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Experts Predict Slew of Future Airport Projects

Thu November 06, 2003 - Northeast Edition
Pete Sigmund

In the 100 years since Orville and Wilbur Wright pioneered the first powered flights on Dec. 17, 1903, the takeoff and landing area has changed from the sand hills of Kitty Hawk to concrete runways throughout the country. Often almost 2 mi. long, these concrete aprons are bordered by large passenger terminals, which are small cities in themselves.

Surely the two bicycle manufacturers from Dayton, OH, would gape at today’s airports, whose operations in the United States this year include approximately 32.4 million flights (commercial, cargo and general aviation). U.S. airports and their infrastructure are now valued at hundreds of billions of dollars.

Airports are a large construction market. A capital needs survey by the Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA) in Washington, D.C., for instance, estimated that aviation infrastructure capital development costs at terminals — from runways to parking lots and buildings — will total more than $61 billion between 2003 and 2006 at an average rate of $15 billion a year.

Airlines and airports now worry, while warning about a possible “capacity gap,” when infrastructure for airline flights won’t be able to keep up with expected demand. Industry sources tell Construction Equipment Guide (CEG)more runways, terminals, roadways and other facilities will be needed in just a few years.

Spectacular Growth

Just in the past half century, the number of air passengers has grown from approximately 10 million in 1946 to an expected level of approximately 646.9 million this year.

Though air travel declined after 9/11, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) foresees huge growth.

“We predict that the number of passengers [enplanements] will reach one billion people by 2015,” Hank Price, an FAA spokesperson in Washington, told CEG.

Some airports are already experiencing a capacity crunch.

“Some airports with strong service by low-cost carriers have actually seen increases in passengers [since 9/11],” said Dick Marchi, ACI-NA’s senior vice president, technical and environmental affairs. “Some of them, like Oakland [CA], Fort Lauderdale [FL] and Manchester [NH] are facing some serious congestion problems.

“Given that the low-cost carriers seem to be gaining market share, more people will travel at an average lower cost. Air travel is terribly price-sensitive. What will happen is that, as fares drop because of these carriers, or because of the major airlines’ reactions to the discount carriers, this will stimulate even more travel than we saw before 9/11.”

Marchi sees a fast-climb recovery from 9/11 in the next two years.

“Most people in the industry acknowledge that the downturn will probably be recovered by 2005,” he told CEG. “In general, we’ll be back into episodes of serious congestion delay within a few years. Most observers say the [capacity] crunch will hit us about 2005. The need for [airport] development programs is still there. The problem that everyone is wrestling with is that, given the current downturn in airline revenues, it’s very difficult to balance long-term needs, and needs of the next two or three years, with today’s finances. Airlines acknowledge that in three or four years they’ll have a [congestion] problem, but they just don’t have the money today to deal with it.”

Another problem, Marchi said, is that at least 10 highly- congested airports can’t build needed runways in the foreseeable future either because they don’t have space, are blocked by environmental constraints or because of other obstacles.

“Beyond the runways, there are issues of terminal congestion,” he added. “This is especially true in the airports which are being served by the low-cost carriers, which are badly pressed to get more terminal space as they get more traffic. They need to build more ticket counters, departure lounges, parking spaces and other facilities.”

Despite problems, Marchi said, “In recent years, we’ve been spending about $10 billion a year on airport infrastructure in the U.S., so it’s reasonable that the capital value of the 429 commercial-service airports investment is in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Just one airport like Denver’s costs about $5 billion.”

The Air Transport Association’s (ATC) Web site warns, “Failure to expand capacity will result in spilled demand and place upward pressure on prices, jeopardizing the contribution of aviation to the economy.”

Commented Matt Jeanneret, vice president of communications at the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) in Washington, D.C., “There’s definitely a capacity issue. When was the last time they built a new airport in this country? It takes about 12 years to build a new airport, so this is one of the major things we must address in the coming years. If we don’t, planes will be lining up longer and passengers delays will be worse.”

Runway Expansions

As the skies become more crowded, the main concern is getting people off the ground on time and landing them safely. This means new runways, which are major construction projects involving pavers and other concrete equipment and which can easily cost $1.5 million apiece.

Industry sources said additional runways, and enhanced air traffic control technology and procedures, are needed at the nation’s top 25 airports.

