More passengers, more queues, more delays?


We usually associate the increasing use of air travel with new runways and terminals and larger aircraft. But there are many equally important logistical issues that will have to be addressed in order to handle more passengers on the ground. How will we travel to airports, where will we wait, how can ever more passengers and bags be checked in and passed through security and immigration? Airports must face up to these issues and do so quickly.

There are 25 flights a day from London Heathrow to New York City. If you are a frequent traveller, you appreciate the convenience of regular flights and no doubt have noticed that you are not alone. The airlines are not adding more flights solely for your ease – they are adding flights because more people are flying.

In 1999, 1.6 billion passengers arrived and departed the world’s commercial airports and this figure is expected to grow to 2.7 billion by 2010. (These figures refer to arriving and departing passengers based on origin and destination, as provided by the International Air Transport Association. An alternative figure that takes into account all individual flight segments, calculated by the Airports Council International, is 2.3 billion passengers today rising to 3.8 billion in 2010.)

Much has been written about the safety of crowded airways and the advent of larger, longer-range aircraft. In reality, most of us are much more affected by what happens on the ground than in the air. The list of areas being impacted is endless and thoughtful people in the aviation industry are busy discussing, documenting and planning solutions to deal with the repercussions of this ballooning volume.

Disturbingly, however, a number of airports are adopting a ‘business as usual’ approach. While no one disputes that the industry has always had to deal with growth in passenger volumes, the sheer magnitude of the existing base on which the growth is now occurring warrants attention. Many airports are currently suffering from congestion and reduced levels of service. How will they cope? It appears in some cases that they intend to manage by embracing oft-repeated mantras that may well prove to be incorrect. This article will explore three of those ideas and the implications of their acceptance.

If we can handle the B747, that is ‘close enough’

With the advent of the B747 in 1969, airports had to adapt to deal with a larger wingspan and more passengers. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Boeing continued to produce larger versions of this aircraft culminating in the B747-400 which can seat up to 525 passengers (although it is more typically configured for around 400). Now those same airports are contemplating the impact of the Airbus A380, expected in 2006. The initial model will seat 555 passengers, while the next generation will increase that number to 650.

In many airports there is already noticeable crowding. In particular, for gate lounges or holdrooms, not only are seats potentially increasing by 40–60%, but the function of those facilities has evolved since many of them were developed. Throughout the world, passengers are carrying on more baggage due to lack of confidence in the handling and delivery systems and the desire to reduce time spent in the airport after arrival.

The holdroom space standard of 1 m2 per person that is currently recommended by IATA is woefully insufficient when one considers the additional space required for carry-on baggage. In the US, this problem is compounded by the fact that friends and relatives are able to accompany passengers to the aircraft, creating additional demands on limited space. A number of airports, including Heathrow and Schiphol, try to minimize the use of these areas in favour of retail. However, when delays occur, full flight loads are forced into these undersized facilities. In spite of this a number of airports, primarily in the US, are not making the required modifications to accept the larger passenger volumes which will be realised in this decade. Retro-fitting existing terminals is complex and costly and unless the airlines who ultimately fund the expenditure initiate these changes, they are unlikely to occur.

In new facilities or expansions there are more opportunities to accommodate the increased growth at a reasonable level of service and, with thoughtful design, additional space requirements can be minimized. The historic model of single holdrooms for each aircraft with retail, building systems, or amenities between them simply does not work in the current environment. Operational flexibility, facilitated through appropriate design, is required to fully utilize scarce resources both inside the terminal building and on the adjacent aircraft apron.

Figure 1 illustrates an apron configuration which provides for a mixture of aircraft sizes ranging from regional 100-seat aircraft such as the B737 to the 650-seat longhaul A380. With minimal additional cost, this type of configuration accommodates changes in aircraft fleet which may evolve over time, or result from seasonality or daily peaking patterns. Instead of individual holdrooms dedicated to a single aircraft type, this plan employs continuous holdroom areas that can be used in concert with the variable mix of aircraft. The space premium to accommodate, in this example, one A380 and one B767 instead of two B747s is only 15% compared to the additional 60% required to convert a segregated B747 gate for use by the larger aircraft at a reasonable level of passenger service.

Only the largest airports are impacted

The world’s busiest 20 airports currently account for almost half of the global passenger traffic. With few exceptions, these airports have limited ability to accommodate significant growth. As an example, to maintain its market share Heathrow would have to grow to handle over 100 million annual passengers – requiring the addition of a new runway. If global demand is to be satisfied, airports of all sizes will have to increase their capacities.

Manchester Airport, currently ranked 52nd in the world, has recognized this opportunity in their long-term planning. While operating within their existing limited land-base, they are in the process of developing a plan which not only provides increased aircraft gate and terminal processing capacity, but also connectivity airside and landside to ensure the most flexible and optimal use of scarce resources. Their plan also allows for the accommodation of larger aircraft without the development of costly specialized facilities (see Figure 2).

The scope and magnitude of this issue cannot be overstated. Currently, 25 airports each process in excess of 30 million passengers annually. By 2010 that number will have to more than triple to 80 airports. While the few new sites receive extensive press coverage, most of this growth will occur at existing airports. They will need to find an economically viable way to modify and expand facilities in spite of limited land availability and environmental pressures to restrict activity. At Heathrow, BAA has estimated the cost solely to accommodate the A380 at £150 million, while the typical cost for current terminal redevelopment projects in North America at major airports such as New York-JFK, Newark, Miami, Houston, Toronto, Seattle, Dallas, and Washington-Dulles is in excess of US $1 billion each.

