Airport design influences profit

24th January 2014 By: Carina Borralho

Engineering, design and project management consulting company Aurecon is continuously exploring ways in which innovative engineering can ensure greater returns on capital expenditure (capex) and simultaneously save on airport operational expenditure (opex).

Aurecon considers the aviation industry to be highly competitive and rapidly changing – affected by constantly evolving passenger behaviour, technological developments and fuel prices.

“Good 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,” says Aurecon building sciences group leader Stephen Logan.

He adds that the process of investigating ways in which airport design influences profit has evolved through working closely with airport owners and project teams. “Working together enables us to understand the drivers of capex and operating costs and how these influence efficiency and profitability,” says Logan.

He notes that, unlike most other businesses,airports require a large amount of capex. “If this capex is not carefully controlled, particularly in terms of initial expenditure, it could take a long time to recover initial investment from revenue earned,” says Logan, adding that the only way to achieve this is by designing for profit.

Designing for profit entails taking the purposes of an airport and its customers, as well as the climactic and physical environment of a project, into consideration.

It further considers creating a pleasurable experience for the passenger, but also requires intelligent thinking on the reasons why airports are designed the way they are. “Airports should be run as businesses, with the goal of making money. Those designing airports should ensure that the three elements of successful business remain foremost in the mind – increasing revenue, reducing capex and containing operating cost,” says Logan.

He says privatised or corporatised airports with impetus for an explicit profit margin can benefit the most.

Airports Increasing Revenue

“Typically, airports involve three revenue streams – landside parking, where passengers pay money to park their cars in the airport parking basement; retail, where passengers spend money at the airport’s shops; and passengers, who pay airport landing fees through the airlines,” says Logan.

He adds that parking and retail expenses are strongly influenced by passenger behaviour. Therefore, revenue is increased if airport design properly takes into account the behaviour of the passenger.

“A customer’s willingness to spend on parking is strongly influenced by ease of access, the speed with which it is reached and its proximity to the check-in area. In this regard, it is important to design the airport to be as convenient as possible,” says Logan.

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.

He adds that, generally, passengers will not consider retail until their check-in is complete and, in some instances, until they have successfully passed through security and immigration.

“Travellers on their way to their boarding gate often do not browse around retail space at all until their gate is safely in sight. Only once they have secured the location of their gate and can make a judgment call in terms of how long it will take to get there, will they relax and consider shopping,” he adds.

Further, Logan says natural light in an airport’s retail environment increases spending behaviour. “Bright, well-considered shop fit-outs, which are enhanced by good display lighting, are beneficial in terms of increasing consumer spend.”

He adds that a balanced retail offering is also important, since overdoing the presence of luxury brands can be intimi- dating to some customers.

Meanwhile, Logan says there are several possible ways of reducing the initial capital cost of a project such as reducing the size of the building.

Further, another often overlooked design principle is to consider the extension of aerobridge links. “Once passengers have been checked in and move into the link bridge, they are unlikely to notice if these are 10 m or 15 m longer. Pulling the building façade back by 10 m to 15 m can decrease building area substantially,” he adds.

Of particular importance for airports is the safe and comfortable movement of passengers through the building. Emergency evacuation routes also need to be considered.

Historically, many spaces within an airport were designed by comparing them with other facilities or simply by considering what looks correct. The effect has been that, within many airports, spaces are far larger than they actually need to be. This has a marked influence on capex and, as the spaces concerned are artificially lit and air conditioned, opex is continuously affected.

“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 airport owners to see how a facility looks and feels once built. The software provides realistic four-dimensional renderings of airport spaces, including the movement of people,” says Logan. The other tool is STEPs, which is used for engineering analysis such as calculating evacuation time.

This tool enables 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 and queueing arrangements at security screenings and the gate, as well as the smart use of fire safety engineering, to reduce capex.

With regard to fire, 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 aesthetic and cost benefits.

Further, eliminating unnecessary fire compartments also has significant cost benefits. Many building codes place limits on the maximum size of fire compartments allowed in a building, which can lead to firewalls being erected where they are not architecturally sensible. 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 firewalls.

In addition, reducing sprinkler protection in large spaces, where it can be proven that they are redundant, and using link bridges as fire escapes can also assist in reducing costs.

Meanwhile, designs that carefully considernatural light can have running cost advantages over those that do not. Airports often include large glass façades, which work in climates where the savings in artificial lighting exceed the cost of cooling and will eventually reduce opex. Logan says that in countries, such as South Africa, façades like this trap 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,” he says.

The use of external circulation spaces will prevent passengers from being exposed to an artificially controlled environment while saving on running costs. “Airports do not have to be entirely enclosed and there is a huge opportunity, particularly outside the tropics, to take advantage of this cost-saving measure,” says Logan.

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