The U.S. Travel Association forecasts that air travel is expected to grow through 2026 and will surpass pre-pandemic levels by 2024. With Americans spending more money on travel, airports are focused on reducing passenger congestion and improving traveler experience.
The recent Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has allocated $25 billion toward investment in airports. Additionally, from May 2022 to September 2022, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) awarded more than $3.2 billion dollars to over 1,500 airports through their Airport Improvement Program to pay for improving airport safety and accessibility, construction of new and improved airport facilities, runway and taxiway repairs, and purchasing equipment needed to operate and maintain airports. This funding has resulted in an increase of construction at a majority of the 3,300 public-use airports across the U.S.
PCL Construction has completed nearly 300 aviation projects in the U.S. and is currently managing more than a dozen active airport projects across the country. Rule number one of working at an airport: do not affect airport operations – landside or airside. This requires extensive planning and communication to make sure all activities are communicated to stakeholders. The project team works closely with all stakeholders to first understand the needs of business operations so a comprehensive plan can be communicated for all construction activities.
The Terminal 2 expansion at San Diego International Airport (SDIA), for example, required tying a terminal expansion into the existing terminal – over a span of 900 linear feet – which included multiple electrical, mechanical, plumbing and data systems that maintain airport operation. To maintain effective communication, an interface team was created and lead by PCL Superintendent Jared Landa, who regularly communicated construction plans with a single client point-of-contact. “The contract required work plan submittals to communicate all activities, but the team took it a step further. We communicated every detail about our task lists with each work plan, outlined how the task could potentially impact the airport and what the project team will do to mitigate impact. The work plans were supported with attached, easily consumable visuals and schedules to effectively communicate construction activities,” says Landa. Over the course of the project, nearly 400 work plans were created, in some instances more than a year ahead of planned activities. The detailed work plans began with the enabling projects and the proven success of the process built trust between the project team, airport operations and on-site tenants from the beginning.
Landa also adds, ‘having a plan to stay ahead of activities is important to not only deal with on-site operations and tenants, but additional entities – the FAA and Transportation Security Administration (TSA).” Planning for turnaround times from government entities are key to maintaining a project’s schedule. Approval times are typically more than a month so having a meticulous, outlined work plan eliminates questions that can delay construction activities.
PCL has consistently worked at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac) supporting renovations and upgrades within the terminals. Larry Rhodes, estimator in PCL’s Seattle office explains that not disrupting operations is a driver in planning the work. “We recently completed an Alaska Airlines lounge renovation and the first thing the project team looked at was how to access the site without disruption to passenger and airfield movement,” says Rhodes. To move in and out of the active construction site, away from passenger and airfield operations, the team removed a large section of the window to access the project and set up a secure perimeter. “Moving materials in and out of the site takes excessive planning and coordination. At an airport like Sea-Tac, we have a small window from late at night to the early hours of the morning where passengers are not typically present in the terminal so we are not disturbing business operations within the terminal.”
Construction activities can never interfere with stringent security measures in place at airports.
Superintendent Stephen Davis has extensive experience working at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), most recently on the West Gates at Tom Bradley. “The very first thing that comes to mind with building at an airport is safety and security – not just during construction activities, but in logistics and planning.” Working at or near airport operations requires strict security clearances. Construction projects have a number of coordinated deliveries and planned activities that seem to take on a life of their own; however, planning logistics of deliveries and activities starts as early as onboarding to train trade partners and workers before coming onsite. Without appropriate clearances and planning, the delivery of materials and equipment can be delayed, affecting the work plan and schedule of activities.
The minute details are important for maintaining a safe and secure site. Shielding airside construction activities, such as welding is important to remove distraction from pilots while taking off and landing planes. Additionally, securing an outdoor site is imperative to prevent foreign object debris, also referred to as FOD, that can disrupt airplane operation by clogging the engine.
Preparing a secure site airside or landside requires extensive training of personnel, and constant communication of methods and procedures to ensure secure processes are top-of-mind for all personnel on-site.
One procedure the team at SDIA quickly became familiar with was checking tools in and out before and after every shift to maintain and verify a secure construction site. It’s imperative to keep track of all tools used on an aviation construction site – especially behind security screens – to eliminate safety issues or concerns from misplaced tools. “Sometimes we would have four pages of tools we were planning on using and we would check them in with an airport inspector. At the end of the shift, we would check them out with the inspector and every single tool had to be accounted for – or else planes were not leaving the ground.”
Airports are a living entity with constant activity and connectivity.
With extensive airport construction experience, PCL marries technical build knowledge with understanding airport connectivity and operations. Blake Holtom, construction manager in Denver, Colorado explains, “our extensive planning, thought process and the fact that we are experienced builders helps our project teams identify risks ahead of time and develop multiple contingency plans.” PCL never approaches a tie-in or a utility shutdown with just one plan. The ability to provide multiple, legitimate contingency plans is one of the things that sets PCL apart.
Davis also stresses the importance of work plans and backup plans when working at an airport. “It’s one thing to have a planned schedule, but there are so many things that we do on an active airport that are extremely time sensitive and our work plans may call out details down to the hour.” Backup plans are necessary with high-stakes operations. The review of plans is collaborative and extensive. Not only does it involve trade partner expertise, but airport personnel who are in charge of the taxiways and runways to make sure everyone is on board with the process, the plan and the contingencies.
Holtom explains, “we have to slow down and over plan to make sure we are in lockstep with airport operations and their priority of moving planes and people, while maintaining a high level of security and safety. Patience is the foundation of a successful airport expansion.”