Four trends in efficient airport construction

Crews work on the West Parking Garage, one of many new structures going up at LaGuardia Airport in New York City as airport work surges nationwide. Skanska USA is working on the facility’s new Terminal B. (Image courtesy of LaGuardia Airport)

With comparisons to the “third world” invoked by both former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump, the decrepitude of America’s airports might be one of the few bipartisan issues left in this country. The Airports Council International–North America seems to agree, stating in its latest five-year outlook that the nation’s airfields will require an estimated $100 billion by 2021 to keep up with current and future needs.

It’s a problem that’s only going to get worse, too, given that the International Air Transport Association expects nearly two thirds ($18.1 billion) of 2017 airline profit to come from North American carriers—and it predicts that the number of air passengers worldwide could double by 2035. “It’s a huge uptick,” says Dwight Pullen, a senior vice president at Skanska USA and director of its Aviation Center of Excellence. “Airport infrastructure needs are completely on the rise. In my time in the industry, the last 20 years, I’ve never seen anything like this in the US market.”

Skanska is one of several major firms currently tackling a serious amount of airport work nationwide to help the US climb out of its hole, including a terminal rebalancing at Portland International Airport, in Oregon; a retail and concessions expansion at Tampa International Airport, in Florida; enabling projects to get existing facilities out of the way for a midfield satellite concourse at LAX; a new AirTrain station and the renovation and expansion of a boarding area at SFO; and, finally, the $4 billion P3 project to upgrade New York City’s LaGuardia Airport. The firm, like all others, is looking for ways to pick up the pace of such work now that there’s more of it, and below Pullen lays out a few of them.

Alternative Delivery Methods

The classic method for project delivery is design-bid-build, but the fix-things-as-you-go philosophy that accompanies it has always posed a problem for complicated airport projects. ““When owners, designers, and contractors work in their own silos, it can lead to design changes, constructability issues and change orders,” Pullen says. “‘Change order’ is a bad word in airports; airport leadership does not want to hear about changes.”

As a result, over the past 10–15 years, new delivery approaches have become more popular, and the most popular is known as construction management at risk (CMAR) delivery, or sometimes as construction manager/general contractor (CM/GC) delivery, according to Pullen. “You bring on a construction manager that will hold all the subcontracts,” he says, “but the construction manager will actually start when design starts and will work collaboratively [with the designer and the owner] to try to get the best efficiencies out of the design and estimate it.”

Approximately 50–75 percent of major airport projects implement some sort of CMAR approach, according to Pullen, and another delivery method known as design-build is close on its heels. “Design-build is when the contractor has the architect and engineer as [subconsultants],” he says, adding that airport owners didn’t care for it about 15 years ago because they didn’t want to lose influence over designs. “Now, … they call it progressive design-build, where the contractor and the architect and engineer are at the table with the owner, and the owner has all the influence and a more integrated team. … Designer and contractor are now contractually obligated to work together—versus two separate contracts.”

P3 projects such as the LaGuardia upgrade are a type of design-build, and Pullen says they help to reallocate risk. “In the case of LaGuardia, it was a very complex, very tight site,” he says, “and so they wanted … the contractor to control all the interfaces of all the projects [there].”

The new Terminal B that Skanska is building at LaGuardia Airport is part of a larger $4 billion P3 project. Such design-build projects give contractors a better seat at the table from the beginning of the work and help prevent excessive design changes. (Image courtesy of LaGuardia Airport)

More Engagement with Regulators

One of the biggest pains of airport work is the approvals process that airports have to go through with various regulators, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state-level environmental agencies. “Typically what held up a lot of airport projects in the ’80s and ’90s was just the environmental part,” Pullen says, later adding, “LAX, that was a 20-year master plan that ended the planning stage and went into design and construction about six years ago. They had to go through all the environmental approvals to get their master plan even approved.”

Environmental concerns typically apply more to airfield work, which Skanska isn’t focused on, but Pullen says that those who do work on airfields will try to work “more as a partner” with various regulators, finding ways to get around problems such as noise pollution, air pollution, and displacement of endangered species through what are called records of decision. “What that really means,” Pullen says, “is that the airport and the environmental folks and the Federal Aviation Administration have to get together and say, ‘This airport needs this; what’s the most expedited way of getting through the approval process?’”

Because of this, “airports are not taking 5–10 years to do planning anymore,” Pullen says

“Airports are not taking 5–10 years to do planning anymore”

— Dwight Pullen, Senior Vice President and Director of the Aviation Center of Excellence, Skanska USA

Rethinking Project Phasing

Another difficult aspect of airport construction is the fact that it’s done in a live environment—around passengers, flight crews, ground crews, moving planes, and open stores and restaurants. This tends to result in smaller project phases that minimize disruption but prolong the life of the projects. “You’re seeing, for about five years, construction equipment going through your airport,” Pullen says.

Thanks to alternative project delivery methods that bring on contractors earlier, though, project phasing is getting rethought as well. The owner or operator of an airport might only look at a project from an operations and level-of-service standpoint, Pullen says, and contractors help them see how costs can be offset by a shorter construction schedule. “We’ll try to say, ‘Listen, can you do with a little bit more pain for a lot less time by allowing us to take this whole area and block it off so that we can build it faster?’” Pullen says.

Skanska combines BIM and animation software to illustrate the accelerated phasing of its projects for owners. “You put a timeline, a phased timeline, on BIM, then you can … shift and model your phasing so that all the operators and the tenants can actually see, ‘OK, that won’t be that bad,’” Pullen says, noting that sometimes his firm even employs virtual reality to put owners in the middle of the theoretical job site. “Imagine taking the preliminary design of a terminal and actually seeing how the construction operations would impact people getting to their gate, especially during peak times.”

Implementation of new technologies

Airport construction has yet to encounter any of the technological silver bullets that have accelerated bridge construction over the past decade, but there are a few tools that make the process easier than it used to be.

Skanska is always asking itself, “How can you get the work done with the least impact to passengers?” according to Pullen, and to this end, the company has created the inSite Monitor for its live-environment work. The product allows users to keep track of excessive dust, vibration, and other annoying construction byproducts in and around job sites, in real time, and property owners and operators can access the information at the same time as workers, keeping everyone on the same page.

Additionally, the company is looking at technologies it might be able to use before construction even begins, including the Guardian S robot (formerly the multidimensional mobility robot, or MDMR), from Sarcos. Airport work entails a lot of renovation, and the snake-like Guardian S could help Skanska explore older terminal walls for asbestos, lead paint, faulty wiring, and other hazards before tearing them down.

As more such technologies present themselves, America’s airports could catch up with the rest of the world’s sooner rather than later.