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Delivering Solutions + Results

Aviation Industry Increasingly Relies on Third-Party Consultants for Complex Capital Programs

Program managers and engineering consultants are playing increasingly vital roles as extensions of airlines and airports facing turbulent industry conditions.

Constructing or upgrading aviation facilities and systems has become an enormously complex undertaking. New technologies and evolving expectations by the flying public require unprecedented flexibility and adaptability. This is especially true as the industry emerges from the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As airlines and airports scramble to stay ahead of this curve, program managers and other third-party support teams will become even more essential.

 

New Challenges Every Day at MSY

Construction of the new 35-gate Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (MSY) terminal in New Orleans is a good illustration of the aviation industry’s new normal. The new 1 million-square-foot terminal at MSY opened in 2019, though by then local passenger growth had driven demand beyond the original program.

Early phases of the MSY program addressed typical project phases. However, as the program got underway, the scope began to morph and change as new issues emerged each day. The job became one of solving and resolving anything that came up.

Program management is an increasingly necessary discipline that is ideal for large, complex, multiyear capital programs that require a number of projects to be executed concurrently. Historically, program management was a large, expensive operation; today, utilizing a coordinated program with a manager empowered to make operational decisions and a small dedicated staff will save costs and reduce inefficiencies over the life of the program. Programmatic approaches also address a critical shortage of qualified airline and airport managers with the experience to efficiently manage day-to-day responsibilities of multiple projects.

 

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New Challenges Every Day at MSY

Construction of the new 35-gate Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (MSY) terminal in New Orleans is a good illustration of the aviation industry’s new normal. The new 1 million-square-foot terminal at MSY opened in 2019, though by then local passenger growth had driven demand beyond the original program.

Early phases of the MSY program addressed typical project phases. However, as the program got underway, the scope began to morph and change as new issues emerged each day. The job became one of solving and resolving anything that came up.

Program management is an increasingly necessary discipline that is ideal for large, complex, multiyear capital programs that require a number of projects to be executed concurrently. Historically, program management was a large, expensive operation; today, utilizing a coordinated program with a manager empowered to make operational decisions and a small dedicated staff will save costs and reduce inefficiencies over the life of the program. Programmatic approaches also address a critical shortage of qualified airline and airport managers with the experience to efficiently manage day-to-day responsibilities of multiple projects.

As manager of the MSY program, Burns & McDonnell was embedded on the project as an extension of staff to the owner, overseeing details ranging from budget control, design and constructability reviews to construction management and commissioning.

Still, even those defined responsibilities do not completely describe the total scope of responsibilities. It’s a role that cannot be easily defined — ranging from the expected duties of managing required FAA studies and environmental reviews to design and constructability reviews, invoice processing and budget reconciliation to the unexpected duties such as arranging for emergency water after an historic freeze of the domestic water supply line and manually moving bags during a temporary baggage system glitch. In short, basic problem-solving as the issues arise.

This is not atypical for other megascale aviation facility programs, such as those underway in New York City, Denver or Los Angeles. Projects and responsibilities morph and evolve on each program and getting to the goal may require an entirely different approach at the midpoint than it did at the start.

This evolving approach for MSY has led to a new five-year program that will add work to meet growing demand along with other priorities that are sure to emerge. Some of those priorities will be an assessment for additional gates, repurposing the old terminal facility and the possible addition of light rail. As one of the top five airports in North America for growth, it is likely that those additional features will be needed as part of its evolving service profile.

Going for Net Zero

Airlines and airports face disruptions outside the industry’s control. All have long recognized flexibility is the new normal.

Those realities presented an opportunity for Alaska Airlines when it recognized that the sudden halt in passenger traffic brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic created a window of opportunity to move forward with decarbonization goals. A conversion to electric ground support equipment (eGSE) rose to the top of the possibilities list. Currently, a wide array of mostly fossil fuel-powered equipment is utilized to unload and load baggage, clean and replenish the aircraft, support and move the aircraft, refuel the aircraft and perform any needed maintenance. A conversion to eGSE would represent an important part of Alaska Airlines’ commitment to achieving a net zero carbon footprint.

This complex program will impact nearly every aspect of ongoing operations, so a detailed engineering and technical assessment was required as a basis for a five-year master plan enabling Alaska Airlines to pivot to eGSE equipment. This planning effort required a deep dive into nearly every aspect of airline operations and needed to be done within an extremely compressed time frame.

The goal of the study was to assess Alaska Airlines’ top nine airport locations and provide recommendations to executive leadership on setting feasible electrification goals for the next five years. The team evaluated the existing GSE fleets, charging capabilities, gate configurations and available real estate at each airport to create conceptual layouts. Future eGSE infrastructure requirements and costs were estimated. Then, electrification opportunities were evaluated by creating new categories for the airline to rethink its approach — core gate equipment, convertible support equipment and nonconvertible equipment. The study concluded with recommendations based on a summary of findings, including both a current cost estimate and expected carbon emission reductions.

Getting the Correct Answers

No matter the challenge, the proper role for program managers and engineering consultants is to deliver the recommendations that lead to the best solution, even if that answer is not what the client expected to hear. The best path forward often requires us to challenge initial expectations.

The key to finding the right answer is to understand the endgame. With nearly every airline and airport looking for flexibility and cost savings, developing a high-trust relationship with third-party consultants and program managers is more important than ever.

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2021 Special Report


Authors


Dan Eekhoff

Project Manager

Chris Spann

National Director of Aviation