Airfield Envy

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Who can see a pic like this and not be envious? I know I can’t! Photo by @41satmanDan

I know it’s not good to be envious of others, but sometimes I can’t help it. It’s not that I don’t love where I work and what I do – because I truly do! It’s just that there are so many other amazing airports and interesting jobs out there… I can’t help wanting to be a part of it all.

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Not an RJ.  Not landing at the passenger airport.

The passenger airport where my office is located is officially categorized as “medium sized” in terms of the amount and type of commercial traffic that we have. That translates into lots and lots of ERJs, CRJs, B737s and A319/20s, along with some Mad Dogs. Other than Air Canada, we have no regular service from international carriers. It’s a little hard to look at the variety of planes flying into places like O’Hare or Atlanta or JFK and not be a bit jealous.

And before you all point it out, yes I KNOW we actually get an interesting variety of airplanes at the cargo airport. The problem is, my office isn’t down there so I rarely get to see them. Plus they have an annoying habit of sneaking in and out in the middle of the night. Supposedly that’s just what cargo planes do, but I’m pretty sure they do it on purpose to taunt me!

kbosThen there’s the runways. At the passenger airport we have a very respectable set of parallel runways. Same at the cargo airport. They suit our needs quite adequately. But… well… they’re not very imaginative. Other airports have really upped their runway game. Take O’Hare for example.  It has a variety of runway sizes and orientations. Or what about Boston Logan whose runways all seem to intersect with each other.  I can only imagine how that went down:

Airport Management: “We need to add another runway.”

Planner: “OK. How about… here.” *draws a random line across the diagram*

Airport Management: “But… that cuts across other runways!”

Planner: “No worries – ATC will take care of it.”

Airport Management: “Oh, right!”

It’s not just the other airports I’m a bit jealous of. It’s also the people who get to be out on the airfield every day. I’m sure right now my Ops and Airfield friends are rolling their eyes and thinking, “Right. YOU come out here and work when it’s 100 degrees. Or in the pouring rain. Or during a blizzard. See how jealous you are THEN!” OK, OK – I get it. Every job has aspects that are substantially less than enjoyable. No, I don’t think it would be fun to have to scoop bird pieces off the runway or be on call or work nights. But you have to admit, the perks are pretty damn awesome!

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That whole working during a blizzard thing actually looks really cool! I am so totally jealous! Photo by Francis Colacino

The ops and airfield teams get to see sunrises and sunsets from out on the airfield, which, as everyone knows, is the best place to see them. They get to work in all kinds of really cool equipment, like plows and brooms (and maybe even stairs trucks). They get up-close and personal with all types of airplanes. They get to drive all over the airport property including up and down the runways! (Don’t underestimate how awesome that is.)

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Love this tail! Jealous on so many levels here… Photo by Tom Rainey @traineyjr

Plus they have the satisfaction of knowing that all those happy reunions taking place in the terminal are happening because of their hard work. If the ops and airfield teams stop showing up, everything would shut down pretty fast. Whereas if the finance and accounting department was to suddenly get sucked into another dimension, it would probably be a week or two before anyone noticed.

Employee One: “Hey – didn’t we used to have an accounting department?”

Employee Two: “Oh yeah! I wonder what ever happened to those guys?”

Employee One: “Dunno. Good thing the payroll department is still here.”

Lest you think I’m being a total whiner, I’m not. I may be envious, but I haven’t forgotten how lucky I am to be able to work where I do. I have had some amazing experiences that I couldn’t have had anywhere else. Besides, it doesn’t matter that I’ve seen thousands of RJ departures – every time one takes off I still stop to watch. Because flying is magic and aviation is fascinating and I’m so glad to be a part of it.

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Brooms in action with a gorgeous sky. Wow! Photo by Jeremy R (Special thanks to Jason C)

Airport Terminal of the Future

IMG_0263Think back for a moment to what aviation was like 60 years ago. The DC-3 was a common sight and the Boeing 707 was brand new. Passengers could be accompanied by their families all the way to the gates. TWA, Eastern and Piedmont offered flights at my airport. Things sure have changed a lot since then! Well, except for the terminal. It has had several additions and face-lifts over the years, but at its core it is the same building in the same location as it was in 1958.

