Aviation has had a turbulent year. COVID-19 brought sudden shifts in the movement of passengers and cargo, as well as new workforce and logistical challenges to construction sites in airports. Yet by grounding air travel, the coronavirus also crippled airport operating revenues. Construction management firms like McKissack & McKissack must respond to changing conditions and priorities for current airport renovation projects.
Yet airports are far more than control towers and runways. McKissack’s aviation projects span an ecosystem of terminals, gates,concessions, people movers, air cargo and rental car facilities, parking garages, hotels and offices on the airport grounds, as well as the infrastructure of roads, bridges, utilities and stormwater systems that stretch beyond the airport fence. These “airport cities,” self-contained units of public and private development, are under unprecedented stress. So are nearby hospitality and entertainment businesses that feed on passenger traffic, as well as suppliers to the aviation industry.
More than half of North American and global airport revenues come directly from operating fees for such things as terminal usage, ticketing taxes and fees airlines are charged to cover emissions or other environmental costs.But thanks to the pandemic, passenger traffic has hit record lows. At the same time, business activity that also funds airport operations—from airport parking to rent-paying concourse shops and restaurants—has also foundered. Domestic air cargo stayed strong, but international logistics fell off course, further diminishing revenues. Federal statistics tracked a steep drop in airport operating revenue,to one-fifth of 2019 levels by the end of March.
Project Controls Contend With COVID-19,Air Travel Turbulence
Operating revenues also repay bonds that fund the complex, decades-long airport projects that require McKissack’s planning and project control expertise. Scheduling the sequence of work allows airport construction work to go on without disrupting passengers or air cargo. With COVID-19 restrictions,scheduling became more complex. We like to say project controls is the perfect imperfect science, where a single delay can set off a chain of compensating speed-ups elsewhere. Yet amidst the uncertainty created by the pandemic,project controls have been not only effective but also the key to keeping projects on track.
Project controls allow the upgrades at Chicago O’Hare,Washington Dulles and other airports to move ahead on time and on budget. For example, in O’Hare’s Terminal 5 expansion McKissack supports overall construction management and project scheduling, plus quality control and quality assurance for concrete, structural steel and electrical work inside and outside the existing international terminal. Federal funding during the COVID crisis allows such critical projects to speed ahead at full throttle.
In one respect maintaining social distancing is easier in the emptied-out terminals. Maintenance crews are at work in public areas, constantly sanitizing doorknobs and surfaces throughout the day. Construction management enforces workplace safety by keeping workers separated whenever possible and enforcing rules on mask wearing. Contractors can’t control what happens outside of work hours, but most have turned Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines into strict job site mandates.
Finances Imperil Future of Aviation Industry
Future airport plans will likely make indoor air quality a top priority. As we’re learning in K-12 school design,fresh air plays an important role in limiting the spread of any pathogen, not just the coronavirus. Ventilation is harder to control in lofty multistory concourses than in flight, where cabin air changes 20 to 30 times an hour with hospital-grade air filtration systems. Airports and other public facilities likely will be required to circulate more fresh air and filter out or neutralize more airborne particles going forward.
Designs may also evolve to reflect new ways to move people through airports. Many of our projects started long before COVID-19, such as relocating O’Hare’s rental car facility and extended people mover system.Airport policies and procedures are evolving under the pandemic, though. They may set the stage for different types of lounge seating or other post-COVID interior design changes.
However, the financing issues triggered by the pandemic has put major plans on hold throughout the aviation industry, and for the related businesses that have turned airports into veritable cities. For example, the cash crunch may make it necessary to scale back airport improvements in Denver, Austin and other U.S. cities.
The speed of recovery is hard to predict. A slice of lucrative business travel may be lost to teleconferencing platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. The International Air Transport Association(IATA) predicts air travel won’t return to pre-COVID level still 2024, while some airport operators warn the rebound might come years later.
Even so, airports play key roles in the economic development of entire regions. They support a skilled, creative and innovative workforce, a responsive manufacturing supply chain and tourism to an area’s natural or cultural assets. Cities must continue to invest in planning to meet these needs, so that expansion or renovation projects are ready to begin once a vaccine takes hold. Not only are airport cities as complex as the people they serve, they will undoubtedly play a leading role in recovery and growth after the pandemic subsides. Planning must continue—especially in down times—to avoid missing opportunities when the economy recovers.