Under one roof – designing low-cost terminals

6 September 2011 (Last Updated September 6th, 2011 18:30)

As spending cuts continue, airports are looking to save money in any way they can. Sarah Blackman talks to the IATA and airport architects to find out the most sensible ways of working on a budget, without damaging the overall passenger experience.

Under one roof – designing low-cost terminals

Damage limitations being carried out by airport operators were rife during the 2008 financial crisis. Passenger numbers nose-dived and airports from New York to Shanghai did whatever they could to maintain growth and market share.

The most common strategic manoeuvre was to promote low-cost travel through budget airlines. Just as some airports like London Heathrow and Dubai International constructed dedicated buildings for legacy airlines like British Airways and Emirates, other airports began to build facilities which cater for low-cost airlines only.

Today, annual passenger traffic is on the rise once more – the Airports International Council recorded a 4.3% growth in Q1 2011, compared to the same period in 2010 – but in a low margin industry surrounded by a world still full of economic uncertainty, cost efficiency remains critical to all airport facilities and services, whether they cater for flag carriers or budget airlines.

Tough economic times could result in elaborate airport designs becoming obsolete, meaning operators must now take smart business decisions in favour of substance over style.

Under-one-roof

Kuala Lumpur International, New York's John F Kennedy and Marseille Provence Airport in France have all developed low-cost terminals to cater for budget carriers and short haul flights.

"Damage limitations being carried out by airport operators were rife during the 2008 financial crisis."

In December 2009, Marseille Provence managing director Pierre Regis told Airport Business that his facility had 'no option' but to develop a low-cost facility, what with passenger numbers dropping after 9/11 and the launch of high-speed rail services between Marseille and Paris.

"Our contact with low-cost airlines suggested they loved the airport and the area, but that it was too expensive," he told the magazine.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) believes, however, that building separate terminals to facilitate the operations of one niche market segment is unnecessary and that there are simpler ways of cutting costs, whilst promoting passenger growth.

According to Colin Spear, IATA's Assistant Director Airport Development in Geneva, airports must maximise existing infrastructure before increasing capacity, and offer a generic level of low-cost facilities and services to all airlines, within one shared location.

"Wherever possible all airlines and/or alliance partners should operate under one roof, sharing the benefits through economies of scale and avoiding the additional unnecessary costs that arise from duplicating or triplicating facility, infrastructure or service provision.  Sharing common operational platforms and facilities, and access to all airlines, is an established basic working principle," says Spear.

The director goes as far as saying some airports discriminate certain airlines, by separating them from upmarket carriers.

"Low cost facilities are often designed to accommodate only short haul point traffic. Stand investment is usually kept to a minimum and air bridges are usually not provided.

"We are now finding ourselves in the position where we regularly have to defend our member airlines' interests as we believe many of these restrictions are discriminative," Spear adds.

Segregating individual airlines also has the potential to stunt profits if passengers are cut off from shops and other amenities within an airport.

Cost-cutting designs

Architects have witnessed first-hand the growing trend of airports co-locating their airlines, facilities and services, whether high-end or budget, under-one-roof.

"Operators must now take smart business decisions in favour of substance over style."

And this, according to Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM) is an ideal situation for designers.

SOM design partner Ross Wimer explains "this allows a consistency and logic to govern all the facilities within the terminal.  Materials and finishes can be the same throughout." It seems airlines are beginning to understand that it is possible to operate though facilities geared toward basic architecture. Amsterdam Airport Schiphol relied on a simple steel frame box solution in their piers with flat roofs and basic curtain walling, capable of quick expansion when required.

The terminal buildings SOM has been involved with, such as Ben Gurion in Israel and Changi Terminal 3 in Singapore, are by no means characterised as budget driven, but Wimer insists that economy was an important consideration in the design.

"The Changi Terminal roof is comprised of standard components; metal panels, glass skylights, and steel trusses, but they allow the main terminal spaces to operate without artificial light during the day which is a significant environmental and cost benefit."

Smart technology helping airports to lift-off

Often the process of designing an under-one-roof facility still means services vary from airline to airline, which can throw up some challenges, says Alan Lamond, owner of Pascall and Watson Architects, which designed Dublin T2. "Whilst there are many aspects of the passenger process that are identical for both full fare and low fare passengers, there are a number particular areas that offer very clear differentiated services; for example at check-in / bag drop positions and it is not unusual for there to be very different service standards resulting in different queuing requirements.

"As a consequence the technical challenge for airport architects is to be able to accommodate the most 'space hungry' solution without waste," adds Lamond.

New technologies being brought online, however, could soon mean the check-in process is the same for every passenger, saving the airport and airlines precious time and money.

Internet check-in kiosks complement the existing common-use self-service (CUSS) kiosk facilities already available at most airports. This provides direct access to an airline reservation site, including low budget airlines, which can't always afford to develop and maintain a CUSS application. It also eliminates the need for ground staff.

Mobile boarding is also taking flight in some airports. Las Vegas McCarran International has made this service is available for a number of airlines and allows passengers access to the airport's universal check-in web page. The site provides customers with a bar code tied to their reservation and is later scanned at the baggage drop point.

For airlines, this service can mean a savings of $10,000 to $15,000 on installing a single kiosk. For airports, removing the check-in process means decreased congestion and less new construction.

"Architects have witnessed first-hand the trend of airports co-locating airlines."

But, how do upscale airlines feel about sharing their check-in space with budget carriers, whether online or at the airport? Could this damage the reputation of their brand?

According to Spear, the answer is no.

"It is still possible for individual airlines to apply their 'brand' to various areas within the passenger terminal building, for example within their own business class lounges or gate areas," Spear insists.

"Recent advances allow different airlines to brand gate areas on a flight by flight basis, with different coloured lighting or images on flight information display screens.  A good terminal design should also allow for perhaps the ultimate branding technique, clear unobstructed views of individual airline tailfins."