Terminal Terminology De-Coded

Los Angeles International Airport saw a rise in passenger numbers but a fall in cargo tonnage over the course of 2011. (KEY-Tom Allett)

Aviation analyst and former Airport Director of Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, Inderjit Singh, attempts to seek out a smart solution for the future terminal building design beyond the prevailing practice of ‘botox-injected’ face-lifts that are being meted out to them worldwide.

“An often quoted universal rule of thumb, for every dollar spent on the purchase of an aircraft, an additional fifty cents must be earmarked for related aviation infrastructure, the actual practice is far from reality,” – Inderjit Singh. (Photo – Tom Allett)

It should come as no surprise that 91% of the world’s 1,650 civil airports in 179 countries are currently facing moderate to severe capacity constraints – be it in the air traffic domain, on the ramp, the terminal building or in the landside infrastructure.  This is despite the ongoing development activity at the majority of the world’s airports – which has turned them into perpetual construction sites.
With millions of dollars spent on the modernisation and upgrade processes, the shortfalls in capacity have been dealt with to a limited extent, but only at some hub international airports and at certain congested national gateway airports.  At a very large number of airports, this phenomenon is leading to inordinate and costly delays, and is primarily due to an imbalance of the three vital components of an airport system — the airside, the passenger terminal building and the landside infrastructure.
The brunt of this imbalance in the majority of cases is borne by the passenger terminal building.  Most of the airport terminal buildings worldwide, due to the sudden surge in traffic volumes, are reeling behind with capacity constraints.  Despite some shortsighted piecemeal infrastructure expansion efforts and some ‘botox-injected’ cosmetic face-lifting exercises, the facilities have not developed to a stage where they can offer passenger-friendly, efficient and sustainable service and comfort.  It is thus imperative to formulate a new approach for the improvement of air traffic flow management at airports, which leads to more efficient utilisation of existing airport terminal building capacity to alleviate the consequences of congestion.
A one-time composite activity of constructing an additional runway of an appropriate specification and category with its associated paraphernalia can lead to a quantum leap in aircraft movements.  However, terminal buildings – with a larger gestation period – have to be essentially developed in a phased manner, corresponding to the increasing air traffic, lest they become obsolete in view of the ever-changing level of requisite facilitation standards in keeping with the continuous advancement in technology.  Further, the problem gets compounded with the continuous induction of larger aircraft delivering higher volumes of traffic per gate at a given time, essentially adding peaks within the peak hours.
While, as per an often quoted universal rule of thumb, for every dollar spent on the purchase of an aircraft, an additional fifty cents must be earmarked for related aviation infrastructure, the actual practice is far from reality.  More often than not, though the government and private airlines earmark large sums for the acquisition of modern and sophisticated aircraft, expansion and up-gradation of airport terminal buildings tend to take a back seat, with the exception being Greenfield airports.
The Game Changer:
Another important factor influencing the impending need for the development of new terminal buildings or rehabilitation of the existing is the global cyclical shift of air traffic.  With the shift of central traffic, in recent times, from the American and the European airports to the emerging economies of Asian, South East and Middle East countries, the existing passenger terminal buildings at these airports, bursting at their seams, are literally craving for expansion.  The latest IATA forecast suggests that passenger growth will average 5.8% throughout 2014, meaning 3.3 billion people will be using the air transport system by then.  That is 800 million more people than the current traffic.  Asia-Pacific, already the largest market, will add almost half of the new passengers, some 360 million extra people.  China alone would have 181 million more domestic passengers and 33 million more international passengers.
Emerging new hubs have lately been instrumental in the shift of originating and destination traffic.  For a long time, Europe has been the stop-off point for Asia-United States travel.  Added to this is the fact that traffic from the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region to the United States is predicted to be the fastest growing route over the next five years.  Aside from the growing MENA economies, this reflects the continuing use of Middle Eastern hubs for long-haul travellers.  New, long-range aircraft are giving Middle Eastern carriers the ability to ignore European stops.  And for many passengers, avoiding congested gateways has proved a bonus.  The Middle Eastern hubs and their home carriers are expanding rapidly and changing the hitherto traditional air-connectivity.  The growth in international travel in the Middle East will average more than 17% a year, giving a 2014 total of more than 160 million international travellers.
Passenger Terminal: A Misnomer
The significance and contribution of each entity of the airport (the airside, the passenger terminal building and the landside infrastructure) in the overall efficiency of the airport system notwithstanding, the focus area in this write-up is the terminal building – a component which on average accounts for approximately 60% of the airport budget.  The balance is estimated to be distributed almost equally towards airside development of runways, taxiways and aprons etc and roads, car parks, transit hotel facilities, etc, on the landside.
Airports are often evaluated by passengers for the ambience, efficiency and the level of service encountered during their passage through the terminal building – a facility that pleases the eye!  That is where the ‘first impression’ is created – and rightly so, as there is no second chance for the first impression.
Hence there is a dire need to refurbish the existing facilities as an interim measure and simultaneously develop and integrate in the overall growth plan appropriate new terminal buildings in a phased manner, as per the potential of traffic volumes in the foreseeable future — keeping in view the trends and forces regulating traffic distribution across the globe.
The primary consideration in the design and development of future terminal buildings is to recognise the fact that the expression ‘Terminal’ is a misnomer – it is an unsuitable expression.  Terminal is where the journey ends.  In context of an airport, one’s journey does not start or end at an airport.  For a passenger, the total journey essentially is from his or her home at the originating city to the final destination at the end of the journey, for example, a home or a hotel, including if applicable, a stop-over at a transiting airport.
Another important criterion to note is that the basic purpose of a passenger going to the airport, is to go somewhere else.  Hence the basic premise is to make the transition through the terminal building as ‘painless’ as possible.  This is a concept I learnt about during my brief yet memorable interaction with Richard Buckminster ‘Bucky’ Fuller – the renowned American engineer, designer, futurist, and inventor of many landmark designs, the best known of which is the Geodesic Dome — while developing conceptual designs of terminal buildings for certain airports, now full-fledged thriving facilities.
Traffic from the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region to the United States is predicted to be the fastest growing route over the next five years. (KEY-Tom Allett)

