It takes years to renovate busy airports like congested O’Hare, landlocked Reagan National or sprawling Los Angeles International (LAX). Building a new terminal often means razing another while maintaining the same gate capacity and keeping security lines moving. Going forward, it will also mean supporting what might be a very challenging COVID-19 flight plan.
Given the scheduling issues involved, project controls are the nerve center of these aviation makeovers. Project controls teams organize this hive of activity, estimate its costs, set the projects’ sequence, head off delays and cost overruns and monitor contractor performance. For the past two decades, McKissack’s aviation program and project management expertise has helped cities and airlines get massive airport expansion programs off the ground and keep them aloft.
It’s still an open question how much of this work will slow down or scale back; air cargo demand has been volatile and passenger checkpoints are still far short of normal volume. Cities may need to delay capital plans as their financial capacity is tested in the financial recovery. Even so,the need to upgrade the country’s aviation infrastructure will resurface quickly and aviation project controls will be more necessary to get right than ever before in light of new fiscal—and physical—constraints we will all face in the coming years.
Our experience tells us that airport renovations are complex projects, and meticulously executed,precise aviation project controls will remain indispensable for project success,whatever their future form. Here are three reasons why.
1. Airport Plans Take Flight Over Decades
Construction management jobs keep aviation administrators, program managers and project managers and schedulers busy for years at a stretch. At McKissack, we have experienced this firsthand on three long-term projects—O’Hare International Airport, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Los Angeles International Airport.
O’Hare is now gearing up for an $8.5 billion expansion that will involve an array of project management and construction management initiatives to raze,build and extend terminals in the busy Midwestern aviation hub. In Washington, Reagan National is in the thick of its $1 billion Project Journey to redevelop two terminals,with new security checkpoints and a three-level concourse. At LAX, we worked on a $1.9 billion terminal revamp for Delta Air Lines, the departure point for $14 billion in airfield, facility and access projects.
Experience with large capital improvements and complex projects in other industries gave us the runway to pursue aviation projects. In 2005, when the O’Hare Modernization Program was cleared for takeoff, project controls and program management were critical in rethinking Chicago’s intersecting runways. Federal Aviation Administration oversight brought rigor to the selection process and openings for diverse teams that could bring big plans to completion.
Small and even mid-sized AEC firms are often at a disadvantage in winning construction management and project controls contracts, but McKissack was successful in joining four big teams vying for the O’Hare International makeover. The global AECOM aviation practice, although not one of Chicago’s go-to operators, was the unexpected winning bidder and brought us in—at first, to manage public-facing “land-side” improvements.
What started as a six-person project management office grew steadily as Marilyn White, John Sibenaller and other McKissack project managers were called on to procure the documents, agreements and permits needed for a new runway, a control tower, utility infrastructure, freight and cargo relocations and other improvements.
2. Aviation Teams Book New Connections
McKissack’s aviation practice really took off five years ago when the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority broke from tradition and looked for new talent. We won a direct contract with the MWAA to perform project controls at Dulles and Reagan National using aviation best practices, work that brought us into play as a trusted partner with airport authorities nationwide.
At about the same time, we were supporting Delta in its seven-year program to relocate gates and access the new Tom Bradley International Terminal; providing document control and construction support in the phased build-out of a new LAX central utility plant; and working with the regional transit agency in planning the Crenshaw-LAX transit line, which is scheduled for 2021 completion.
The biggest challenge in aviation project controls and project engineering is that activity on both sides of flight check-in must run at full speed. It’s a particular challenge in the close confines of Reagan National, where steel framing is rising above the arrivals roadway for two new security checkpoints set to open in 2021.
3. Planners Take Center stage to Make Programs Possible
Thanks to its size and scope, modernizing O’Hare is an especially complex and protracted project and shows how program management keep projects airborne. We’ve been working O’Hare for more than a decade to reconfigure, streamline and update runways to improve air traffic and safety.
Construction finally started in 2019 on the last runway extension in this long process designed to speed more passengers to their destinations. But airfield expansion, which will continue into 2021, was just the beginning. O’Hare’s comprehensive program for improvements and expansion—O’Hare 21—is a multi-phase, multidimensional effort that will clear the path to build an array of new facilities, including architect Jeanne Gang’s architecturally groundbreaking Global Terminal on the site of an aging domestic terminal. McKissack is now on two of the three teams that will share in choreographing this impeding dance of construction activity.
The new terminal is scheduled to open in 2028, but first, the existing international terminal must expand as a new home for smaller carriers. Already one of the world’s biggest international facilities, O’Hare’s overall terminal square footage will grow more than 60% from 5.5 to 8.9 million square feet. Two satellite concourses will connect to the Global Terminal via underground walkways.
Like everything else surrounding COVID-19, there’s uncertainty about what will emerge in aviation. Will commuter traffic return? How quickly will airlines recover, and how will airport infrastructure figure in the recovery? Planners are always looking at multiple scenarios, and the most likely ones show the need to prepare airports for future growth. Whatever form that takes, airports will need program managers to stay the course.