World Class Airports

The picture above is just an artist's vision of how airports may look sometime in the future, but in recent years some proposed airport developments have been criticised as being unwanted or needed ‘marble palaces’ – but who can accurately determine where the dividing line between desire and necessity is drawn? (Siemens)

Are they an obsession, a myth or a reality, asks Inderjit Singh.  Until recently he was the Senior Vice President (Airports) Dubai Aerospace Enterprise (DAE), a former Executive Director of New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGIA) and an ICAO Airport Consultant.

The picture above is just an artist's vision of how airports may look sometime in the future, but in recent years some proposed airport developments have been criticised as being unwanted or needed ‘marble palaces’ – but who can accurately determine where the dividing line between desire and necessity is drawn? (Siemens)

Labels of ‘world class airports’ have recently become very fashionable in the aviation/airport parlance.  More so in the emerging economies of the developing nations where it seems large sums of money have been committed indiscriminately to achieve this perceived status.
There is a danger that this phenomenon can be a cover-up for the shortcomings because of inadequate due diligence, assessment of risks, planning, and implementation of cost-effective and prudent solutions.  In the wake of demands by private operators for User Development Fee (UDF) and Airport Development Fee (ADF) from airlines at several recently commissioned international airports developed on Public Private Participation (PPP) model, the respective governments (on analysis of the realities through appropriate cost and performance audits) have realized that a contributing factor has been an extravagant approach towards the developmental cost. Consequently, this approach raises the total cost of any task by adding what should be avoidable hefty charges that cause a great deal of resentment amongst the airlines and passengers.
Incidentally the airports under reference, all handling more than 10 million passengers annually – a universally accepted yard stick for self sustaining and profitable airports, were earlier profit making ‘cash rich’ airports and in addition to sustaining themselves, were contributing towards the development of other ‘cash strapped’ airports through cross subsidising.  Some of them have made it to the IATA’s ‘Wall of Shame’ list last year for increasing airport charges.  During this year reportedly, in addition to persuading the governments of UAE, India & UK among other countries to abolish such charges, IATA claims to have convinced several countries to withdraw various taxes on the air transport industry, including getting the Netherlands to cancel the Air Passenger Tax and Mauritius not to impose a tax on aviation fuel, to avoid adverse affect on their tourist inflow.
The analogy here can be drawn to the case of the much misunderstood ‘Aerotropolis Concept’ in the past wherein the rat-race to build large and larger sized airports was overriding at certain airport development ventures, overlooking the basic premise to first establish the need, feasibility and sustained economic viability.  Airports were being conceived in the spirit of one-upmanship akin to other lofty buildings; those contributing to the urban skylines, reflecting advancement of modern technology, acting as symbols of national pride and an attraction to the tourists.  Emulating the same spirit in the development of predominantly service-oriented air transport industry facility was inherently wrong.  While as a minuscule percentage of people are subject to such city mega-structures and icons of engineering; millions of passengers and service providers are exposed to and affected by the economic viability of airports.  The futility of the approach has been well witnessed during the economic downturn period when several such airport projects were either significantly down sized, abandoned or put on-hold indefinitely.
Billions of dollars have been spent worldwide on the development of air terminals over the past 20 years or so and the result is often, with some exceptions of course, a potpourri of designs, styles and shapes resulting in monsters of steel, plate glass and concrete.  According to a guesstimate over another 800 billion dollars are likely to be spent in the next two decades on the design, development and construction of new passenger terminals and reconstruction and refurbishment of existing ones, the majority of them in the Middle East, Africa, Indian Sub-continent, CIS and the Asia-Pacific region.
There is no denying the fact that there are certain airports that conform to the expectations and aspirations of the travelling population including other stakeholders and can be truly termed as world class airports, in so far as compliance to safety and security norms, operational standards, passenger facilitation, level of service, overall ambience, environmental compatibility, return on investment and delivering value to investors is concerned.  However the numbers are few and far between.
 
Airport – not a quite simple and straight forward noun:
An airport is a multifaceted facility with different connotations.  For airlines, it is the smooth running conveyor; for an airport operator, it is a business venture; for a financial analyst, it is a blue-chip investment; for those living in the vicinity, it is the bane and the banshee of their existence; for real estate developers, a financial pump; for the surrounding communities, an economic engine rather than just an air transfer station; for the region, centers of economic development; for the nation, gateways to growth and finally for passengers a dream and hopefully not a nightmare – basically an interface facility where they can switch over from ground to air and vice versa.
 
