All systems go!

With traffic levels hitting new highs, an ever increasing number of US airports are investing in new infrastructure and technology to avoid a potential capacity crunch in the near future, writes Mary Scott Nabers.

Following a near-total collapse of air travel during the COVID-19 pandemic, early 2024 marks a significant milestone as North American air travel is finally returning to normal.

Normal, however, may not be the appropriate word because many airports are experiencing significantly higher passenger demand. The demand is driving a significant need for expansion and renovation, resulting in an abundance of new airport projects.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provided $15 billion for all kinds of airport projects. This funding has been streaming out since 2022 at a rate of about $2.9 billion per year. And the outflow will continue until 2026.

To date, approximately $9 billion has been made available to airports, and about $6 billion is left to be allocated.

Airports big and small are feeling the pressure to grow their infrastructure. One such gateway is Pensacola Airport in Florida, which has experienced a 40% increase in passengers, creating an immediate need to expand its terminals to accommodate the growth.

Funded partially by the Florida Department of Transportation, a new $70 million project to expand the existing terminal’s capacity by about 50% will begin soon.

While the design process is still underway, the expansion is expected to include larger security spaces, a second concourse with five new gates and numerous new concessions. Plans also call for additional parking spaces and improving utility infrastructure throughout the airport.

Elsewhere, in Ohio, officials at the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport will soon launch a massive expansion project to the facility’s main terminal and concourses.

Funded through grants from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and non-aviation-related revenues, phase one of this project is expected to be the most significant phase in construction, and it carries a cost projection of $780 million.

It will expand the main terminal building to include new spaces for ticketing, customs, baggage claims and security. It will also relocate the existing car rental building and add additional parking.

Later phases of the project will reroute the airport’s surrounding roadways. The design phase may be ongoing through 2025, and if that is the case, construction will potentially begin in late 2025.

Meanwhile in Connecticut, Tweed New Haven Airport executives recently received federal approval to move forward with plans to expand the airport runway and build a new 70,000-square-foot terminal and airport entrance.

The $165 million expansion will increase the airport’s capacity, keep up with regulatory requirements and reduce noise pollution from increased air traffic. According to planning documents, phase one of the project will include a $74 million cost for land acquisition, obstruction removal, design work and then construction of the new terminal.

Also included will be runway extension and noise mitigation. Other project components include more land acquisition, expansion of a maintenance building and fuel farm, a taxiway expansion, and the construction of additional hangars. A construction launch may be delayed until 2026.

While most airport projects involve construction and expansion, technological improvements will almost always be required to increase the efficiency of airport processes.

Orlando International Airport, for example, is looking to identify a partner to install an Automated Parking Guidance System to enhance the operational efficiency and ease of use of its huge car parking operation, which boasts 22,000 parking spaces across numerous parking garages and surface lots.

A newly launched request for proposals asks bidders to provide software, hardware, equipment, installation and seven years of support and maintenance for the system, which is expected to cost around $10 million.

The new parking system will monitor vacant spaces in real time, provide coloured indicators to indicate full and empty spaces and deliver parking information on roadway signage and online applications.

Another large project worthy of note can be found at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport where the Texas gateway is looking to build a new concourse to raise its capacity to accommodate increasing demand for air travel in Central Texas.

The Concourse B project will deliver a 20-gate concourse with passenger and tenant spaces, state-of-the-art passenger boarding bridges, an expanded baggage handling system and improved apron support spaces.

Additionally, it will feature extensive underground utilities, including an in-pavement hydrant fuelling system. The project will also include constructing a new sub-grade tunnel to connect the Barbara Jordan Terminal with the new Concourse B facility.

The design will provide the capability to expand to a new Concourse C when the time is right. The tunnel project will likely include an Automated People Mover corridor.

With a towering projected cost between $1.1 billion and $2 billion, the Concourse B and tunnel project is scheduled for completion in 2030.

Expanding our lens to the wider scope of North American aviation, notable developments are underway at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), one of the busiest airports in the world.

With a staggering budget of $14 billion, designers will plan to enhance the passenger experience and increase operational efficiency. Plans include the revitalisation of the international terminal, upgraded amenities and improved transportation infrastructure to alleviate traffic congestion around the airport (See page 34 of this issue for more details)

Similarly, Houston Intercontinental Airport (IAH) is establishing an innovation hub to foster collaboration between airport stakeholders, technology companies and start-ups. This hub will focus on developing cutting-edge solutions to enhance passenger safety, streamline operations and improve the overall travel experience. This initiative reflects IAH’s commitment to embracing innovation and leveraging technology to meet evolving industry needs.

Terminal A, one of the two original terminals at IAH since 1969, will undergo a significant upgrade. The FAA funding allows for the implementation of sustainable and modern design elements, ensuring a comfortable and state-of-the-art restroom experience for passengers.

Additionally, the funding will contribute to the ongoing revitalisation efforts in Terminal D. Recent construction projects in Terminal D include the replacement of flooring, furniture and lighting, along with new paint to create a more modern and aesthetically pleasing environment for travellers.

The United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) has allocated a total of $970 million in Airport Terminal Program (ATP) funding to 114 airports across the country. This includes $10.4 million designated for widening the arrivals terminal access road by two lanes at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) and $2 million for various upgrades and improvements at Spokane International Airport to enhance passenger experience and accessibility.

In addition, SEA is implementing sustainability initiatives as part of its expansion efforts. These initiatives aim to reduce the airport’s carbon footprint by incorporating renewable energy sources, improving recycling programmes, and promoting the use of electric vehicles. These efforts align with the airport’s commitment to environmental stewardship and responsible growth.

Furthermore, the DOT has invested approximately $225.6 million in Washington state airports to modernise airport infrastructure, with $82.565 million allocated through the ATP since 2022.

Federally funded airport projects will continue to launch through 2026. Many more are currently in the planning stages.

The expansion era of North American air travel promises to usher in a new chapter of prosperity, connectivity and sustainability for the aviation industry. As airports adapt to the evolving landscape of post-pandemic travel, strategic investments in infrastructure, technology and sustainability will play a pivotal role in shaping the future of air travel.

With collaboration and innovation at the forefront, airports are poised to meet the challenges and opportunities of the post-pandemic era, ensuring a seamless and sustainable travel experience for passengers worldwide.

About the author

Having written two books on infrastructure, Mary Scott Nabers – the president and CEO of Strategic Partnerships, Inc – is recognised as an expert on public private partnerships.

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