With optimistic estimates of approval and development periods in the range of 8–10 years for significant projects, airports which have not already started this process may well be passed over for those which have planned for the ready implementation of additional capacity when required.

Technology will solve the problem

There is no doubt that the technology revolution is impacting the design and operation of airports around the world. A great deal of work focuses on reducing the time it takes to process passengers and bags. Developments such as radio-frequency baggage tags, biometric scanning for security and immigration, and the myriad of smart card applications, are all increasing the throughput of existing facilities through a combination of reduced processing time and smaller space requirements.

Much of this technology, while new to airports, has been used in other applications for a number of years. The concept of a radio-frequency baggage tag involves imbedding a small device into a conventional paper tag which allows interrogation by various systems without line-of-sight. This enables full reconciliation of checked baggage and, if necessary, easy removal of a bag if a passenger does not board the aircraft. However, disagreements between bodies such as the FAA and IATA over a uniform frequency are delaying mass production (which could reduce costs and allow for a wider deployment).

Biometric identification utilizes unique body characteristics such as an iris or fingerprint scan or facial modelling to provide machine-readable positive recognition for check-in, security and immigration purposes. With a combination of electronic tickets and smart cards, in the near future it will be possible to purchase a ticket (via the Internet), check in (using a PDA), pass through security (with a smart card and biometric identification) and board an aircraft (using the same smart card or your PDA) without interacting with another human being.

To date, the most visible advances have been in the area of passenger check-in. Instead of a single unified process, alternatives such as remote check-in, electronic tickets, self-generated boarding passes, hand-held wireless devices and self-serve kiosks have proliferated. Figure 3 illustrates the value gained by converting conventional counters to kiosks. With kiosks providing an average processing rate of about 50% of the conventional one, more units can be accommodated in the areas previously reserved for passenger queuing. In this example, where a large number of passengers are not checking bags, the processing capacity of the area has been sextupled simply by converting from conventional to kiosk design. This approach retains the conventional desks for baggage handling which provides added flexibility to tackle unusual circumstances.

However, we cannot expect to abolish conventional check-in, and a suitable technology has yet to be developed which reduces crowding in hold-rooms or at service desks during irregular operations such as delayed or cancelled flights. Most innovations in baggage handling have addressed reliability and throughput behind the scenes, while little has been done to support the implementation of smaller or fewer bag claim devices.

In the area of baggage handling in particular, each innovation comes at the cost of many well publicized set-backs. Most new airports have initial operating periods in which baggage systems operate at sub-standard levels (Denver, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur are notable examples). As a result of pre-opening tests in which the baggage system operated below capacity and integration with security systems failed, airlines scheduled to use the new Incheon airport in South Korea are seeking an underwriting of costs due to delays and mishandling from the airport authority. Thus while there are some areas in which great strides are being made, technology alone will not address the expanding demand for reliable airport facilities.

Finding solutions

Increased demand for air passenger travel, and larger aircraft to accommodate that demand, are not new. However, the current base on which expansion is being experienced is now so large that even small percentage changes require significant solutions. This is true for regions with well-established transportation networks, such as Europe and North America, and also for Asia where the increases, and therefore the need, are astronomical. The majority of airlines who have ordered the A380 aircraft are based in Asia and regardless of home location all have plans to use their fleet at least partially in this region.

The logistics of air travel are complex and constantly in flux. Unlike most engineering systems, the primary inputs – people, planes and vehicles – behave with great variability, and are rarely in concert. ‘Capacity’ is not a fixed maximum but rather a theoretical metric which is impacted by weather, local tolerance for delays and congestion, and operational flexibility. The provision of a reliable and comfortable system is necessary, given the existing and growing reliance on air travel to facilitate the way we live, work and play. Globally, airports are being built or expanded to accommodate growth, although frequently only after serious inconvenience and poor levels of service have been experienced for a number of years.

The challenges are real and growing and generally speaking the solutions are expensive, have long development periods and a negative environmental image. Ideally airports, airlines, air traffic control providers, and governments would work together to maximize the global airport network. Only by understanding it as an integrated system will there be opportunities to utilize existing infrastructure fully and, more importantly, to understand the impact that increased throughput in one city has – not only on local facilities, but around the world.

However, airlines, and increasingly airports, are competitors and a fully collaborative approach is not viable. There are a few areas where cooperation is on the rise: air traffic control, through agencies such as EuroControl, is being coordinated and capacity increased through multinational cooperation. Airline alliances promote the transfer of passengers through under-utilized hubs and the consolidation of facilities where multiple partners operate. These measures are helpful in the short term but will not eliminate the need for more and bigger airports. Within North America alone in the next 5 years, US $60 billion will be spent on capital development projects including runways, taxiways, terminals, roads, noise mitigation and safety, just to keep pace with the growth.

All members of the aviation community will be impacted by the continuing demand for travel. They will either implement methods of accommodating growth or pay the economic penalty for stagnation. While technology will no doubt assist in some areas, physical and operational changes are also required. If in ten years we have come to grips with increased traffic and the impact of the A380, we may just be in time to address the 800-seat blended-wing aircraft which is once again being touted by Boeing.

A registered professional engineer with more than fifteen years’ experience in airport consulting, Ms Regine Weston is the Principal in charge of ArupNAPA. ArupNAPA, born of the merger of Arup consulting engineers and NAPA Airport Development Consultants, is a multidisciplinary airport planning and development consultancy with airport development projects at over 100 airports in 40 countries. Ms Weston is an internationally recognized expert in the field of terminal and apron capacity demand analyses and planning schedule development. She is sought after as a speaker at professional conferences around the world and has lectured at educational institutions such as Loughborough and MIT. Email:

Regine Weston

Principal, ArupNAPA

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