What is a world class airport?
“In the sporting arena, the world cups in cricket and football define the pinnacle of world class standards and achievement on tangible and a measurable yardstick. World class airports are however a whole new ball game,” – Inderjit Singh.

The first significant parameter we must consider is that the consumer, the air passenger, is the raison d’être, is the sole reason for the existence of all of us without exception, who work in the air transport industry.  The passenger is our livelihood, our income, our profit, our future, and as such, is not an inconvenience.
An air traveller often referred to as ‘pax’ (a horrible word) in airline and airport jargon is not a unit to be regarded as being of a basic standard, usually diminutive in size, somewhat lacking in both intelligence and general ability to find his way about and all too frequently an individual to be treated with indifference, and even with contempt at times, and with his special desires all too often ignored, or at best treated with reluctance.  If this seems to be too harsh a judgment, I suggest that all those of us who are either airline or airport employees, benefiting perhaps from that very special treatment, should put ourselves in the position of a mere ‘pax’ at a foreign airport late at night, tired, bewildered and even perhaps ill, to get just some flavour of what millions of air travelers have to put up with.  You will then find that my judgment is not so harsh, after all.
It is my strong conviction that the passenger is the First Foremost Frontier.  As soon as everybody both high and low in the world of air transport recognizes this fact, the sooner the system will improve.
The need of the day is not the grandiose statement of architectural styles vying with one another for awards but safe, functional, flexible, spacious, convenient, comfortable, aesthetically pleasant, efficient and above all ‘environment & passenger friendly’ terminal buildings that reduce a traveller’s over-all ‘irritation factor’.  An intelligent level of information, a minimum of imposed controls, smooth and unobstructed continuous flow, adequate consumer related concessionaires, fully manned check-in, customs and immigration desks, adaptability to ever changing requirements, effective global solutions on noise, focus on reduction on carbon emissions and an unobtrusive yet effective security system are the hallmarks of a world class airport.
Travel horrors highlighted by the plight of Tom Hanks in the Hollywood movie, The Terminal, are an everyday reality for passengers at many airports.  In the film, Hanks plays a visitor to New York City from Eastern Europe, whose homeland erupts in a fiery coup while he is in the air en route to America.  Stranded at JFK International Airport with a passport from ‘nowhere’, he is unauthorized to enter the US and must spend days and nights in the terminal’s international transit lounge until the war at home is over.  While the character, and his experiences, is fictional, the reality is that airport designers and operators are guilty of treating passengers with disdain, even contempt.  Is it a case of real life imitating reel life or vice versa?
 
Engines of economic growth
Airports today are engines for a nation’s economic growth reflecting the economic trends, solutions and challenges facing the aviation industry.
The globalisation of trade and services need large scale, long-distance transport infrastructure, such as motorways, high-speed rail links, shipping terminals and airports.  These are the logistic support through which the goods of big business flow.  With the globalisation of production and the liberalisation of services, developing countries and nations in transition need, more than ever, to increase their capabilities by offering reliable and cost-effective ‘connectivity’ through combined intermodal road, rail, sea and air transport systems.
In today’s context the single most important mode of transport is air transport. In 2009, 5 billion passengers and 50 million tons of air freight crisscrossed at 1,679 airports worldwide, engaging 62 million direct and indirect jobs contributing $1.9 trillion to the world GDP.
Airports are an integral link in the total global transport supply chain and form part of a complex economic and social system.  Like highways and other forms of transport they constitute important elements of the infrastructure of a nation.  Realisation has long since dawned that the air transport industry is a catalyst for attaining broader economic development.  Airport operators have recognized their role in the air transport chain.  So, from mere providers of airline infrastructure, or air transfer stations, airports are re-inventing and re-positioning themselves as logistic hubs setting a new paradigm for integrated global transportation system of the future and centres for economic development and increasingly, as ‘gateways to growth’ for their airline customers, their communities and the regions they are located in.  It is not a mere coincidence that the developed countries (and many developing nations) have a smart air transportation network in place.
In the sporting arena, the world cups in cricket and football define the pinnacle of world class standards and achievement on tangible and a measurable yardstick.  World class airports are however a whole new ball game.
At the end of this write-up we are perhaps left with as many questions as there are answers or more questions still to be answered.  But then it is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.
The author shall be pleased to debate and take a fresh perspective on the above thought process at indi279@gmail.com.