Moving Forward

April 15, 2009
As airports and consultants meet, stimulus funds, right-sizing top the agenda

DENVER — This year’s Airport Planning, Design & Construction symposium — which brings together airports, consultants, and regulators — was surprisingly upbeat, in anticipation of the impact of $1.1 billion in stimulus funds directed at airports by Congress in February. There was a sense that the industry was moving forward again. Among the agenda items, a hot topic was right-sizing of terminal facilities in uncertain times.

The annual symposium is co-hosted by the Airport Consultants Council (ACC) and the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE).

Benito ‘Ben’ DeLeon, director of airport planning and programming for the Federal Aviation Administration, outlined the stimulus fund program, which directs the agency to distribute at least half of the funds by June. DeLeon anticipates that FAA will have doled out all the stimulus dollars by September 30. The emphasis is on shovel-ready projects — those which can be completed within two years.

[For more on DeLeon’s comments on the stimulus program, see ‘Inside the Industry.’]

Comments T. J. Schulz, vice president with ACC, “What we’ve seen over the past few years with the inability to get long-term FAA reauthorization in place, generally it’s been difficult for airports to implement their projects in a rational manner. A lot of stopping and starting. In the meantime, the highway program has been up and running; their current authorization expires this year.

“One thing I have heard, particularly in the Northeast, some contractors have dropped their airport activities and are focused on the highway side as a result of the stop and starts with the FAA program.”

One question that has come to the forefront is the impact of commodities such as steel and concrete on overall construction costs. Two years ago at this conference a major concern was the accelerating costs of materials, which was making cost projections difficult. With the global economic downturn, however, some recent airport construction bids have been coming in lower than originally projected. Should that become the trend, it could have a significant impact on how far stimulus funds and future Airport Improvement Program dollars go. Yet, both DeLeon and Schulz caution that once the highway stimulus funds kick in, the demand could again cause costs to escalate, while also putting a strain on the contractor community.

Rethinking the build-out
Another major issue related to airport construction, in light of the volatility in the airline industry, centers around terminal design and right-sizing facilities. Presenters here stress that it’s a matter of planning, modeling, and getting buy-in from all related stakeholders.

“Consider the implications of a contraction,” says Jill Tiedt, director of aviation services development for Michael Baker Jr., Inc. “An airport has to be flexible.”

Tiedt points to Pittsburgh International Airport as an example of a facility that has been forced to rethink its model because of decisions made by the airlines, notably US Airways. “The staff has had to address change very, very quickly,” she says. Her firm was hired to help develop an efficiency plan and one consideration was to mothball parts of concourses until demand increased. She also relates that because Pittsburgh officials had developed a comprehensive contingency plan, the airport was able to maintain its credit rating.

Gloria Bender, a managing principal with Ft. Worth-based TransSolutions LLC, is currently working with two airports that are in the process of developing new terminals. She explains that computer modeling is playing a central role in the planning process and can have a significant impact on building a facility that is sustainable in the long term and meets future customer needs.
Explains Bender, “We’ve have several clients who are in the process of developing expansion programs. As the forecast numbers or the depressed enplanements data from last year come in, several of them have asked us to go back and do a sensitivity analysis, looking at what we would suggest in terms of the needs for the program, with some revised demand forecasts.

“It’s sort of your base case going forward. A sensitivity analysis, the way we think of it, is we’ll go back and say, what if instead of that original forecast where we expected a peak hour of ‘x’, and now we see that the forecast is only going to produce a peak hour of ‘y’, will we want to build this much facility and be able to maintain customer service levels?

“Just because your enplanements are down doesn’t mean that it reflects a trigger point that says you can build less facility, or that you should build less facility. That’s what clients are having us look at.”

Bender says that the planning process itself has changed. Historically the process involved broad-brush concepts up front, with additional details added each step of the way. Computer modeling, she says, has changed the game.

“What I’m suggesting is, pretty much after you have a forecast you can start building in a lot of detail. The sooner you add in detail, you’re going to start thinking operationally. How will this building actually work? And, what will we have to do to run it? Start getting your arms around what are the lifecycle costs of the building? By incorporating all those details as early as you possibly can, you’re going to get a more sustainable design.”