Like a gigantic baseball cap made of glass and steel, the roof construction of the new South Terminal rises into the blue sky. Inside the terminal as well, everything is light and bright. Sunshine sparkles through the glass roof, palms give shade. Travelers stroll past 70 shops and almost as many restaurants, cafés, and bars. They look casual and relaxed—as though they weren’t going on vacation or coming back home, but instead are on vacation right here and now.
The planners’ intention is to make sure the 43 million travelers who pass through the halls of Orlando International Airport know at first glance where they’ve landed—in Florida, one of the biggest and familyfriendliest vacation regions in the world. The airport authorities call this new constellation “The Orlando Experience.” However, so far it has only been thrilling users in computer simulations, for the most part. The equivalent of 3.5 billion euros is being invested in the extensive renovation of this busy vacation-oriented airport and the construction of a new terminal. The project, in which the HOCHTIEF subsidiary Turner is participating, is only one example of the current boom in airport construction.
In the USA alone, about 12.7 billion U.S. dollars was invested in airport projects in 2017—an increase of 24 percent within a single year. According to a recent GlobalData report, airport projects worth a total of 737 billion U.S. dollars are currently being planned or implemented all over the world, and more than 100 billion U.S. dollars will be spent on air traffic infrastructure in 2019. According to Hermann Harth, the Head of Building Technology & Planning Coordination at HOCHTIEF, “Three basic trends are driving the investments in airport construction: growing numbers of passengers, enhanced safety measures, and a rising demand for consumer services.” There’s a dense network of airports in Europe and the USA. New constructions such as the one in Berlin have become rare because of the lack of suitable open spaces. “Most of the airport projects that are calling for bidders today involve capacity expansion and refurbishment measures. Airports are making themselves fit for the future,” says Harth, who is now 57 and has worked at HOCHTIEF for almost three decades, providing support for numerous airport projects in the Middle East, Russia, and Greece.
Whether it’s a question of transportation infrastructure measures, the expansion of terminals or new construction, today airport projects are normally carried out in airports that are continuing their operations without interruption and are open around the clock. It’s like performing open-heart surgery. And it only adds to the basic complexity of such projects. As Harth explains, unlike almost all other construction projects, airport project planning allows, and requires, the participation of many different stakeholders. In addition to the clients, operators, planners, and numerous contracting companies, the planning has to take into account the requirements of a wide range of public authorities: Customs offices, police, fire, and health departments, air traffic control, authorities, and many more. “Communication may be the biggest challenge in airport construction,” says Harth.
To find out how tricky it is to build inside the security sector of an airport, you don’t have to go to a billion-dollar temple of aviation like the one in Orlando. It’s enough to look at a seemingly simple project, such as the construction of a new baggage handling system. If Bogdan Rybicki, the 59-year-old Technical Director of HOCHTIEF Polska, is asked at a party whether he and his team make a lot of business trips abroad, he can definitely say yes. That’s because the construction site where his team is building a new early baggage storage center for the equivalent of 24 million euros is, legally speaking, located outside the Polish border. “In order to get to our workplace, every employee, every tool, and every production part has to first be inspected and X-rayed,” he says. And that’s only the smallest obstacle this project has to deal with. In order not to disturb the operations of the airport, which is open 365 days a year, the HOCHTIEF experts have only a window of four to six hours in the middle of the night during which they can actually work. The new early baggage storage center for up to 1,350 bags and suitcases must be integrated into the existing baggage handling system, which must operate flawlessly before and after the short nightly construction sessions. It’s similar to installing a new gas tank in a moving vehicle.
“Awareness of the systems surrounding the project and coordination with them are absolutely critical factors,” says Rybicki. In order to implement the project at all within this constellation, much of the work has to be completed long before construction actually begins on the site. “Twelve months of planning and external production of the structural elements, four months of installation on site, four months of tests and commissioning”—that’s how Rybicki sums up the project’s unusual schedule, which is actually quite typical of airport projects.
CRITICAL BUILDING SERVICES
“Airport projects require an above-average amount of planning and coordination,” says Harth. In addition to the challenges of security requirements and ongoing airport operation, there’s also the technical complexity. An airport terminal is not simply a building— it’s more like a high-tech machine with walls and a roof.
Whereas the building services take up around 20 percent of the construction volume of a normal office building, that percentage is easily double for an airport with terminal, tower, and ground support equipment, Harth explains. Baggage handling, passenger bridges, automatic doors, and security and IT systems—a huge amount of technology has to be installed. And if all of these systems don’t mesh perfectly, or if the interfaces between existing systems and newly installed ones are not perfectly coordinated, the whole airport system can quickly collapse. For example, in spring 2008 London’s gigantic Heathrow Airport was thrown into chaos for days by an ultramodern but imperfectly operating baggage handling system. At one point the airport had a mountain of 28,000 ownerless suitcases; the financial damage was more than 20 million euros. The problem was apparently caused by a computer malfunction. Modern airports react sensitively to any disturbance. That’s because all of their processes are precisely coordinated in order to prevent delays and waiting times for airline passengers. The aim is to channel the growing passenger flows as quickly and smoothly as possible through the facility. In order to make things simple for the passengers, a great deal of work is done behind the scenes, according to Jay Fraser, Vice President and General Manager of Turner Construction Company’s Aviation group. This HOCHTIEF subsidiary is one of the three biggest airport construction companies in the USA, and it’s currently working at ten of the 20 U.S. airports with the biggest passenger volume. That includes Orlando, where Turner recently completed a 360,000-square-foot intermodal terminal to connect the new South Terminal with the existing buildings. Under the glass canopy are three passenger rail systems as well as support for public buses, taxis, and shuttle buses. The program also included the construction of an automatic people mover (APM) system that is being built by a separate contractor. Instead of endless footpaths and moving walkways through faceless tunnels, this system will use driverless vehicles to comfortably move passengers between the terminal complexes in just four minutes. Transportation is becoming faster, and technology is growing smarter. Nonetheless, many travelers still spend more time in airports on account of the increased security measures. All over the world today, the longest lines form not in front of the check-in counters but in the security sector. “Because they’re afraid of missing a flight due to the long security lines, many people are coming to the airport much earlier these days,” says Fraser.
He cites studies that have found that travelers today spend more than two hours in the airport on average before their flight leaves. That leaves a lot of time for shopping and snacking. And it’s an important reason why airports are increasingly transforming their post-security areas into areas that have passenger-centric amenities. “Airports in the Middle East and Southeast Asia that have adopted this focus regularly occupy the top places in the airport rankings,” Fraser explains. In order not to be interchangeable, as is the case with many shopping malls, the trend is to have more local restaurants and retail shops operating in airports. A great example of that will be “The Orlando Experience.”