Airports around the world are facing many challenges in their pursuit to manage their operation as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. At the same time passenger demands are changing dramatically. We had the chance to speak with Mark Wolfe, Head of Aviation at Hassell about the future challenges for airports in Australasia.
Question: International flights to Australia are amongst the most lucrative in the world and an increasing number of airlines are striving to add Australian destinations to their routes. In how far will this development impact the way we operate, build and expand our airports?
Mark Wolfe: It will largely depend on how that demand translates into passenger numbers and the proportion of tourist traffic compared to business traffic. Will the main airports continue to expand and grow; feeding the regional airports or will those second tier airports develop to meet demand?
Business travelers want airports close to and with good links to the city. Sydney for example is very constrained, with little additional capacity in the runways and terminals; if a second airport is a reality could we see one airport being focused on business with the other a hub for tourism?
What is certain is that more passengers and airlines mean a broader range of customers with differing requirements. Airports therefore need to be flexible and offer choice.
We know that no individual airline’s needs are the same as another; they have specific operational requirements and differing products. An extreme example is Ryanair; Stansted Airport’s biggest customer. As a low-cost operator, they chose not to use passenger boarding bridges and are moving away from using the baggage system. Compare that to a full service airline with a range of premium products and you see how varied the customer profile can be.
Ultimately, airports need to be flexible, facilities will need to be designed to adapt quickly in response to changes in passenger numbers and airline mix as well as regulation. In this context, one of the main challenges is in achieving a common consensus among airline stakeholders as to what new facilities should deliver
Q: Airports have often been criticized for being “non-places” that lack social meaning and are culturally disconnected from their environment. Do you see a shift in the way airports around the world are designed and built? Do airports even need an identifiable local identity?
M. W.: There is a definite change in the way new airports are conceived and specifically their relationship to surrounding communities. The idea of the ‘Airport City’ has been around for some time but is increasingly being seen as a way of delivering a sustainable agenda and giving an airport that sense of identity.
Airports have long been catalysts for development and the idea that business, technology and community can meet and benefit from a close relationship with multi-modal travel has become more relevant. What’s different now is that we are planning and managing how those different precincts link and relate to each other, the terminal and the transport network.
Whether airports need an identity is up for debate. My personal view however, is that an identity can help reinforce an airport’s relationships with its neighbours. Being open and inclusive, making local people feel they are stakeholders can be very positive.
I like the approach at Munich Airport – they really maximize the opportunity provided by their public spaces by hosting concerts, art exhibitions and various other events that include the wider community. As a result it has become a definite destination or ‘place’ with a very strong local identity.
Q: Particularly in Asia, Airports Cities are on the rise with an ever increasing number of retail, relaxation and entertainment options only minutes away from the terminal. Do you see opportunities for this kind of development in Australia?
M. W.: Possibly, but only at major cities and airports that have the throughput and demand to support it. It would also necessitate improved links to and from the terminal and the city. What will be interesting to see is if any conflict exists between these complimentary developments and the future operation of the airport.
Q: Advanced information technologies are becoming more and more important for airport operations. How does this impact on airport design?
M. W.: The development through IT of new check-in solutions for instance has certainly influenced the way in which one would approach designing and sizing a check-in concourse. Equally it has affected other core process areas such as immigration and security as equipment has continued to evolve.
As it now underpins airport operations IT’s influence has changed the design process; it needs to be considered at the earliest opportunity to ensure a fully integrated solution is delivered. Whereby it was once loosely an element of Building Services it is now considered a separate and highly specialized discipline.
With such a heavy reliance on IT there is now an absolute need for a rigorous approach to operational readiness and testing. In some instances this is being considered at the start of the design process and is already beginning to impact the sequencing of design and delivery.
Q: Over the past decade airport operators had to significantly enhance security measures. These dealings often have a negative impact on the passenger experience which can persist throughout the journey. How can the airport design positively influence safety, security and passenger facilitation?
Often a negative impact is felt because of a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to events. Some measures, although necessary, can appear heavy handed and overbearing, but can be easily improved through good communication.
My own experience, at Heathrow and Gatwick airports, has involved leading the development of two major forecourt projects. These projects were driven by a requirement to move uncontrolled vehicles away from the terminal to mitigate the threat of vehicle bombs. Far from having a negative impact, the result has been the creation of pedestrianised buffer zones between vehicle drop-off lanes and the terminals. These public spaces have been treated as opportunities and have been developed as landscaped plazas, helping to improve orientation and wayfinding as well as the whole experience of approaching and entering the terminals.
Q: Your speaking at our Airport Operations conference held on the 6th and 7th September in Melbourne. What can our audience expect from your presentation?
I’ve had the opportunity to sit on both sides of the fence; as a consultant and as a client, and have worked with a diverse range of airports in the UK & internationally. Therefore, I’m hoping to bring an international perspective that is relevant and current.