Executing An Approach to Successful Programs

Program manager at risk delivery offers a solution that limits impact to everyday operations.


By Lori Top, Aviation Projects Director, Burns & McDonnell, and J. Somer Shindler, Managing Director, Planning and Development, Corporate Real Estate, United Airlines

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Because of its growing presence at Washington Dulles International Airport — one of the busiest airports in the country, according to Airports Council International — United Airlines is investing in a program to utilize available space in concourses, improving reliability of operations and updating employee spaces. The program includes the addition of a POLARIS lounge and United Club, as well as concourse renovations such as jet bridges and other gate services equipment.

United’s biggest challenges are to limit impact to operations during renovations, avoid negatively impacting passengers’ day-to-day experiences and achieve cost and schedule certainty. Additionally, because United’s growth strategy and reinvestment in facilities is being implemented within every one of its seven hubs, the airline needed to be resourceful in its development of a program with varying scope that leverages the experience of business partners without stifling creativity.


With the help of industry partners, an approach was developed that allowed United to transfer the program’s financial risk early in the process to provide peace of mind to all operational stakeholders. This new approach eliminates the typical liability gap associated with separate owner contracts with a programmer, designer and builder, placing liability and decision-making power solely in the hands of the program manager at risk (PMAR). This way, United can remain focused on other projects, daily operations and the needs of its passengers.

Thus, the key to the successful delivery of the program is in the hands of the PMAR. The PMAR must complete a rigorous process to develop an appropriate scope within the program for each project, which is then tracked as a task order. Properly defining the scope provides a schedule for key decisions, defines performance criteria, surveys existing conditions to identify risk, and provides risk mitigation mechanisms before schedules and costs are finalized.


Successful execution of this approach requires that the team have the experience necessary to define project scopes through a combination of stakeholder engagement and problem-solving. By incorporating design and construction professionals on each project team, a complete solution is provided in the early phases of the project to mitigate impacts that are normally not apparent until a project is under construction in the field. This integrated approach provides the foundation for an early commitment to a project execution plan that aligns with the client’s needs and offers certainty of execution.

Another added benefit of this delivery method is the PMAR has the ability to perform work in multiple ways, diversifying the team to allow for further flexibility. For example, the team might complete all work in-house or subcontract any or all portions of the program out to partners who specialize in key aspects of work or in specific regions where the projects are located. This ability also enhances the opportunity to bring on small businesses in a true mentorship role with reduced risk, aligning with the airline’s goal to support the local community with this project.

This integrated approach will continue into the construction phase as the field team mobilizes and begins project execution. Design and construction teams will work side by side to provide a smooth process.

If, under the program, the design and construction is completed by one firm, it sets the stage for a simplified transition and control of scope and schedule. From early scope definition and pre-construction support to building closeout, the PMAR is in control of key elements of risk that normally cause rework, value engineering iterations, redesign and expansion of scope.

“Having one team that has visibility across the entire program and is managing the outcomes in conjunction with our team provides us with surety of outcome,” says Kaveh Dabiran, Regional Director, Planning and Development, Corporate Real Estate, United Airlines. “Knowing that our stakeholder and operational needs are being addressed alongside the schedule and budget is invaluable.”

Including the execution team in the design discussion and providing conceptual costs during the design process are two key steps that eliminate rework and provide a complete definition of scope early in a project’s life cycle. Visibility across other projects within the program allows for streamlining and prioritizing decisions that are needed to support future phases, eliminating costly duplication of efforts. Coordination with the airport, ramp and technical operations delivers a managed approach to each project, meeting both the business and operational needs of United Airlines.