Juliet Wright, ACI-NA’s senior director, public affairs, said that the temporary downturn after 9/11 “should be seized as an opportunity to begin building new runways now, not later like they did in 2000 when one in four flights were delayed, cancelled or diverted, affecting some 163 million passengers.”

“We’ve definitely been addressing new capacity through new runway development,” said Marcia Adams, an FAA spokesperson in Washington. “We have major runways proposed through 2013.”

Miami dedicated its fourth runway, 8,600-ft. long, in August. Cost of the project: $121.4 million. Denver opened a 16,000-ft. runway in September and is discussing a seventh runway for 2013. Bush International Airport in Houston, TX, dedicated its fifth runway, a new 9,000-ft. strip, on Oct. 31.

Other new runways, and their scheduled completion dates are: Orlando, FL, December 2003; Cleveland Hopkins, first phase last December, second phase in November 2004; Minneapolis-St. Paul, October 2005; Cincinnati, December 2005; Atlanta, June 2006; St. Louis, February 2006; Boston, April 2006; and Washington (Dulles), April 2008.

Adams said construction schedules — probably after 2008 — still have to be decided for runways at Seattle-Tacoma, Charlotte, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tampa, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Baltimore-Washington International is discussing a fifth runway for 2012.

Working in close partnerships with local and state governments, the FAA oversees airport authorities on runway work to be sure projects meet federal guidelines.


Only one major new airport, South Suburban in Peotone, IL, near Chicago, is being proposed.

Expansion of existing airport terminals, however, is a huge market for contractors.

A good example is Miami International Airport (MIA). In 1954, MIA was a somewhat laid-back resort airport rather than today’s gigantic, busy, terrazzo-floored hub for United States, Caribbean, Central American and South American arrivals and departures. MIA now has eight large concourses and is building a ninth.

MIA is in the middle of probably the largest airport capital improvement program in the United States, with $4.8 billion currently funded in Phase One of the program and another $2.4 billion in the works.

Phase One includes a $1.5-billion 1.9-million-sq.-ft. expansion of the North Terminal, which will ultimately be 1.6 mi. long.

The terminal expansion, to be completed in July 2006, will include a rooftop automated people-mover system and will build upon some of the existing concourses. First gates will open next year while the work proceeds.

“The new terminal will have beautiful shopping and restaurants; it will be very exciting,” said airport spokesperson Cynthia Paul.

MIA’s South Terminal also will be expanded by 1.6-million sq. ft. The two expansions will add 3.5-million sq. ft. to the existing 5-million sq. ft. of space

The first phase also includes the new runway, taxiway and apron improvements, improved connections to surrounding expressways, widened ingress and egress points, additional driving lanes on the upper and lower levels, increased parking areas, and a central collection toll plaza which opened its first lanes on Oct. 29.

“Currently we have multiple entrances and exits to our garage system,” said Paul. “This will consolidate everything on one plaza for much greater efficiency and will even photograph license plates.”

Many other airports throughout the United States also are expanding. Philadelphia International opened a new $550-million international terminal in May. Dallas-Fort Worth International is building a new terminal and rail system. Terminal or concourse expansions are underway at San Antonio International and Seattle-Tacoma International. Both Washington Dulles and Reagan National Airports are carrying forward numerous construction projects.

John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York is well under way with a $9.5-billion redevelopment program, which includes terminals, roadways, parking and transit. It completed a new international arrivals terminal in 2001 and has just opened two new cargo facilities providing 435,000 sq. ft. of warehouse and office space.

Approximately 25 percent of air cargo imported into the United States comes through JFK and Newark Liberty International airports.

Federal Program

The House and Senate have agreed on most of the funding for reauthorization of federal aviation funds. The four-year measure, “Vision 100: Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act,” would provide annual Airport Improvement Program (AIP) investment levels of:

• $3.4 billion in Fiscal 2004,

• $3.5 billion in Fiscal 2005,

• $3.6 billion in Fiscal 2006, and

• $3.7 billion in Fiscal 2007.

It basically reauthorizes he Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century (AIR-21), which Congress passed in 2000. Revenues from ticket taxes and other sources go into the Aviation Trust Fund, which was created in 1970.

The new funding is being held up by opposition of Democrats to a provision that would begin to allow the privatization of the nation’s air traffic control system.

AIP grants, requiring local matches of between 10 and 25 percent, go to airports, which are then responsible for the contracting.

An estimated 98 percent of airport revenues come from users, including airlines, passengers and concessionaires.