Uncertainty to Resiliency: Airports

As the world experiences more black-swan events, from pandemics to extreme weather, airports must adapt by creating more agile business models.

Over the last two years, even the best resiliency plans have been tested, prompting many to re-evaluate what resiliency looks like going forward. Airports are in a unique position to become that best-in-class model for the future.

Both capital and operational resilience must be considered as part of any resilience plan. Capital resilience is the ability to deliver projects in a constantly changing environment, resulting in agile models that can pivot and reallocate capital throughout the asset lifecycle. On the other hand, operational resilience is the need to support operations teams with planning, identifying problems and proposing solutions that mitigate short, medium, and long-term risks and avoid critical failures.

As the world has experienced an increasing number of black swan events, such as the pandemic or more severe weather systems, it is important that resilience plans adapt. Airports are in a unique position as they are the ‘front line’ for many of these significant events. One way of adjusting is the concept of adaptable terminals and making investments to ensure that an airport can either ramp up or deleverage their usable space based on demand.

Nanaimo Airport, by office of mcfarlane biggar architects + designers (omb). Photo: Andrew Latreille

For example, airline consolidation has resulted in numerous mergers and acquisitions over the last decade. For an airport, if a merger were to occur with its major airline, would the airport be able to survive if it were no longer a hub? It is this sort of planning that has prompted Pittsburgh International airport to develop cargo and freight revenue streams to offset lower passenger demand. Conversely, the opposite may be true. As we transition from the pandemic stage to the endemic stage of COVID-19, many airlines and airports are anticipating that the pent-up demand for travel will result in the highest passenger volumes the industry has seen potentially in decades.

Many airports will have to contend with the associated high traffic volumes, footfall, retail consumption, and gate congestion to maximize the number of aircraft that can land and take off per hour each day. Road networks and mass transit options will need to be optimized to avoid impairing traffic. Routine maintenance and cleaning/disinfection will need to be ramped up. And techniques like flexible gate systems, where airlines can grow and shrink the number of available gates, may need to be installed.

The way buildings are upgraded, managed, and built will also need to be considered in the future as more severe weather prompts the need for more resilient buildings. Even if the building is not very old, it may be prudent to review the structure on a periodic basis to adjust for natural disasters and the effects of climate change.

For example, in British Columbia, a lot of work is being done to ensure key infrastructure maintains the highest level of seismic resilience. And at many other airports in North America, where coastal flood maps have been redrawn, portions of runway, terminals, and hangers have or will need to be augmented to prevent damage from storm surges and unusually high tides.

Economic factors can also be very influential. In 2021 we saw a lot of change with net-zero commitments made by many major companies. Some commitments already exist but with net-zero commitments taking hold, this will lead to a restructuring of the economy over time. A clear example is the Government of Canada announcing a ban on the sale of fuel-burning cars and light-duty trucks from 2035. Airports will need to adapt by identifying and including infrastructure to support electric vehicles in the future. It will quickly change from a “nice to have” to a potential risk if not factored into capital plans.

However, with every risk comes opportunity. And how each airport manages this will determine how resilient they are in the future. It will be important to factor these emerging trends into any resiliency plan, while also considering the practical implications of any investments, to ensure they add operational and economic security when needed most.

In the future, the most successful airports will be the ones that have diversification of income streams and invest in upgrades that can protect against changes in regulations, sudden drops in passenger volumes, and unforeseen extreme weather events.

Kai Fraser is Director at Turner & Townsend, an independent professional services company specializing in program management, project management, cost and commercial management and consulting across the real estate, infrastructure and natural resources sectors. This article was included in the 2022 Canadian Construction Market Intelligence Report released in February. www.turnerandtownsend.com

Chibougamau-Chapais Airport (EVOQ + ARTCAD)

A gateway to the Eeyou Istchee James Bay region of Québec and servicing a large territory that includes the growing communities of Chibougamau, Chapais, and Oujé-Bougoumou, a new terminal building was deemed necessary to meet an increasing demand not just in passenger traffic but also freight, medical evacuations and forest firefighting operations, which the airport also fulfills.

The new building is composed of two low structures on either side of a glazed concourse that serves as a central hub. The exterior façade features the name in Cree and French and is accented with artwork by Emmanuelle Gendron, integrated into the transparency of the timber curtain walls and paying homage to the Eeyou Istchee region.

Visual connectivity from the parking lot to the runway is reinforced by the consistent use of materials and lighting treatment. Highlighting its proximity to the boreal forest, the terminal’s design showcases locally produced wood, particularly high-performance products such as glulam and cross-laminated timber (CLT) structural slabs. The waiting area is delimited on three sides by timber curtain walls, topped by a raised roof forming a south-facing clerestory. Stressed CLT panels spanning 12 metres are supported by wood columns at each end, reinforced with high-strength steel rods tying the centre to the extremities.

A mixed roof structural system combining engineered wood and steel components allows for both large spans and reduced roof thickness, which contributes to the interior shading strategy through its generous overhangs. The curtain walls provide natural light and improved energy efficiency, contributing to structural bracing, while the clerestory acts as a load-bearing axis, eliminating the need for a structural beam.

Nanaimo Airport (office of mcfarlane biggar architects + designers)

Located south of the growing port city of Nanaimo, on B.C.’s Vancouver Island, the 17,500-sq.-ft. expansion is the first phase in omb’s 55,000-sq.-ft. master plan for the terminal, comprising a new passenger lounge, dedicated security screening area and a new repeating modular building design that can facilitate future expansion for a terminal anticipated to triple in size by 2035.

Inside and out, omb used the island’s geology, mining and forestry industries for visual motifs, such as a carved interior ceiling volume made of pickled Western Hemlock representing underground coal mining seams. A Nordic-inspired palette of neutral white woods and light greys showcases the terminal’s strong angular forms, while dramatic V-shaped exterior columns, inspired by trestle bridge geometries brace the entire structure.

Monolithic departure gate counters are made of slate from a local quarry, and solid Douglas fir stools were sourced from neighboring forests and manufactured by local artisans. The millwork and thresholds are lined with solid Corian surfaces, inset with white wayfinding to minimize visual clutter.

The building modules each face the direction of travel, gradually opening toward the airside into expansive views of awaiting aircraft, acting as passive wayfinding and helping to alleviate passenger anxiety, especially in the security queue. These public circulation paths are reinforced by a maple lined wall running the full length of the new departure lounge. The wall provides privacy for the passenger screening area while also concealing critical building services such as air distribution, garbage and recycling receptacles, and public washrooms.

Victoria Airport (office of mcfarlane biggar architects + designers)

Located at the northern tip of the Saanich Peninsula, the Victoria International Airport Holdroom expansion is the newest addition to the B.C. capital’s main airport terminal building. The design approach, while rooted in embracing tight construction constraints given that it was still an active airport, embraced the three primary qualities of materials, light and views.

The day-lit space is punctuated by hemlock-panelled monoliths that mark each of the departure gates for ease of passenger wayfinding. Where each monolith meets the ceiling, it is complemented by a large skylight which maps onto the airline counter and queue space below.

As the day progresses and weather changes, the quality of the overhead daylight constantly changes, in contrast with the more diffused light entering through the glazed walls, which also provide foreground views onto the apron, highlighting the buzzing activity of the terminal while operation and maintenance equipment are concealed by outdoor planters which run the length of the expansion.

A material palette selected to be durable and withstand constant heavy use by passengers includes terrazzo for both flooring and interior planters, and ceramic and carpet tiles used to distinguish the active circulation areas from the more informal seating areas.