Automated People Movers Help Passengers Move Along

July 1, 2015
Automated people movers are passenger-friendly transport systems that move passengers via rail between and within terminals, and to and from regional transit centers, and are a must when looking to improve airport accessibility.

As global airline passenger traffic continues to increase, access to and from airport facilities has become a top planning priority. As airports embark upon major infrastructure enhancements, they continue to struggle to meet increasing passenger demand with even greater efficiency and use of state-of-the-art technology. In congested urban areas where airports are often landlocked and infrastructure expansion is not always possible, the most efficient combination of intermodal transportation options must be considered and implemented.

Increasingly, large international airports worldwide recognize the importance of mobility to passengers and employees and have implemented automated people mover (APM) systems, which have been successfully used for surface transportation for nearly four decades. Bytransporting passengers via rail between and within terminals, or to and from regional transit centers, people movers have proven to be a viable passenger-friendly transport option and an inherent part of future airport expansion plans.

Automated People Movers

Automated people movers are transit systems with fully automated, driverless operations, featuring vehicles with up to four cars each, capable of carrying 20 to 100 passengers who are mostly standing. Traveling on guideways with an exclusive right-of-way, they are distinct from traditional heavy- and light-rail public transportation in that they operate without drivers or station attendants. Typically, people movers are able to use a narrower right-of-way and smaller vehicles than traditional rail transportation services.

Benefits of APMs

Light rail transportation alternatives, including landside people movers and intermodal transit centers, have the ability to reduce traffic congestion in the immediate airport vicinity as well as alleviate passenger congestion within the facility. Mixed-mode transit expedites passenger flows at busy airport facilities and can minimize traffic bottlenecks in and around passenger terminals.

Automated people movers can solve the problems of increasing transit deficits, traffic congestion and associated air pollution, and significantly improve the overall airport passenger experience. With easier boarding and capacity flexibility, global airports are embracing this transport technology.

Terminal buildings are often spread out in today’s airport environments, thus APMs can enable greater numbers of passengers to move more quickly over longer distances, when walking or buses are not feasible. This helps passengers arrive at their aircraft gates faste,r and with less stress, especially those traveling at large airline hub operations.  

More recently, APM systems are being designed to connect airport terminals with landside facilities such as parking, car rental services, regional transportation services, hotels and other related employment and activity centers.

San Francisco International Airport’s intermodal solution is a classic example of seamless connectivity between the airport and the local metropolitan area. The airport’s automated people mover–AirTrain–links directly with the Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART), which is a heavy rail line that serves many municipalities in the San Francisco Bay Area. Passengers can travel more conveniently between their homes and the airport, leaving their cars at home.

The HNTB-designed BART to San Francisco International Airport Extension and Stations project was a $500 million six-mile extension of underground subway, one mile of at-grade trackway and one mile of aerial bridge structure. The extension provides a direct train-to-plane connection that has become the No. 1 choice of air travelers taking public transportation to San Francisco International Airport.

Planning and Integration

The planning process for an automated people mover project involves a carefully documented program, which begins with identifying airport needs and concludes with a complete project scope for optimal design, construction and implementation. It is important to note that the people mover design is a subsystem of the whole airport system. Thus it is essential to conduct all planning in close coordination with the airport’s overall planning process since the APM will connect with and affect other major airport facilities.

Implementing an advanced transit system requires significant advance planning, including environmental impact studies, passenger traffic and surface transportation congestion analysis, construction feasibility, impacts to other airport facilities, required permits and approvals, and airport coordination with affected agencies. Regional and local areas should consider the benefits of reducing individual vehicle trips into and around an airport property. Additionally, operational challenges must be addressed including how to handle security screening and baggage handling for airport passengers who are using a people mover system at an airport.

In an existing operational airport environment, there are significant challenges to consider when integrating this new transit option with current systems. These include design and coordination of right-of-ways with passenger facilities and traffic congestion in existing facilities. Maintaining reliable service during construction phases involves not only a requirement to address alternatives, but also the development of a contingency plan for any impacts to conveyance and processing of passengers.

HNTB, which has designed and developed many automated people mover systems at airports around the country, offers one noteworthy key lesson it learned along the way.  People movers are designed to increase the speed and frequency of conveying passengers on the system, making the entire travel experience more efficient and pleasant. They should should relieve travel anxiety, not add stress to the passenger’s journey.  

Growth of Automated People Movers

Around the world by last count, there are 46 airports with automated people mover systems already in operation. In North America alone, 23 airport systems are in use and another four have been proposed: Albuquerque International Sunport; Charlotte-Douglas international Airport; Denver International Airport; and Los Angeles International Airport.   

HNTB’s work on airport automated people movers includes the Tampa International Airport Master Plan, with recommendation for a $4 billion modernization and expansion including new consolidated rental car facility linked to the main terminal via an automated people mover; Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s South Concourse Development, which includes plans for new midfield concourses served by a second secure APM system in order to serve 153 million annual passengers; and the Minneapolis St. Paul Airport Hiawatha Light Rail Transit Tunnel and Stations, a $112 million project including design and program management services for twin light rail transit tunnels and two new stations—one at-grade and one 65 feet underground.

The Future

Given that global airline passengers are expected to rise 31 percent by 2017, and even more in the future, automated people mover systems will need to continue moving forward in order to meet imminent needs. These systems will evolve with the development of more airport “cities” that are turning into destinations for doing business as part of the global marketplace and world economies. They will need to efficiently and effectively transport passengers not only to and from an airport, but within the campus where business takes place.

Historic trends for airport people movers include driverless vehicles that operate on a dedicated track without rails. Personal rapid transit, also called podcar, is a public transport mode featuring small automated driverless vehicles operating on a dedicated track without rails. PRT is a type of automated guideway transit (AGT), a class of system which also includes larger vehicles all the way to small subway systems. Future possibilities include automated people mover systems that can integrate with rail and provide more efficient green technologies.

At London Heathrow, the personal rapid transit system has a fleet of 21 pods, each capable of carrying four passengers and their luggage at speeds up to 25 mph on the dedicated guideway. The pods are battery-powered, driverless vehicles offering a convenient and efficient way to travel to and from the terminal.

Automated Transit Networks (ATN)-- in which fully automated vehicles on exclusive, grade-separated guideways provide on-demand, primarily non-stop, origin-to-destination service over an area network--has been around since the 1950s. However, at this time only a few systems are in current operation around the world. This advanced technology may eventually become a viable solution for current and future transit problems in highly populated urban centers.

With additional automated people movers opening around the world, it is clear that they continue to be a highly effective passenger conveyance mode for airports. Looking ahead to the future, airport planners will continue to demand improved mobility, enhanced accessibility and technological advances for automated people movers to be able to meet the needs of tomorrow’s airports and their passengers.  

BIO: Peter Aarons is West Division aviation director and associate vice president for HNTB. He has more than 25 years of experience in planning, development, design, program and project management, and construction for airports. Contact him at [email protected].

About the Author

Peter Aarons

Peter Aarons is West Division aviation director and associate vice president for HNTB. He has more than 25 years of experience in planning, development, design, program and project management, and construction for airports. Contact him at [email protected].