Aviation Infrastructure: Don't Spend. Invest.

William A. Fife
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William A. Fife

When it comes to upgrading airport infrastructure, an old axiom serves best: "Prepare and prevent, don't repair and repent."

Oil priced over $150 a barrel? The number of airlines slashed by a third? Not too long ago, such statements would have made people laugh. No one is laughing anymore. Things have changed in our evolving economy, and they will keep changing. But no matter what state the economy is in, infrastructure investment should be sacrosanct.

When times are tough, people tend to think in the short term. But that is never an appropriate way to view the aviation business. However difficult it may be, aviation professionals must emphasize long-term thinking and strategic planning, particularly when economic times are austere. Still unconvinced? Look no further than the nearest restroom.

Who thinks of restrooms when money is tight? Operations people do. They hear the complaints when an airport doesn't have enough restrooms. They also know how much more it costs to install new restrooms after a facility is built. I have seen too many situations where people skimped on installing an adequate number of all kinds of elements 2 - from elevators and escalators to restrooms to lighting and HVAC components - only to bemoan the fact three to five years later.

Because of life-cycle savings, it's almost always better to install more expensive elements up front-despite the initial cost. It is vital to view infrastructure expenditures as investments. Because when you neglect core elements - the backbone of your facility - you inhibit your facility's ability to operate (and grow) efficiently. And what's true for bathrooms is equally true for hangars, runways and terminals. Countless times I have heard operations people say, "If they hadn't value-engineered this out and that out, it wouldn't be costing me so much to run this operation!" So don't just spend; invest.

Technology provides important opportunities, too, allowing you to create capacity and reduce the need to replace infrastructure. For example, some really smart airports and airlines have automated portions of the customs process, extending the life of customs halls for as much as 10 years. SeaTac implemented automated passenger check-in processing so that they didn't have to expand their check-in facility for at least 10 or 15 years. Technology has its advantages; use them.

Green buildings and operations provide another golden opportunity. Once a trendy innovation that has now become a routine fact of life, functioning "green" is here to stay. But it's not just an environmental strategy. It's now a part of overall business efficiency. Airports in Europe are five to ten years ahead of U.S. airports in that respect. We've got to catch up and eventually take the lead. Not only do green strategies provide considerable cost savings, they also help mitigate growing community sentiments against airports and airport expansion projects.

Finally, be flexible. Don't build for a specific carrier, platform, or technology. Why? Consider the evolution of these truisms:

"Regional jets will only ever capture 15 percent of the market."

"Regional jets have captured a third of the market!"

"We're phasing out 30- and 50-seat regional jets because they're too expensive."

Change is the only thing that stays the same.

Recently we completed a comprehensive peer review with Aéroports de Paris. Every one of these points was carefully covered. It will serve you well to participate in peer reviews. There is no better way to know what works, what doesn't work, and what's going on in aviation.

Things change. And tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today. Prepare and prevent, don't repair and repent.

Bill Fife is a former corporate officer of DMJM Harris
and past chief of aviation planning for the Port
Authority of New York & New Jersey.


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