Planning Magazine

America’s Aging Airports Prepare for Takeoff

Some airports accelerated infrastructure improvements during the pandemic, while others grounded critical projects. As travel rebounds, what will it take to modernize?

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The decline in airline traffic and subsequent reduced revenues postponed major redevelopment projects at the San Francisco International airport. Photo by Sftm/Gado/Sipa USA/Alamy Live News.

The pandemic has had severe impacts on the aviation sector. While prior global catastrophes like the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the 2008 financial crisis rattled the industry, the collapse triggered by COVID-19 was unlike anything we've seen. Passenger travel dropped to a record low: a staggering 95 percent decline between April 2019 and April 2020.

Early projections anticipated it could be years before passenger volumes return to pre-pandemic levels. But as vaccination rates climbed and COVID restrictions decreased, the travel industry started taking off again — and with it, a mounting pressure to rehabilitate the country's airports, which are on average 40 years old.

The development of modern airports is a long-term investment that will far outlive the near-term impacts of the pandemic. Airside improvements like gate reconfigurations and runway extensions can help increase capacity, improve aircraft operations, and reduce delays. Technological innovations that improve passenger processing and reduce personal contact, such as biometric screening and touchless ticketing, saw an especially sharp rise in popularity during the pandemic. And as with aging terminal and airside infrastructure, landside roadways and ground transportation connections were built for air travel of a different era.

"The need to offer passengers a renewed comfort level in the terminal environment has prompted many airports to evaluate the health benefits offered by a new generation of touchless technologies," says Allan A'Hara, vice president of aviation planning at AECOM. "This technological trend, together with new passenger health related protocols, offer opportunities for planners to be innovative in redefining the next generation of airport terminals."

As airports continue to respond to new safety requirements for travel, many are turning to touchless technology to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Photo courtesy of Amadeus.

As airports continue to respond to new safety requirements for travel, many are turning to touchless technology to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Photo courtesy of Lufthansa and Star Alliance.

Some airports were able to get a head start on this effort, using the rare occasion of empty terminals to accelerate infrastructure improvements. In other cases, however, critical capital improvement projects were put on hold or cancelled altogether due to pandemic-induced funding issues. The Investment and Jobs Act allocates $25 billion to airport improvements, which will alleviate some of the pandemic-induced strain airports are facing, but it will not be enough to repair ailing infrastructure, modernize terminals, and meet projected demand.

If these needs remain unaddressed, U.S. airports will continue to lag behind their counterparts around the world, where modern terminals, best-in-class amenities, and seamless ground transportation connections create a premier airport experience.

Aging airports

In the American Society of Civil Engineers' 2021 Report Card for America's Infrastructure, U.S airports earned a D+ for both condition and needs. It's estimated that they will need $115.4 billion over the next five years to address these infrastructure challenges.

Roughly half of all planned airport projects between 2021 and 2025 are terminal-related. At many airports, building upgrades are needed to increase the number of gates and accommodate larger jet aircraft. Flexible and automated baggage handling systems, dynamic wayfinding, and queue management systems projects are needed to ease crowding and improve circulation. As many terminals were built before 9/11, there is also a desire to equip older terminals with state-of-the-art security features. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is advancing the development of various technologies that will modernize identification verification. This will not only enhance passenger safety but will allow for smoother processing and reduce wait times.

There is no shortage of airside needs, either. The safe movement of aircraft on and around the airfield is just as important as safety in the sky. Airside safety projects are a core priority for airport operators and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) alike. Billions of dollars of safety-related improvements are needed to bring airports up to FAA-mandated design standards, reconstruct and rehabilitate aging airfield pavement, and address environmental concerns. At some airports, runway and taxiway extensions are needed in order to accommodate larger aircraft. That's important for growth, because airports that can diversify their aircraft fleet mix are able to offer additional capacity and are more economically competitive regionally.

Infrastructure updates are needed beyond the terminal, including airfield pavement improvements and runway and taxiway extensions. Photo by Isannes/E+ Collection/Getty Images.

Infrastructure updates are needed beyond the terminal, including airfield pavement improvements and runway and taxiway extensions. Photo by Isannes/E+ Collection/Getty Images.

Landside roadways and ground transportation connections require upgrades, too. The roadway networks leading to terminals and the frontage space allocated in front terminals for passenger pickup and drop-off predate the influx of Transportation Network Companies (TNC). Airports across the country are struggling to accommodate the rise in TNC mode share, as they increase congestion on airport roadways and vie for coveted curb space. As airports welcome back passengers, airport operators will need to develop solutions for curbside management of TNCs or encourage travelers to take other modes, like public transportation. New and improved public transportation connections from airports to downtown hubs are needed so air travelers have access to convenient and affordable transportation options.

