Canadian Consulting Engineer

Climbing on Board: The Airport Development Boom

March 1, 2000
By Bronwen Ledger

We have all heard the horror stories of air rage -- passengers flying into a fury and pushing, kicking and biting flight attendants. The most outrageous case was the businessman who became so enraged ...

We have all heard the horror stories of air rage — passengers flying into a fury and pushing, kicking and biting flight attendants. The most outrageous case was the businessman who became so enraged he defecated on a food cart. Last year there were 120 reported incidents of air rage on Canadian aircraft.

But even while we find air travel increasingly frustrating, most people are still excited about taking a trip to the airport. Air terminals are associated with romantic vacations to warm and exotic places or trips back home. There’s all that buzz in the concourse: families anxiously awaiting long-absent relatives, businessmen hurrying on their way. By the time you’ve gone through the security gates and have paid your airport improvement fees, you’re tired and irritated, but out on the tarmac the thrill returns. The plane surges forward and lifts off, and you feel a pitch in your stomach. The weighty bird seems to hang in mid-air, as if just for a second gravity will have the better of all that aeronautical engineering.

But Regine Weston, P.Eng. really loves airports. She flies almost every week to meet clients in Canada and the rest of the world, so you would think she’d be jaded by air travel, but she is not. To this surprisingly young — and female — president of NAPA Airport Development Consultants, planning new airports represent the ultimate engineering problem. “I’ve only ever done this job,” she says with delight. She likes the fact that there are so many different parties looking after their own interests — the airlines, the passengers, the cargo carriers, the retail concessionaires — but no-one but planners like her are looking at the big picture. Weston has the job of sorting out infinite complexity, and possible infinite chaos, and trying to make sense of it in an overall plan.

Weston and other consultants specializing in airport development are especially upbeat these days because the business is booming. Spurred on by the government’s policy to commercialize them, airports across Canada are expanding their facilities.

Meanwhile, more and more developing countries in regions such as South America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Eastern Europe are also building airports and need the skills of those wise in the engineering ways of the west. Globalization has driven up the demand. According to Mike O’Brien, director of airport development for the International Air Transport Association (IATA) based in Montreal, 1.5 billion people rely on air transport today, and one-third of the world’s manufacturing exports are transported by air. He expects the airline industry to grow five per cent over the next 10 years, which amounts to an economic impact of $1.8 trillion.

O’Brien was one of the Canadian and international players in airport development who met at a one-day conference in Ottawa in December. The event, first of its type in this country, was organized by NAPA and Industry Canada. It was chaired by Weston, and focused on “Winning Contracts in Commercialized and Privatized Global Airport Markets.” It was also intended simply to bring people in the industry together to talk.

What many of the speakers ended up talking about was how there is a huge demand for airport work, and a shortage of experienced firms to manage it. Apparently there are relatively few organizations worldwide, whether planners, engineers, architects, developers or builders, who can fill the demand for the private sector to take charge of airport building and development in all its complexity.

Many consulting engineers do airport work, but mainly in traditional roles where they are responsible for one aspect of the project. They might be hired to design the access roads and other groundside infrastructure, to do civil or geotechnical work on the aprons and runways “airside,” or to be responsible for the structure or systems in a new terminal building. On the following pages are four notable examples of such projects.

A major shift in these traditional discipline-based airport projects is the focus on environmental protection, which can affect everything from the design of a de-icing facility (see pages 31 and 41), to a terminal’s air cooling system (see page 35). Frank Edamura, P.Eng., vice-president of airports with Marshall Macklin Monaghan in Toronto, suggests that other changes ahead in the engineering of airports will be the need to build in more security and automation, and to design terminal footprints to accommodate bigger and wider jets.

The biggest change in airport development is at the organization level. As airports throughout the world leave the purview of governments, consulting engineers can take a more instrumental role in their development. A few firms like Marshall Macklin Monaghan have already begun. Edamura says that things changed for them in Canada with the development of Terminal 3. Completed in 1992, this was the first major privatized design-build airport project in the world. The consulting engineers helped to initiate and assemble the project team, and went on to be project manager.

Traditionally, Edamura says, the building of airports in Canada was kept in the hands of the government: “Transport Canada had complete control over planning and design,” he says, “and they then parcelled out the assignments on a discipline-by-discipline basis, so that there was no engineering consultant that had the opportunity of doing the entire job.” The only place they could take charge of an airport development was overseas.

In 1963 Marshall Macklin Monaghan had been project manager, designer and construction manager for Abu Dhabi State airport. “That is how we got our experience,” Edamura says. “Overseas they required that all the design be done by the consultant and so our exposure was complete.” Today the consultants list their airport skills as going far beyond strict engineering. They are, says their brochure, specialists “in airport privatization, BOT [build-operate-transfer] and design/build airport development.”