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O’Hare International Airport also has a big terminal construction project planned. (Photo by Carol M. Highsmith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Now let’s imagine 60 years into the future. What will air travel look like in 2078? What kind of airplanes will we fly? What kind of cars will we drive? (Will we even still be driving cars?) What if you had to design and build an airport today that will meet the needs of the flying public (both commercial and GA) for the next 60 years and beyond? What should the terminal look like? How big should it be? Will the security needs be different? Those are just a few of the considerations that airport designers face.  I have a hard time  deciding what to have for breakfast – I couldn’t imagine being tasked with these types of decisions.  Needless to say I’m very glad that I’m not an airport planner!

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Salt Lake City International Airport is in the middle of a large expansion project.  Estimated cost: $3 Billion (Photo by GoMan195531 at English Wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons)

After 60 years, the functional life of our terminal is starting to wind down. We went through a modernization program recently that will extend our ability to use the building another 15 years or so. However, the time is coming when a new building will be needed. But… how do we know when that time is? As it turns out, the answer is rather complicated.

The first, and perhaps most obvious, factor is the number of passengers using the terminal. We know the maximum number that the current facility can reasonably handle. When we reach a certain point in passenger growth we’ll need to start construction so that the new building is ready when we hit max capacity. Another thing to consider involves infrastructure. When key items like boilers, furnaces and AC units begin to wear out, it will probably make more sense to start construction on a new terminal than to spend millions of dollars putting new equipment into an old building. There are other factors as well, but these two are probably the biggest. If we keep going at our current pace, we expect to hit one of these thresholds in the next 8-10 years.

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Indianapolis’ new terminal opened in 2008.  I dig the trippy lighting! (photo by By utahwildflowers  via Wikimedia Commons)

Even though construction won’t start for a while that doesn’t mean we can just sit back and relax. Nope – there are a whole lot of things we’ve been working on in the meantime.  First off we had to figure out where the new terminal should go, as well as the parking garages, lots, rental car facilities, etc.  Then we had to work on all the studies, evaluations, surveys, environmental impact reviews, wetland assessments, etc. that are routinely required as part of any construction project. Then once all of that has been worked out, the basic infrastructure must to be put into place so that when we’re ready to start building, we have what we need. In our case that means putting in all the utility lines, as well as relocating some of the big RTR antennas.

Another thing on the to-do list is figure out how to pay for it all. The full project is slated to cost over a billion dollars. Ouch! Most airports use a combination of methods to finance this type of project including borrowing money, obtaining grants and using Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) funds.

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Concourses B and C at Philadelphia International Airport were also built in the late 50s. (Photo by David Broad via Wikimedia Commons.)

Not familiar with PFCs? Check your next airline ticket. Every time you get onto an airplane you’ll see a charge of $4.50 (capped at $18/trip). The airlines are required to charge these fees and then remit them to the airports. I love recording the PFC charges because they come from airlines all over the world. We routinely receive remittances from  Japan Airlines, Air France, Luftansa and Qantas. No, none of those airlines fly into my airport.  However, if you buy a ticket to Paris via Air France, then Air France will charge you the PFC and remit those funds to us, even though you’ll actually fly out of my airport on one of their partner airlines (or one of their partner’s regional carriers). The FAA has pretty strict rules about how PFCs can be used. Airports can only use them for very specific things like enhancing security, reducing noise or increasing capacity. FAA approval is required in advance – and the airlines are allowed to give their input as well.

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Wouldn’t be a post from me if I didn’t include a pic of the latest cool airplane to fly in!

One thing my airport won’t use to finance the new terminal is local taxes. Since we aren’t owned by the city or county but instead function as an independent agency, we don’t use county or city taxes for construction projects or for our daily operations either.

So, what DOES the airport of the future look like? Well I’ve heard we are going for a modular design that will allow us to start with what we need, and leave room for us to easily add/adapt as passenger and airline needs change. The proposed design itself is… interesting. A lot can change in 10 years, so what the terminal will actually look like remains to be seen. But based on the most recent conceptualization let’s just say that I think the Jetsons would feel right at home.

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I’m not saying Hanna Barbera designed the look for the new terminal… but they totally could have!