A rare opportunity

Before the pandemic, about two million passengers traveled through commercial U.S. airports each day, making it difficult to execute the terminal, landside, and airside improvements that preserve aging infrastructure and expand capacity to meet growing demand. Complex phasing and operational plans needed to be established during construction to minimize impacts to travelers, which slowed down schedules and increased costs.

With fewer people taking to the sky during the pandemic, some airports were able to fast track capital improvement projects. Take Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL), which has over $3 billion of capital funds allocated to terminal modernization projects and other airport improvements. At the height of the pandemic, FLL swiftly consolidated terminal operations to expedite renovations at its Terminal 3. Airport management was able to fully close Concourse F and relocate operations to Concourse E, which would have been impossible to orchestrate under a pre-COVID travel scenario. Concourse F improvements were completed four months ahead of schedule and under budget.

With low vehicle volumes on main terminal roadways, FLL also scrapped its extensive phasing plans for new landside signage and opted instead for installation in one shot. While airport management needed to be agile and adjust the original design plans to accommodate these changes, FLL was able to capitalize on this unique situation and meaningfully accelerate their redevelopment efforts.

And in New York, LaGuardia Airport (LGA) has come a long way from being the punchline of Saturday Night Live jokes to being lauded by air travelers. The LGA redevelopment team is constructing the country's first major new airport in 25 years, all while maintaining full operational capacity of the facility. LGA will become a world class transportation hub fit for New York, offering a modern, cohesive design, all new terminals with state-of-the-art amenities, additional airside taxiing space, and improved ground transportation access.

The new Terminal B at LaGuardia Airport in New York features outdoor space, sweeping views of Manhattan, and newly designed roadways to smooth passenger access to the terminals. Photos by Chang W. Lee/The New York Times.

The new Terminal B at LaGuardia Airport in New York features outdoor space, sweeping views of Manhattan, and newly designed roadways to smooth passenger access to the terminals. Photos by Chang W. Lee/The New York Times.

A view of the new Terminal B.

A view of the new Terminal B.

The new Terminal B shopping area.

The new Terminal B shopping area.

This expansive program includes the complete demolition and rebuilding of all terminals, except for the landmark-designated Marine Air Terminal. During the early days of redevelopment, the construction of new roadways and terminals caused traffic backups and gridlock, leaving many frustrated. However, the precipitous drop in passenger volumes during the pandemic allowed the construction timeline to be accelerated. The project recently reached a key milestone half a year ahead of schedule: the completion of the Terminal C outer roadway network, which eliminates the number of traffic signals drivers encounter, improving traffic flow and easing congestion as passengers return to LGA.

The cost of delays

Unsurprisingly, not all airports had the resources to continue redevelopment efforts during the pandemic. The decline in air traffic led to a $111.8 billion reduction of airport revenue in 2020, a 65 percent decline compared to pre-pandemic forecasts. Reduced revenue forced many airports to postpone, scale back, or even cancel capital projects.

This trend rippled across the United States. Airports with projects already well underway, like at Charlotte International Airport and LGA, were more likely to continue. Planning and design projects that had yet to begin, however, were far more precarious. Major redevelopment programs at San Francisco International Airport, Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, and Jacksonville International Airport, for example, were postponed.

The neglect of critical infrastructure reduces the competitiveness of U.S. airports and poses a threat to the economy. As delays in air travel become more common, air travelers will rely on other modes, or avoid travel all-together. It's estimated that delays and avoided airport trips cost the U.S. economy over $35 billion a year.

Aging airport infrastructure has also raised concerns around safety and performance. Maintenance costs for state-of-good-repair projects have skyrocketed as airports seek to safeguard infrastructure and maintain operations. In the long run, patchwork fixes are often more costly than the major capital investments required to redevelop an entire airport.

While the new federal infrastructure package dedicates $25 billion to airport improvements, additional funds will be needed to address these concerns. Enacting policy at the federal level to raise the cap on passenger facility charges, which currently collects fees of $4.50 per traveler at publicly owned commercial airports, would be one source for FAA-approved capital improvements. Alternative project financing and delivery mechanisms, like public-private partnerships and design-build, can also be leveraged to redevelop airports. These strategies, which have gained popularity in recent years, encourage private investment in public infrastructure, offer cost savings, reduce risk, and streamline design and construction schedules.

Airports are critical to the livelihood of the United States. As travelers return to the skies, the need for modernized, world-class facilities that can accommodate current and future demand is more pressing than ever. It is time to propel the U.S. airport system into the 21st century.

Dorottya Miketa, PP, AICP, is a Senior Transportation Planner at Sam Schwartz in New York City. Katerina Radin, AICP, ENV SP, is an aviation consultant at AECOM, also in New York City.