Inside the Fence

Jan. 2, 2008

On consultants and their role in the aviation marketplace ...

In the 1990s, it was the era of consolidation for the Garretts and Honeywells of the industry. In the past ten years, it’s been the FBOs. Throw into the consolidation mix the aviation consultants, who design, build, and oversee airport projects from corporate hangars to entire airfields.

At the November annual meeting of the Airport Consultants Council in Phoenix, the topic du jour was indeed consolidation. It’s become part of the vernacular. Comments ACC president Paula Hochstetler, “It appears to us that the consolidations are happening because firms are wanting to position themselves to better serve airport clients, as projects become more complex. It brings a diversity of expertise, by acquiring firms with technical expertise in place.”

While in North America and globally there are plenty of airport projects to keep consultants busy, there is a growing concern that the necessary talent pool isn’t coming out of U.S. schools. (They must be studying video games.) Acquiring other firms, it seems, helps to fill the talent pool.

Read more about the business of consultants in this issue’s Business Profile. Central to that story is URS, indicative of the industry consolidation.

Laddie Irion, a former ACC chair, heads up the aviation business for URS and says of the engineer shortage: “It’s a problem.” In turn, he says, it could lead to more outsourcing for expertise to other countries. (It’s not a stretch to see the day when a consultant loses a bid because a ‘Buy USA’ politico wants to grab onto a campaign issue, and the consultant is employing Asian engineers.)

A few outtakes from Irion ...

  • On a trend with airports to try and pass off liability to the consultant: “The airports are definitely trying to shift responsibility and accountability where they can to contractors. Our company is very concerned about that. For example, for design/build projects, we now have a design/build team that, when a procurement comes out, reviews it. Is it a reasonable procurement for us?”
  • On the need to modernize air traffic control (he’s on a JPDO working group): “If they can’t get enough planes on the ground because of airspace, they may not need to have certain airfield or facility improvements until FAA can bring the airspace up to par.”
  • On the possibility of FAA restricting access at JFK: “We have projects that may be going forward if FAA does not put in those restrictions. If they do, those projects could stop. So, one of the problems is not necessarily the availability of runways or terminals, but of airspace and controllers and NAS capacity.”
  • On the business of general aviation: “We do a lot of general aviation work. It’s an area consultants shouldn’t avoid; those airports are important to the system. We just got a contract to do a corporate hangar for Starbucks at King County [WA] airport. My career started at GA airports.”

Thanks for reading.