Level of Service

May 8, 2000


DOT, industry study design in an effort to improve the user experience

By John F. Infanger, Editorial Director

June 2000

RENO — Amid the challenges of building up the U.S. airport infrastructure and modernizing air traffic control, it may seem an inappropriate diversion for FAA and DOT to be spending energies on studying passenger movements in terminals to improve customer service. Yet, considering it may ultimately be the federal agencies that are open for attack when customers are dissatisfied, it may be energy well spent.

And, in light of the growing passenger numbers moving through the nation's terminals, such a study may be just in time. That, in essence, was the message among speakers at a recent session of the Airport Planning, Design, & Construction Symposium held here by the Airport Consultants Council (ACC) and American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE). During the session, representatives of the U.S. Department of Transportation and industry presented the reasons for the study, how it is being conducted, and a pending Advisory Circular based on the results.

According to Zale Anis, research analyst with the U.S. DOT, passenger facility charges (PFCs) served as the catalyst that gave the DOT/FAA "a functional reason" to begin taking a serious look at terminal planning and design. In turn, he says, the agencies are looking to ACC members who are involved in planning terminal design for input.

Gloria Bender, managing principal, Trans-Solutions LLC, says the level of service (LOS) concept, as it is called, was first applied to highways in the 1960s, then to bus terminals and pedestrian movement in the 1970s, and finally to airports in the 1980s. LOS basically has involved two principles: physical capacity and varying demand. In airport terminals, she says, it is commonly expressed as square foot/person.

Guidelines that have served as the industry standard were developed by the International Air Transport Association. They incorporated check-in queues, wait/circulation patterns, hold rooms, and baggage claim. According to Bender, the guidelines work well when evaluating LOS in terminal processing areas but not corridors. However, the consensus of the panel is that dramatic passenger increases in recent years have made it apparent more study is needed.

An alternative view, she says, looks to define level of service based on acceptable passenger processing times, or maximum acceptable delays as well as comfortable space allowances. Airlines, she says, support this concept.

In 1987, the Transportation Research Board surveyed the current state of LOS and suggested that simulation modeling could serve as an important tool for improving terminal design. The idea is to replicate realistic demand at today's airport.

Bender adds that new studies need to consider LOS on airport roadways, because success in the terminal could be thwarted by failure on roadways.

Joel Hirsch, a principal with Hirsh Associates, says "there's an ongoing debate" over whether current formulas serve as high, average, or low thresholds for designers. This is particularly true, he says, when one takes into account the changing demands placed on airports because of security concerns.

Anis says that what the federal agencies would like to devise is a formula that serves as a standard. The mission of the pending Advisory Circular, he says, is to be able to plug in assumptions into a formula which, while not necessarily simple, takes into account variables. A variable might be whether a shuttle is moving leisure or business travelers, who follow different patterns when accessing the terminal.

"We feel strongly that you need a range — a plausible range," he says. "What we're trying to find is data that identifies patterns."

Toward that end, Anis's group has been visiting airport terminals with digital cameras, photographing activity in different areas at different times of day. "It's a very difficult, subjective process," he explains. In particular, level of service is subjective, and identifying patterns requires repetition.

Two digital cameras were strategically placed at 90-degree angles at key passenger areas, such as holding areas and baggage claim. The pictures were then brought back to the office and fed into a computer which then offers modeling data. "The end result of this is a CAD (computer-aided design) model," he explains.

At the time of the Reno session, some 400 images of airport scenes had been collected and inputted, he says. One preliminary result: "It's clear we ... need to look at specific areas and types of activity," says Anis.

Ellen Wright, senior associate with Gensler and chair of ACC's Terminal Planning Subcommittee, asks: "Do we want a definitive guideline (the Advisory Circular) or are we making this process too complicated?" The consensus here was more concrete guidance can serve as an essential tool for those involved in planning, designing, and managing the airport terminal of tomorrow.

Adds Bender, "There's the capacity, but then there's a level of demand that you're planning for. I think your level of service when looking 15 years down the road is what you shoot for today."

Anis points out that the process is ongoing, and that variables are still being defined. Consequently, a series of workshops with industry is planned to establish "an interactive process" for creating the AC guidelines. "We don't want it to be arbitrary," he says. For information, contact Ellen Wright at Gensler: (310) 449-5600.

Technical Considerations
People who are planning and running airports today need to take into account how technology is changing the movement of aircraft. That's the word from Ed Wheeler, vice president and general manager of airport systems for Honeywell International.

Speaking at a session on "Free Flight and GPS" during the recent airport planning symposium in Reno, Wheeler told attendees that making the air traffic control system more efficient will have a significant effect on airports. "If we get it right — and it's not if, but when," says Wheeler, the corresponding ground/airport infrastructure better have kept pace or the congestion moves from the air to the ground.