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Airports that work

Airport terminals - designing for profit

Sydney International Terminal

Stephen Logan, Airports Leader - Landside, explores how innovative engineering can ensure greater returns on capital expenditure (CAPEX) and simultaneously save on operational expenditure (OPEX) in today’s evolving airports environment.

Why is designing for profit so crucial in today’s operating environment?

The aviation industry is highly competitive and rapidly changing, affected by constantly evolving passenger behaviour, technological developments and of course fuel prices.

Airports are not immune to this pressure as they have to compete for traffic by offering excellent facilities at reasonable landing charges, while achieving a good return on investment for stakeholders. This is true whether the airport is a privately owned or government owned facility.

Great design has the potential to significantly alter the profit equation of an airport and should be a key consideration from the earliest planning stages onward.

What are the benefits of designing for profit?

Very few lines of business require the astonishingly large amount of CAPEX that airports do. If this CAPEX is not carefully controlled, especially in terms of initial expenditure, it could take a long time to recover this initial investment from revenue earned. There is therefore a huge business interest in optimising spend (i.e. containing the initial cost of building these types of facilities) while simultaneously maximising their revenue-earning potential and minimising operating cost. The only way to achieve this is by designing for profit.

What kind of thinking does designing for profit entail?

Designing for profit can be succinctly summarised in just three words: ‘Client Environment Design’. This entails thinking about a client’s business needs, including their customer’s wants and needs. It also encompasses considering the climactic and physical environment of a project. Only once you’ve understood these complex factors should you start to think about design.

With any terminal it is desirable to create a pleasurable experience for their passenger, however, it is important that the design considers more than just passenger amenities. Designing for profit requires clever thinking around why we design airports the way we do.

Those designing airports should ensure the three elements of successful business remain top of mind: maximising revenue, minimising capital expenditure, and containing operating cost.

How can airports maximise revenue?

Typically, airports involve three revenue streams:

  • Landside parking – Passengers and ‘meeter/greeters’ pay money to park their cars
  • Retail –  Passengers and ‘meeter/greeters’ spend money at the airport’s retail space (shops)
  • Passengers –  Passengers (through airlines) pay airport landing fees

While the passenger isn’t likely to give much thought to the last of these three streams, the first two are strongly influenced by passenger behaviour. Thus, revenue is maximised if airport design properly considers the behaviour of the passenger.

A customer’s willingness to spend on parking is strongly influenced by ease of access, speed of reaching and proximity to the check-in area. The customer must have a clear sense of the orientation of the car park to the check-in area as well as how long it will take to get from their car to this area.

Retail revenue is strongly influenced by passenger mood, as well as available opportunity and time. Achieving a balance between these factors is a key design challenge.

Generally, passengers won’t consider retail until their check-in is complete, and in some instances, until they have successfully passed through security and immigration. In the same manner, travellers on their way to their boarding gate often won’t browse retail space at all until their gate is safely in sight. Once they have secured the location of their gate, passengers often then decide whether sufficient time is available to consider shopping.

Other design factors which influence retail spend might include:

  • Natural light levels – In any retail environment, spending levels have been shown to be consistently higher when there are good levels of natural light.
  • Bright, well-considered shop fit outs, enhanced by good display lighting, are beneficial in terms of increasing consumer spend.
  • A balanced retail offering is also important. Overdoing the presence of luxury brands can be intimidating to some customers, however, under-representing these brands could diminish a consumer’s shopping experience.

There have been instances of airports that have been designed which, from a passenger amenity perspective, have been hugely successful. These very same airports have, however, been classified as commercially disastrous. In one recent example of such an airport, passengers could catch public transport to the landside kerb, check-in, pass through security and walk to their gate incredibly quickly. The terminal was beautifully executed and quite rightfully gleaned technical and aesthetic acclaim. It was, however, possible to depart overseas at this same airport without being enticed to spend any money on parking or at the airport’s stores. The airport owners were subsequently forced to retrofit retail outlets into the departures hall, ensuring passenger flow through the retail space was achieved, increasing their likelihood of spending.

