reconfiguration of departure halls means more passengers can be processed through the same floor area, enhancing efficiency.

Several airports are worthy of note, including Las Vegas McCarran and Auckland’s domestic terminal, which were designed specifically to optimize self-service processing. At Dubai’s new Terminal 3, the check-in area has a large self-service component deliberately placed prior to the check-in desks to give passengers every opportunity to use the facilities on offer. And Hyderabad’s new airport is 100% bar-coded boarding pass-compliant. Amsterdam Schiphol now offers flight rebooking and transfer kiosks, while Copenhagen has a Star Alliance kiosk for lost bags.

Security is another fast-evolving area. Next-generation checkpoints will doubtless have an impact but already there have been noticeable modifications. “We are already witnessing changes in how trays are presented to passengers and recirculated from the end of the process to the loading point,” says Ken Dunlap, IATA Director of Security and Facilitation. “There is an increasing need to allow adequate space for passengers to remove mobile phones, laptops, liquids, shoes and belts, and then to collect themselves once screening has been completed.”

While throughput has been improved, passenger flow within the terminal is more of a mixed bag. Colin Spear, Assistant Director, Airport Development, IATA, warns that deliberately corralling travelers through a maze of concessions is on the increase. There is an understandable desire to maximize retail spend—and it does benefit airlines where single till arrangements exist—but it must be done with efficiency in mind.

It is important to let passengers go directly to the gate if they so desire. For those that want some retail therapy on the way, the architecture of the airport should facilitate their shopping and help them gauge their time. Clear sight lines from concessions to waiting aircraft could be the balancing point. “Many airport authorities are missing a simple trick,” believes Spear. “If passengers can see where the aircraft are located they can quickly determine if they have time to dwell in the main terminal building, thereby increasing their propensity to shop.”

Amsterdam is a good example of how to achieve a balance between concessions, their layout in relation to passenger flows and an open terminal that allows relatively unrestricted views across the aprons.

Careful management

This notion of finding a balance is particularly crucial in land use. Getting it right can help environmental mitigation efforts by providing a buffer from residential communities and can also help protect land for enhancing airfield efficiency in future—developing taxiways or runways, for example.

The latter is especially important given the increased wingspan of some new aircraft. “There has been a gradual evolution of airside space, especially the way stands are laid out,” says David Gamper, Airports Council International (ACI) Director, Safety, Technical and Administration. “It has become more efficient but there are also larger aircraft to accommodate. That trend may force bigger terminals and so we may see more development of walkways or transit trains.”

Some airports are developing so-called cities within, or just beyond, their airfield boundaries. This can detract from the functionality of the airport and Spear says that rarely is there any financial recognition for the airlines that bring passengers to, from and through the gateway. Master planning is important to ensure the airport cities do not grow so large that they affect the ultimate build-out of the airport.

Multimodal interchanges are an integral part of the city concept. ACI has warned of a looming capacity shortfall at European airports, which could force some short-haul traffic on to trains. If passengers use trains, hub operations in particular will need connectivity to the national network as travelers transiting to long-haul destinations won’t want to be inconvenienced.

“The transfer between different modes of transportation needs to be seamless and between only two modes,” suggests Spear. “If you need to go through three modes—from plane to local train or city centre link and then on to national network trains—the process becomes non user-friendly, time consuming and unattractive.” 

Warning signs

The solution to the challenge of providing infrastructure that works for all industry partners lies in consultation. This has been improving but remains far from ideal. IATA has developed a best practice document entitled Capital Investment Program Engagement Process to assist discussions.
“There is still a tendency for some architectural practices around the world to design oversized, overly elaborate and needlessly expensive architectural statements in order to impress associates, governments and competition judges,” says Spear.

Expansion capability is a good indicator of consultation success. Spear says airlines need basic functional design solutions that allow for incremental expansion at minimal cost. “Airlines and alliances also prefer to have their operations under one roof and will hesitate to open a second terminal operation within the same airport, as this invariably leads to duplication, complexity and higher operating costs,” he notes.

If the potential to expand is a positive sign for consultation, pre-financing is certainly a negative one. Its presence suggests that the airport may be providing something that the market does not require. The project is likely too expensive or not economically viable, possibly because it is politically motivated. “Even during the present crisis, there is no shortage of funding for good, well-designed and cost-effective projects,” stresses Poole from IATA. “Pre-financing through user charges can often be a clear signal of a poor project or simple laziness in the financing arrangements.”

An airport for all seasons

With so many factors to consider it seems unlikely that airports can be all things to all people. But ACI’s Gamper insists that is not the case. Facilities can be fully flexible, cost effective and capable of being expanded quickly in a modular way, he argues. This would allow them to serve all market segments and respond to the constantly evolving user requirements.

“There is a growing trend for specialist infrastructure such as low-cost terminals,” admits Gamper. “But it is not impossible to be efficient across the board. Look at passengers. It’s normal for an airport to combine retail opportunity with fast track services. And food and beverage outlets cater to varying needs, from a quick coffee on the go to a full sit-down menu.”

Spear believes it is equally easy to cater to the full spectrum of airline needs. Mainstream airports are built to serve the needs of just five sizes of aircraft so piers using the multi-aircraft ramp system can serve any market segment effectively.

“We are watching all airport developments very carefully,” concludes Poole. “Traffic is coming back and that could affect the views of airports. Of course, airlines see traffic coming back too but, unlike airports, most are not seeing profitability. That is a potential cause of tension so we need to ensure that both sides maintain the stronger partnership approaches that have developed during the crisis.”

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