Planning on Uncertainty

Robert Chicas
Published in: 

In planning and designing airport terminals, there are no static certainties. Technology, facility and operational requirements are constantly evolving. Change is driven by the aviation industry's innate volatility: shifting business models, emerging technologies, life-safety threat mitigation, sustainability initiatives and transit integration, to name just a few. Add peak-hour capacity criteria, passenger service metrics and expected facility lives of 40 to 50 years, and you have challenges better suited to fortunetellers than to architects and planners.

As an airport executive director and former client once observed, "We all clearly know what we know, and some of us are fortunate enough to know what we don't know. But what concerns me most as an airport director is not knowing what I don't know." More and more, planning for flexibility is becoming the mantra for terminal operators and airport authorities. As airport planning and design professionals, we are all well aware of the steadily increasing space demand for retail and concessions areas, and for passenger security screening checkpoints - a function that didn't even formally come into existence in the United States until the early 1970s. At the same time, ticketing and check-in hall functions continue to trend smaller as a result of alternative check-in technologies.

Today's pre-security functions may very well need to be post-security functions tomorrow. Advance Imaging Technology equipment and 100% employee screening will almost certainly be the new norm...and the list goes on and on.

Examples of airport terminal buildings that have failed to adapt to physical change abound. Terminals conceived in specific eras with a particular set of assumptions didn't anticipate change or adequately allow for adaptation. We regularly see TSA security screening operations jammed into ridiculously tight areas; retail and concession areas - the contemporary airport's economic well-being - are too often shoehorned into the unlikeliest spaces. As a result of these ad hoc solutions, basic passenger levels of service (circulation, amenities and clear way-finding) are diminished. Sadly, perfectly serviceable and sound terminal buildings are incapable of cost-effectively adapting to the evolving operational realities and economic imperatives of an ever-changing industry.

How Best to Anticipate?

With thoughtful planning, it is possible to create a flexible airport terminal framework that can readily accommodate change. Whether conceived as high profile, iconic architecture or envisioned simply as low-cost background structures, terminal buildings are basically enclosures of space. By strategically organizing fixed elements or terminal hard points (stairs, elevators, mechanical shafts, restrooms, etc.), the rest of the terminal plan can conceptually be viewed as flexible and reconfigurable. Similarly, creating a terminal-wide backbone network for IT and power infrastructure, or preplanning for these future infrastructure rights-of-way, can help accommodate unexpected future changes in the terminal layout.

Above all, thoughtful attention to the structural grid and its potential impact on overall flexibility is essential. The benefits of column-free volumes are readily apparent and crucial in providing flexibility despite the cost premium of long-span structures. Concourse circulation areas and hold-rooms can be sized and reconfigured as circumstances dictate without being governed by column locations. When hard-points are strategically placed, gate hold-rooms can more readily be reconfigured or combined to suit the needs of specific airlines, as well as shifting retail requirements.

Needless to say, any plans for remodeling and/or reconfiguring an operational airport terminal environment involve critically important and highly sensitive construction staging and phasing considerations. However, it should be entirely possible, beginning with the earliest phases of terminal planning, to think in terms of flexibility and lay the groundwork for unanticipated future change. And in the process, the useful life of these very important and costly airport assets can perhaps be extended. Put another way, we can help our clients better anticipate and manage "not knowing what they don't yet know."


Robert Chicas, AIA, is a director of the HOK Aviation + Transportation practice and sits on the HOK board of directors. Chicas' core expertise is in the management and delivery of mid- and large-scale airport projects including the new $390 million Indianapolis International Airport terminal, Will Rogers World Airport Planning Study and George Bush Intercontinental Airport APM System. He has also served as a visiting critic at Columbia University and Parson School of Design.

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