There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the aviation industry to its knees. Passenger traffic is at an all-time low, with the Transportation Security Administration showing traveler throughput down nearly 68% over this time last year. However, there’s a silver lining for airports pursuing capital improvement projects during this time: with airports largely empty, they can accelerate construction schedules.
At Gresham Smith, we’ve encountered this on several projects lately. Our renovation of the ticket level at Tampa International Airport (TPA) was slated to take a total of eight months and the main body of the work wrapped-up a month early. Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport’s (FLL) Concourse F Renovation in Terminal 3 opened four months ahead of schedule, while the airport is looking for additional schedule savings in other phases of the Terminal 3 Modernization Project.
I recently sat down with Senior Vice President Grant Clifford and Senior Architect Ben Goebel to discuss how they’re helping Aviation clients take advantage of lower passenger volumes to fast-track construction and what the benefits are of accelerating the process, as well as what this trend may mean for the industry going forward. Keep reading for highlights from that discussion.
Wilson Rayfield (WR): We’ve seen many airports halt capital improvement projects amid the pandemic, but at the same time, we’ve also witnessed several of our clients eagerly pushing projects forward. Why do you think that is?
Grant Clifford (GC): It’s understandable that airports are apprehensive about continuing with projects while simultaneously experiencing significant loss of revenue and dealing with the ambiguity of not knowing when passenger volumes will rebound. However, many of our clients are aware that a new terminal or other improvement projects are long term investments and that these improvements can take a long time to design and construct, by which time travel should have rebounded.
Ben Goebel (BG): I agree—I think this period has allowed airports to take a step back and re-focus on their vision for the traveler experience. This is a chance to be opportunistic and make lemonade out of lemons, so to speak, by making as much headway as possible before passenger volumes begin to rise. It’s time to strike while the iron is hot.
WR: I agree, there’s a tremendous opportunity right now that we hopefully will never see again. In your experience, how much front-end planning has gone into accelerating construction schedules?
BG: I’m currently working on several projects at FLL and have seen varying degrees of planning. Terminal 3 is comprised of two separate concourses, E and F, each of which have 10 gates. Our renovation of both concourses was slated to take a total of 14 months, however, the halt of international flights and fewer domestic flights allowed the airport to move all of Concourse F’s operations to Concourse E. By completely shutting down Concourse F, the team could build more rapidly, and that allowed us to complete the first half of the renovation four months ahead of schedule, in July. As you can imagine, this effort took extensive thought and planning from all project stakeholders before shutting down an entire concourse. Once it was determined that the pandemic was going to last at least through the end of the year, we were able to utilize lessons learned from Concourse F and apply the same complete shutdown approach to Concourse E, which opened right before Thanksgiving 2020, rather than mid-2021 as originally planned.
However, sometimes you don’t have the luxury of time and you have to simply go for it. In mid-April 2020, when passenger volumes were at their lowest, we took advantage of the reduced vehicular traffic to install large LED signs over the airport’s main roadway. We had spent months developing a phased approach, which involved hanging one sign at a time with multiple phased lane closures in the middle of the night. With significant reductions in vehicular traffic we shelved the original phasing plan and gave the general contractor the green light to perform entire installation at one time.
GC: At TPA we were several months into renovating the ticket level when the pandemic hit. Work was previously restricted to night-hours and required the contractor demobilize at the end of each shift so the ticket counters were available for use each morning. Reduced passenger volumes and suspended operations by the international carriers allowed us to take over larger work areas, work longer hours and in some areas keep equipment set up and screened off. This has enabled the contractor to increase staffing and improve productivity.
Arguably the most important planning was on the contractor’s part, as they developed a rigorous COVID-19 screening process for all jobsite employees. Virus-free tradespeople means they have been able to avoid any jobsite shutdowns. In the end, the project is currently projected finish a month ahead of schedule.
WR: Talk to me about the financial impacts of these accelerated schedules. Are airports seeing any cost benefits?
BG: FLL has saved money by accelerating the concourse renovation. With the reductions in General Conditions and overall schedule savings, we theoretically saved $1 million. However, you have to account for additional staffing for the increased workload. The real cost savings is yet to be determined, but the savings on concourse F will be in the ballpark of $300,000, while the savings on concourse E has been forecasted around $600,000.
WR: Accelerating construction is definitely a risk/reward scenario, but it sounds like it has paid off in Fort Lauderdale. What about the unforeseen impacts? Have accelerated schedules impacted airports in ways you didn’t expect?
GC: Any time you speed up construction it can potentially make the facility feel less like an airport and more of a construction site. Travelers and airport staff are accustomed to construction occurring behind walls, so it’s a change when construction and equipment is more visible.
That being said, reduced passenger volumes currently afford us the opportunity to be more disruptive than would normally be acceptable. At the end of the day, I think it’s about working closely with the entire project team and managing expectations.
BG: We’ve seen the same thing at FLL. I’ll also add that the accelerated construction schedule posed a challenge for the design team that we didn’t expect. Our permitted construction drawings required modification to account for the newly phased approach so that partial certificates of occupancy could be obtained. As each area was completed and available for occupancy quicker than originally anticipated, we had to update our design drawings each step of the way before obtaining the necessary permits from the building authority.
WR: Last question and then we’ll wrap it up. What advice do you have for airports that are hesitant to push projects forward?
BG: I think it’s important to remember that even though the aviation industry is hurting right now, airports push communities forward. Not only from an economic perspective, but also by creating connections between travelers and the place they’re visiting.
GC: Agreed. At the end of the day, customer satisfaction benefits the bottom line. Yes, revenue and passenger volumes are down, but they won’t stay down forever. And when people start to travel again, it’s imperative to give them a memorable experience that keeps them coming back for more.