Future Of Airports Tied To Transit Evolution

The airport of the future could seamlessly integrate security screenings and future transit modes which would change the footprint of the terminal building.

The key to the new airport – and improved security – would be the successful implementation of personal rapid transit (PRT) technology, according to presentations made at a security seminar on June 5 in Baltimore sponsored by the International Air Rail Organization.

London's Heathrow Airport will be the first to build a PRT system. Dubbed ULTra, the system will involve driverless, four-person cars which will travel along rail-less guide paths and link the airport’s premium parking lots to the terminals. The system is scheduled to be fully deployed by December 2007 and in commercial operation six months later.

"The future expansion of Heathrow is geared to the future expansion of ULTra," said Martin Lowson, CEO of U.K.-based Advanced Transit Systems, builder of ULTra.

As part of its $1.83 billion expansion program, Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport has plans to install a people mover – an automated, multi-car, monorail-like train – linking the terminal to the consolidated rental car facility, an employee parking lot, the Amtrak/MARC railroad station, and its new 8,400-space daily parking garage. As part of the planning process, the airport is considering building an intermodal transportation center as the central meeting point instead of at the terminal itself, said Paul Shank, deputy executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration, the owner and operator of BWI.

The new people mover and the existing MTA light rail line from Baltimore would terminate at this off-site building as well as the proposed Green Line extension of the Washington Metrorail line. Shank said shuttle buses to parking, the hotels and the downtown Baltimore cruise line terminal would also terminate at the center. It is possible, he said, that the passenger and luggage screening could be handled here instead in the terminal building. The people mover would be the only connection to the terminal building, Shank said.

The key to building this intermodal center is it must be economical and underwritten by the airport stakeholders, Shank stressed.

The people mover project is estimated to cost $500 million. However, if tunneling is required to avoid environmentally sensitive areas, he said the price tag could be much greater.

Shank said the work on the people mover has been purposely slowed as the airport works to update its master plan through 2030. Currently 3 percent of the travelers use mass transit to reach the airport, he said. Even as traffic is projected to grow, Shank said the mass transit share is expected to grow to 5 percent. In addition, the current light rail link to downtown Baltimore and points north is heavily used by airport employees, he added.

As planners look at both the intermodal center and the people mover, Shank said various PRT concepts are also being explored.

A PRT system is capable of moving the same number of passengers around an airport as a larger automated people mover system, said Peter Muller, president of Denver-based PRT Consulting. The key to handling the same volume is that the PRT cars, or pods in the advocates’ lingo, carry four to six people all going to the same location. These pods, he said, arrive every few seconds as people trickle in from the parking lots or flights. A larger people mover car or a pure mass transit vehicle waits until it has enough people, creating longer time spans between cars, causing crowds to build up. "People travel in trickles, not in crowds," Muller added.

The pods can deliver passengers to a security screening building at a distance from the airport terminal. Both the passengers and luggage can be screened at this location. After being cleared, another pod takes the passengers to a concourse to board their flight or a centralize concessions area, Muller said.

The separate screening facility would likely eliminate one major security flaw that still exists in the airports: hundreds of people waiting with unscreened luggage in the crowded check-in lobby.

Any exploding bomb at a separate screening facility would harm a small number of people, as few passengers would be screened at the center at any given time.

An alternative would combine a number of cutting-edge technologies on each pod so that the passengers and luggage could be screened while riding in from the parking lot. Each pod would be equipped with a wireless keyboard and closed-circuit camera. Muller said there is more than enough time to screen the passenger, get boarding passes and luggage tags on the ride from the parking lot.

Under this scenario, Muller said, the terminal building would no longer need to contain airline ticket counters. Instead a centralized, mall-like concession area could be the gathering or waiting point. The passenger would only need to travel to a concourse when the plan is ready. Borrowing a phrase from the manufacturing industry, Muller said the new airport's configuration would be deliver "passengers on demand."