How can airports minimise capital expenditure?

There are a number of possible ways in which to reduce the initial capital cost of a project:

Minimise the size of your building

The first step toward minimising the size of a building could, conversely, start on the outside of a building. Quite often, terminal design reacts to an apron layout which has been designed for simplicity of aviation operations only. Tweaking the apron layout can greatly reduce the amount of building area required.

Another obvious, but often overlooked, design principle is to consider the extension of aerobridge links. Once a passenger has been checked on to the aircraft and is moving into the link bridge, they are unlikely to notice if these are 10 m or 15 m longer. Pulling the building facade back by 10-15 m can decrease building area substantially.

Ensure optimal spatial efficiency

Of particular importance for airports is the safe and comfortable movement of passengers through the building. Emergency evacuation routes also need to be considered. These requirements should be met within the tightest space possible.

Historically, many spaces within an airport were often designed by comparing them against other facilities, or simply by assessing what looks right. The effect has been that within many airports, spaces are far larger than they actually need to be. This has a very marked influence on CAPEX. Coupled to this, as the spaces concerned are artificially lit and air conditioned, there is an ongoing effect on OPEX.

Today, it is possible to simulate the spatial performance of a building before it is actually constructed. To achieve this, Aurecon currently uses two pedestrian circulation modelling tools. Aurealis, a visualisation tool, enables clients to answer the question ‘How will this facility look and feel once built?’ This software provides very realistic 4D renderings of airport spaces, including the movement of people. To compliment this, STEPS is used to provide more explicit engineering outputs such as travel time and speed.

Used together, these tools enable designers to experiment with different inputs until the correct balance between aesthetic and commercial performance is achieved. In airport terminal design, this most often means finding the ideal application in terms of:

  • Concourse widths
  • Departure lounge sizing
  • Check in areas
  • Queuing arrangements at security screening and at the gate

Clever use of fire safety engineering to reduce CAPEX

It is also possible to use clever fire safety engineering to strip CAPEX from a project. There are several common methods of accomplishing this:

  • In the large volumes of a terminal, steelwork will not be exposed to temperatures that would cause it to weaken. Accordingly, exposed structural steelwork can be incorporated into the design for both aesthetic and cost benefits.
  • Eliminating unnecessary fire compartmentation also has significant cost benefits. Many building codes place limits on the maximum size of fire compartments allowed in a building. This can lead to fire walls being erected where they are not sensible from an architectural planning point of view. It is, however, possible to prove that temperatures within a terminal in the event of fire are low and hence other materials, such as glass, can be used to control the spread of smoke rather than fire walls.

In addition, reducing sprinkler protection in large volume spaces where it can be shown they would never activate as well as using link bridges as fire escapes can  also assist in cleverly reducing cost.

How can airports contain operating costs?

Clever consideration of natural light

Designs that carefully consider natural light can have significant running cost advantages over those that do not. Airports often include large glass facades as a matter of course.

This makes sense in countries where the savings in artificial lighting exceed the cost of cooling, and will eventually reduce OPEX. However, in countries such as South Africa, facades like this trap an incredible amount of heat and airports are then forced to spend large amounts of money on cooling.

Another consideration is glare. Too often, there is a perception that if some natural light is good, then more must be better.

Re-thinking circulation spaces

Passengers are often subject to an artificially controlled environment which begins at the kerb at their departures airport and ends at the kerb at their destination airport. Many patrons would welcome a break from this. In the right climate, the use of external circulation spaces could not save on running costs in terms of negating the need for lighting and cooling, but also provide a welcome break from this environment for passengers. Airports don’t have to be entirely enclosed and there is a huge opportunity, particularly outside of the tropics, to take advantage of this cost-saving measure.

The quality of an airport’s design has a significant bearing on both its initial capital cost and its long term profitability. Overall, profitability should be a key metric in the evaluation of the design.

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