NAPA is another firm that has carved out a role for itself at the front end of airport development. The key staff were originally the airport design group of NORR, an engineering and architectural firm located across Bloor Street East in Toronto (NAPA originally stood for NORR Airport Planning Association). NORR itself evolved from Parkin Associates, architects of the original 1960s Terminal 1 at Pearson International, which was a groundbreaking design in its day.

In the late 1970s NAPA split off from NORR. Weston explains the rationale behind the new firm: “The idea was to be able to keep architects and engineers who had airport experience dedicated to airport projects. I am sure that engineers involved in any field will tell you there are a lot of things that are unique about their building type, but there are a lot of things that are unique about airports. You have to understand who the users are. An airport is not like an office building, which is of a homogenous nature. The clients are people who are working on a global basis, the technology changes incredibly quickly, and different airlines operate in different ways.”

NAPA has flourished as airports are privatized. With a staff of only 23, the firm has a project tally of 60 airports in 30 countries. The walls of their office are covered in artists’ renderings of airport schemes they have been involved with around the world. Weston is particularly proud of their master plan for the massive new Pearson International Airport, which is clearly visible in the final design being built. (Pearson’s footprint, like many airport plans these days, is a crescent shape, which makes them easy to expand.)

Another big part of NAPA’s work is helping owners to structure privatization bids and assess submissions. They also do due diligence research for funding entities like the World Bank. As Weston says, she has been on both sides of the table in airport development and found them as exciting as each other.

Recently there have been big changes at the firm. A division led by David Wong, P.Eng. that develops award-winning
software for scheduling flights, allocating gateways and simulating passenger flows has separated to become part of a global organization called SITA. Then in February, NAPA announced it is teaming up with Arup, the U.K. engineering behemoth.

If the Arup-NAPA marriage of planning specialists with engineers is a sign of mergers to come, we are going to see the field of competitors in this field narrowing even further. However, another development is offsetting the trend. To the consternation of private consultants, airport development corporations, which were set up by governments to manage airports, are starting to offer their services as consultants worldwide. Aeroports de Montral International and YVR in Vancouver are venturing out in this way.

Privatization — Pros and Cons

When it adopted a National Airports Policy in 1994, the Canadian government handed over control to local airport authorities. Since the government retains ownership of the facilities, it prefers to call this process commercialization rather than privatization.

With no federal or other government financial support, the not-for-profit airport authorities have to raise finances through user fees from the airlines, passenger airport improvement fees, and retail concessionaires. They are supposed to become financially self-sufficient within five years. Of the 26 major airports in Canada only four remain to be commercialized: Quebec City, Gander, Fredericton and Prince George.

The decision is still out on whether Canada’s airports will all break even (only Toronto Pearson and a couple of others were profitable before privatization), but that has not stopped the airport authorities launching huge new development plans.

Most people in the industry agree that having the private sector involved in airport development is a benefit, especially when construction is done by a design-build process. Edamura points out that the 1992, $650 million Terminal 3 project in Toronto was designed and constructed on budget and in only 36 months. “If that had been done by the public sector in the traditional method it would have taken much longer,” he says, and quickly provides real examples to prove his point.

But even Edamura, who after all has a stake in promoting the privatization approach, admits that it is not always the perfect answer. In Terminal 3, for example, some people find the arrival hall is too small. “The staff in the public sector were quite critical of those kinds of details,” he recalls. “They felt [the design] didn’t fully meet the needs of the terminal users.”

The question is whether we see airports primarily as a business or as vital nodes of infrastructure. If the latter, then are they a public amenity which the government must provide, no matter what the cost? Some believe so. In Canada, however, we are shifting to the former approach. And with profits at stake, the interests of the passengers and users don’t always come first.

The need for profits puts pressure all down the line onto passengers. At the Ottawa conference, O’Brien complained on behalf of the airlines that the airports are a virtual monopoly and can hold the airlines ransom to pay high user fees.

The airlines are also a business and operating on tight margins. It is more economical for them to have disruption and delays than to provide spare capacity. Consequently, flights are inevitably delayed and passengers inconvenienced when there are mechanical problems. Passengers are further exasperated by steeply rising airport fees. In London Heathrow, the most celebrated privatized airport, every passenger now has to pay Cdn. $17 in fees. In these circumstances, don’t expect that air rage will disappear.

Weston finds it exciting to work for the private sector. She says that the financing focus brings a different and interesting perspective into play. Economic concerns force planners to look at things in new ways and act as a curb on overbuilding. The developer may decide not to provide a particular amenity or service, for example, if it is not justified by the rate of return.

But then Weston does not have to worry about crowded check-in counters and delayed flights. When her plane is grounded, she simply disembarks and calls the client to say she can’t make the meeting. Her clients understand immediately because they are all in the business. No wonder she still likes airports so much.


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