Let’s Agree to Agree:
“Elementary, my dear Watson,” Sherlock Holmes would say to the above hypotheses.
However, appreciation of these fundamental truths, basic as they may sound, should bring about an attitudinal change, a positive change in our psyche, perception and thought process – for all of us who are involved in the conceptualisation, design, development and operation of airports.  As an airport planner, designer and subsequently as an administrator of a major international airport, I have personally experienced the advantages gained in day-to-day operations by the mere recognition and appreciation of the very essence of these beliefs.
The passenger terminal thus at best can be termed as an ‘Interface Building’ wherein the transfer of passengers and their baggage from one mode of transport to another takes place — ie from ground to air and vice versa.  This should, however, in no way deprive the passenger of the temptation and joy of duty-free shopping, restaurants, exposure to works of art, entertainment and leisure facilities, food – much required for critical additional source of non-traffic revenue for the sustainability and development of airport infrastructure, but at the choice and convenience of the passenger.  All such facilities need to be located on the way and not in the way of passenger movement – lest these stick out as yet another obstacle.
Big Picture: a Close Look at Issues that Matter
Some key questions that are becoming increasingly important in today’s growth environment:

  • Where are the best opportunities to increase value in passenger terminal development?
  • Where do programmes fall short of their objectives?
  • What kind of delivery system will be needed to enable airport authorities and airport developers to deal with future challenges?

