Grand Designs

26 February 2009 (Last Updated February 26th, 2009 18:30)

2008 saw the delivery of new airport terminals so ambitious in scale and design they have set a new industry benchmark. How will current financial restrictions prevent such feats being repeated in the near future? Alex Hawkes talks to Alan Lamond, director at global architecture firm Pascal + Watson and chairman of the British Aviation Group, to gain an expert insight into the future of terminal design.

Grand Designs

Alex Hawkes: Obviously the financial climate at the start of this year is vastly different from that of 2008. What influence has that had on recent airport design activity?

Alan Lamond: After the recent losses of the banking sector, there is now a completely different atmosphere across the industry.

"Airports are re-examining their investment plans in a desperate effort to reduce or postpone expenditure."

Airlines are collapsing with more failures predicted, while airports are re-examining their investment plans in a desperate effort to reduce or postpone expenditure. The industry's professionals now look upon the future with a degree of angst similar to that felt in the aftermath of 9/11.

There is an undeniable reining in of activity. Industry insiders say that any project currently being constructed is done so on the basis of projected traffic forecasts that are unlikely to happen – so any passenger terminals being opened this year will be doing so for less then what was originally envisioned. That is how quickly the aviation market has retracted over the last few months.

AH: Is there anything to suggest that this downward trajectory will change in the near future?

AL: When studied over a 20-year cycle, the historical trend for the aviation sector is that every blip or downfall in the market is followed by a period of accelerated growth within a year or two afterwards. There is therefore strong precedent of aviation traffic reverting back to steady growth.

Aviation experts that produce fantastically sophisticated analysis of the future of the industry – such as those found at Boeing and Airbus – are undoubtedly adjusting their future figures. A number of other factors come into it – namely the environment and the impact of much higher fuel prices.

In spite of these conditions, however, almost all airlines over the last six months of last year were doing much better than previously. So in some regards, with fuel prices dropping, there maybe a bit of respite – but in general there is still a hard year ahead.

AH: With last year witnessing several high-profile terminal openings, what lessons have been carried through to 2009?

AL: The fact that the enormous Beijing Terminal 3 was gradually revealed without any drama in a series of soft openings starting in February 2008 did not seem news worthy at the time. On the other hand, the opening of London Heathrow's T5 on 27 March of the same year was a public relations nightmare. BA had relentlessly pandered to the demands that T5 would open on time and on budget – and it was.

"Almost all airlines over the last six months of last year were doing much better than previously."

BA had confidently predicted an error-free opening, but it wasn't. The errors that
arose on the first day provided a great opportunity for the media to get their teeth into the two companies. The reality is that now the initial problems have been overcome, the passenger experience of T5 has been almost universally praised, but sadly unreported.

Yet another massive project – Dubai International Airport's Terminal 3, is now successfully in service. It was evident the project had learnt from the Heathrow T5 experience, with a soft opening without the fanfare that is typical of Dubai's fantastic construction achievements.

AH: And in spite of the financial constrictions, is the industry still retaining an acute environmental focus?

AL: As is increasingly happening, airports are being built with the highest possible green credentials, as exemplified last year by Indianapolis International Airport's new Col. H Weir Cook terminal. Pascall + Watson are doing something similar with the design of Dublin Airport's Terminal 2 at the moment, which has a hugely positive environmental approach. We are being very careful to get the best possible thermal performance throughout the terminal envelope. We are also working on the delivery and efficiency of the building's fuel systems.

There is currently a massive effort being made in this regard. Manchester Airport is a good example – it has a number of initiatives in place to get the airport carbon neutral by 2015. It has a close association with Manchester Metropolitan University, which specialises in aviation sustainability. Such alliances are becoming progressively commonplace and highlight how the industry has recognised the sensitivity it must have towards its immediate neighbours and the greater
environment as a whole.

The industry is trying desperately to find every measure possible to make some visible contributions to the environmental focus that most of the world is insisting we adopt.

AH: Airport terminals are continuing to increase in size and ambition. What impact is this having on new designs?

AL: The scale of last year's three major terminals – Heathrow T5, Beijing Terminal 3 and Dubai Terminal 3 – is unprecedented. Combined they equate to in terms of nearly three million square metres of additional operating space, which when fully employed will be capable of handling over 125 million passengers a year.

"The real challenge for airport designers is to have a big airport that is still simple for passengers."

They have set a new standard for terminal design as a whole by wrestling with the fundamental challenge of providing a good passenger service in a big airport. Many travellers have a fantastic desire to go through tiny airports as the quality and speed of service is so simple and direct.

The real challenge for airport designers is to have a big airport that is still simple for passengers. Scale is inevitable when you are trying to park large planes together so those three terminals have relentlessly focused on applying quality of environment, space and volume to generate benefit from the size. I think that is a very significant and distinct step forward.

AH: What activity would you like to see from the airport sector for the remainder of the year?

AL: The delivery of major aviation infrastructure is not an overnight adventure. It takes many years of dedicated application across countless disciplines. The future will be poorly soured if our industry overreacts to the current crisis in confidence. We should grasp the many opportunities that exist to design and deliver the additional capacity passengers desire within the most environmentally viable solutions.