IT Master Planning Plays an Emerging Role

Feb. 28, 2012

The rapid pace of change occurring in the world of information technology (IT) is causing a revolution of sorts for airport planners. Historically, airport master plans provide a 20-year roadmap, identifying potential areas for development, protection, and other airfield needs. Enter IT, which is impacting everything from meeting new customer needs and expectations to facilitating the businesses of stakeholders.

Two central players in this discussion are Faith Varwig, principal with St. Louis-based Faith Group, LLC and Tom Strange, CEO of The Solution Design Group, Inc., based in Orlando. The two often team on airport planning projects, and are leaders in the concept of IT master planning.

Central to this discussion is the question: Is this a matter of incorporating IT into the master planning process, or bringing master planning to the IT world? Comments Varwig, “That is a good question; the definition has changed dramatically in the past ten years. In general, IT master plans address the evaluation of current business processes in place at airports and a determination of how technology can support or advance those business processes to make the airport more efficient, at lower cost, or provide a higher level of passenger service.”

Says Strange, “I guess it could be both. Airports traditionally, in the master planning process, think very hard about bricks and mortar, but not necessarily the IT systems needed to support the operation as part of the master planning process. We and others advocate IT master planning become an integral part of the master plan for an airport.

“It’s a chapter in the master planning process, a separate activity. The best way to think of it is a plan for a three- to five-year planning horizon -- an eternity in IT -- that will help the airport define the IT needs that will support the airports business goals and objectives. Don’t do technology for technology’s sake, but do it to support the strategic drivers.”


Varwig relates that airport personnel and stakeholder representatives are rapidly embracing the new technologies coming out of the IT marketplace, changing the perspective for airport planners. “We spent the last part of 1990s and first part of 2000s focused on building infrastructure and focused heavily on pipe and wire; general network configuration and design; procuring technology systems to support their business processes,” she says. “That’s changed a lot in past two to three years with the new hand-held devices -- I-Pads; 4G phone systems. The mobile app industry has really changed the focus of what the IT managers at airports have to provide their clients within the airport. Now everybody in the airport wants to do all their work on hand-held devices.

“It requires a whole different way of thinking about technology at airports; it requires another layer of infrastructure to support those applications. Ten years ago we hardly dealt with wireless applications in the back of the house. We mostly cared about the traveling public. Now airports have free Wi-Fi; now everybody back of house at the airport wants that same capability of being able to connect no matter where they’re at within the airport environment. It implies huge changes to how they conduct business; to the infrastructure itself; and to the people that support the infrastructure.”

Strange points out that the traditional 20-year plan still makes sense from a long-term overview perspective, but planning today has to recognize the impact of IT. “If we look ahead three to five years from now, the check-in process will be so much more smart phone driven; I don’t know ticket lobbies will need to look the same. In recent years the move has been to all kiosks; now we have to wonder how long we will need the kiosks.”

He says that airlines and other businesses in the terminal and at the airport should have a say in the airport IT planning process. It is becoming typical for airports to survey these stakeholders when assessing the state of the airport when it comes to IT, to incorporate their needs.

Strange says that the first step in the process is performing a conditions assessment to establish a baseline – what is the “as is” condition of the airport? “Strategically define the roadmap,” he says. “These are the priorities; get them into the capital budgeting cycle. Sometimes it’s a completely separate process, having nothing to do with a capital development program at all.”


Varwig explains that where airports in the past have never really had to have a wireless guru or network security person, almost all of the major airports today have people totally dedicated to those job descriptions these days. “We also, as part of the master plans, spend a lot of time thinking about staffing and what the proper staffing level is for the airport,” she says. “And whether airport management likes it or not, the dollars go up on a regular basis. The more technology, the more applications, the more people and budget you need to support it.

“That’s been a large pill to swallow for a lot of airports. They’re being hammered to cut staffs, while the IT departments in most airports that I work with are wholly inadequate to support the applications.

So the stakeholders are clamoring for technology, but airports can’t get more staffing to support it. It’s a dilemma that every client I’m working with now is dealing with.”

Varwig and Strange recently teamed up to assist the Little Rock National Airport with its IT master plan and determined that the airport will need some 8.5 IT staffers internally just to maintain the IT systems. Looking across the national landscape, Varwig estimates there is a rapidly growing demand for IT specialists inside the airport. “Applications developers; network engineers; network security engineers – it’s a whole different classification of people and skill sets,” she says. “Quite honestly, it’s the biggest migration within airports. The guy removing snow is doing it much the same way it’s always been done; similar with operations; planes pretty much land the same way. The dramatic change is the technology piece.”

The two consultants are also involved with Orlando International in performing an update to an IT master plan they conducted five years ago. Explains Varwig, “This was supposed to be a refresh of that. What’s interesting is it’s not so much a refresh as it is whole new ideas. Whole new systems have been created since then. Social networking; the ability to provide enhanced passenger services by doing passenger tracking throughout the terminal itself; the use of mobile applications; the integration of data to create these executive dashboards so that airport operators have a better awareness of what’s happening at all times within their organizations. None of that existed two to three years ago.”


Neither consultant sees the Federal Aviation Administration as being a leader when it comes to IT master planning. Says Strange, “They certainly have now embraced IT with the electronic ALPs [airport layout plans] and having GIS [geographic information systems] in the process. I don’t know I would call FAA a driver; at the same time, some airports being dragged into it kicking and screaming, particularly the smaller ones.”

Varwig echoes the sentiment, saying, “I don’t see them as a driver at all. Look at their own internal programs – when they actually get NextGen put in it will be PastGen by the time they get it there.

"Except for electronic ALPs, I have not really seen FAA be a leader on this.”

Varwig explains that part of FAA’s challenge is that it is a bureaucracy, which by their nature do not react quickly to change. City, state, and county-owned airports frequently face a similar challenge, she says. “Fortunately some airports have the ability to buy and adapt new technology because they aren’t a big bureaucracy. Thank goodness a lot of them are independent agencies where they can adapt quickly. And you will see the difference between city- and state-owned airports versus airport authorities that are more privately managed. The more privately operated facilities move much faster, as a general rule.”

She adds that FAA also needs to rethink its funding requirements for airports, and account for the rapidly growing need for IT at airports. “FAA needs to be more aware of the requirement for technology in those programs and be willing to fund it,” she says. “We run into difficulty all the time with most of our clients; when they’re doing those updates they want to include technology as part of the program, but there are funding limitations within the FAA about what it will fund or let the airport consider. The best we usually get funded is an infrastructure master plan, which is basically the wiring, conduit, duct banks, etc. That’s way short of what does the airport actually need in the building to operate it.”