Planners and designers for all sizes of airports are struggling with how to design passenger terminals that provide good value and level-of-service that meet the criteria of many aspects of future airport terminals, from security requirements and procedures to the needs of low-cost carriers and concessionaires.  Practical information is needed not only to address current issues but also to provide the flexibility to accommodate emerging trends.  Airport passenger terminal building planners and designers need up-to-date information on how to provide good value and efficiency to meet the needs of stakeholders and accommodate changing technologies, materials, regulations, and operational factors for both large and small airports.  Future terminal buildings would be large, complex facilities, handling millions of passengers per year.  These passengers need to be guided to their flights efficiently and comfortably, while their safety and security must be assured.
Ironically, terminal building designs from time immemorial have been one of the four types – linear, pier finger, pier satellite/remote satellite and transporter, or at best a permutation and combination of these four basic configurations.  Whereas aircraft design has evolved significantly over the years, evolution of terminal design has been static – except in terms of size, partly to meet the growing traffic but mostly for countries to make a statement by creating a symbol of their economic prowess.  There are several such examples in recent times wherein the talking points for the airport terminals have been their size in the world ranking and not the level-of-service and passenger satisfaction — an intrinsic requirement of our service industry.
It appears that this idea of one-upmanship in the air transport industry has been inspired by the trend prevalent in creating lofty structures which now dominate city skylines, from the 771ft (235m) Canary Wharf in London; 1,250ft (381m) Empire State in New York; 1,450ft (442m) Sears Tower in Chicago; 1,483ft (452m) Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur; 1,670ft (509m) Taipei Tower to the tallest of all, as of now, the 2,624ft (800m) Burj Khalifa in Dubai (see figure 1).  Yet another super structure in the pipeline is the world’s tallest skyscraper, the 3,281ft (1,000m) Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (Figure 2).  These examples of modern urban structures to some extent reflect current technology, are symbols of national pride, and also attract tourists.  But they are relatively few in number and unlike the airport passenger terminal building, affect a far smaller number of people.  This analogy, hence, should not be emulated in a predominantly service-oriented industry like air transport where the airport terminal buildings are frequented by approximately 17 million passengers and other millions of visitors and workers on a daily basis.
Breakaway from DNA: Thinking Outside The Box
In the current climate of economic turbulence, it is more important than ever to deliver appropriate solutions while maintaining the best values.  In most of our congested airports, what is required are not cosmetic changes but a ‘systematic transformation’ — a smart non-surgical alternative to a surgical facelift!  Adding indiscriminately more areas and creating additional terminal buildings could be counterproductive, what with exorbitant maintenance and energy costs.
Some myths also need to be busted.  Size does matter, but then how big is big?  It is my strong conviction that there is no substitute to passenger comfort, appreciation and acceptability of the terminal environment and service at a reasonable cost.  In today’s economic scenario, at the heart of the issue of managing cost and maximising value is the question of who will be in control of the development process.  One of the biggest pitfalls we find in some of the recently privatised airports is that the developer, at some point, lost control of the project – leaning towards extravagance in the design and embellishments of passenger terminal buildings.  This has led to airport developers seeking subsidies from the State and in addition wanting the continued levy of Airport Development Fee (ADF) and User Development Fee (UDF), much to the annoyance of IATA, the airlines and the passengers.
In anticipation of this issue, a critical step on the part of the owner, the State, as a partner, could be to keep the developer in control of the process from day one by suitable monitoring on a continual and consistent manner, and establishing a process of check and balances through the application of measurable standards.
To achieve smart solutions in terminal design the course of action lies in:

  • Drawing inspiration from innovation – shunning textbook solutions
  • Anticipating recognisable changes
  • Optimising utilisation of existing infrastructure
  • Limiting over-building by a careful evaluation of needs
  • Adding efficiencies and eliminating the unnecessary
  • Achieving maximum energy efficiency
  • Using ironmentally sensitive materials – green design of buildings
  • Integrating security-related aspects in the basic design
  • Investing in smart technology and services needed to stay competitive
  • Attracting investors and project financing – the biggest challenge in driving airport expansion and development
  • Investing in information technology – the only way to improve efficiency.

THE AUTHOR will be pleased to interact with readers via inderjit.singh@aviationanalyst.net and/or debate on the issue in an aviation forum.