While the United States was a pioneer in aviation development during much of the twentieth century, many of its airports border on a state of decay. During the course of this blog, we’ll examine the current state of the nations airports, as well a number of proposed solutions.
Though many complain about airports, often as a result of troubled airline experiences, perhaps comparing major air hubs in the United States to their more modern overseas counterparts is unrealistic. Each airport has its own unique history in relation to the communities they serve. Aviation development in the US increased dramatically after World War II with airport construction complementing that effort. Many of the prime airports in the United States were conceived in an era before the proliferation of both foreign and domestic air routes. Most airport renovation efforts over the last 30 years have involved a limited patchwork process, since many of the hubs are surrounded by urban areas – unlike the modern air hubs of Asia and the Middle East, which serve emerging markets and emphasize architecture and aesthetics over serving large volumes of passengers. For example, Dubai’s main airport covers an area of about 7 million square feet, designed to serve from 25-30 million passengers per year, while the Jet Blue terminal in JFK airport serves approximately 22 million passengers per year in an area less than 1 million square feet. Post 9/11 security and related requirements have also placed additional stress on US airports. The financial and environmental costs of airport construction often make such proposals a political liability. The ownership and control of airports in the United States, a landlord-tenant model between the airlines and the municipalities, also serves to inhibit progress.
Given the constraints on space in many urban areas, airport designers are forced to move up rather than out. In a practical sense, any airport restructuring begins with the check-in process. By placing security and check-in on separate levels, traffic flow is segregated between the two functions. Such an organization divides passengers into two categories – those who are able to check in with the aid of mobile devices, and those who use the more traditional (paper) approach and may require assistance to board their flight. Both groups must pass through security before boarding . Such an arrangement could cut pre-flight processing time by as much as 40 per cent. As mobile technology becomes more dominant, it offers air carriers both the convenience and flexibility to book flights outside the confines of an airport. Satellite check-in sites at hotels, restaurants and shopping centers allow airlines the option of verifying and staging passengers from remote locations, requiring less staff and processing time. Delta airlines, for example , has set up its own security service at a major airport from which to process passengers. This concept provides both security and marketing benefits.
A recent trend in airport check-in procedures is the use of self-service technology. Miami International Airport purchased approx. 45 automated kiosks, to reduce customs and immigration processing time. These automated kiosks can process a passenger within two minutes, making what was once a grueling check-in process a relatively seamless one. Several major air hubs are embarking on outside improvements to enhance the passenger experience. For example, Chicago O’Hare began a $15 billion capital investment program in 2005, transforming the current system of intersecting runways to a series of parallel ones, which will increase capacity by 60 % while substantially reducing delays. An additional control tower, runway and cargo center are under construction at O’Hare and are slated to be operational in about three years. Los Angeles International began an $8.5 billion expansion program in 2006, with construction completed on the New Tom Bradley International terminal in 2013 with new dining, gates and retail areas designed to meet the needs of international tourists. Related projects include the updating of Terminal 6 to meet the needs of large scale aircraft, such as the Airbus A380. LAX is also building a new Central Utility Plant, as well as taxi and runway improvements.
Understanding how the above innovations affect terminal operations will be the key to the future success of the nations airports. As air traffic continues to grow despite economic and other setbacks, passengers will continue to demand more control over their travel experience. Airport planners must continue to emphasize key passenger services such as transit, parking and baggage claim to remain competitive, while focusing on the core mission of airports as gateways to the world.