Smooth Operators

31 January 2007 (Last Updated January 31st, 2007 18:30)

Effective management of the infrastructure and services of an international airport is a challenging and complex task. At the same time, weighing the short-term needs of carriers and passengers against long-term development requires a simple approach, as DFW's Robert Barker tells Jim Banks.

Smooth Operators

Asset management for an international airport encompasses many things, from the provision of services to passengers and carriers and the daily maintenance of facilities, to the development of new infrastructure that will affect its capacity and efficiency.

With so many elements to consider, an asset manager could become bogged down in complexity, unable to get a clear picture of how investments in infrastructure and services interact. The need for a clear and coordinated plan is obvious, but how to achieve it less so.

"The complexity of airport operations poses difficult challenges for asset managers."

To find an effective approach to asset management one could do worse than look to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), which has had to face this complexity since the addition of a new terminal and rapid growth in demand for its services.

At DFW, the importance of a holistic approach to asset management is clearly understood. Like many airports, it has a mix of old and newer infrastructure, the operation of which must be synchronised, while its expanding capacity demands more focus on the provision of services throughout that infrastructure.

Robert Barker, vice-president of asset management at DFW, has had to face many hard decisions relating to the maintenance and operation of existing assets, as well as the addition of new infrastructure. In doing so, he and his team have developed a sound and simple approach to asset management, which could provide a model for other airports.

Barker says: "We must renew the older infrastructure, but we must ensure that this is done effectively from many perspectives. The condition of these assets affects our customers, so we need a high level of day-to-day maintenance, and we need to know what the public wants, so we must take a coordinated view of asset management."

Located halfway between the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth, in Texas, DFW is one of the world's busiest airports, serving 1,900 flights a day and approximately 59 million passengers a year.

In July 2005, DFW added International Terminal D, from which six international carriers operate flights to over 30 destinations. The airport's international operations have been growing steadily ever since.

HOLISTIC APPROACH

This development was advanced using a model designed to provide the holistic approach that many airports seek – a formula the airport has dubbed sustainable asset management.

Though the obvious assumption is that the model focuses on environmental issues, Barker is keen to point out that its scope is far wider. The model prescribes four headings against which any infrastructure development or asset management issue must be measured: economic, operations, natural resources and social impact (EONS).

Barker says: "We manage our assets day-to-day and consider renewal projects from this perspective, looking at how each operation affects the four elements."

SUSTAINABLE ASSET MANAGEMENT

The EONS model was adopted to allow a massive and complex organisation to reap the value of its long experience in the business and to constantly inform and improve its processes. Many lessons have been learnt from using this model, not least of which is the need to consider any infrastructure development with an extended perspective that takes in more than cost.

"Revisiting and reviewing asset management strategy is the key to long-term success."

Barker says: "New capital investments must be looked at from a long-term point of view. Low initial costs are often a false economy." This may seem obvious, but the lure of short-term cost savings can prove tempting.

Life cycle costs are important, but too much focus on cost may be detrimental to the value of a project. Barker says: "Our approach is not necessarily to reduce costs, but to find the most effective solution. Customer service is vital to long-term goals." He adds: "The first step is always to identify all the stakeholders. Inclusiveness is the major challenge."

The impact of adding a terminal or changing a road layout, for example, goes well beyond the boundary of the airport. The stakeholders include the communities around the airport. Barker firmly believes that being as inclusive as possible from the outset will simplify any project in the long term.

This applies not only to major infrastructure developments but also to the management of services, including the decision over what to outsource and what to keep in-house. "We outsource some features of asset management delivery, but not strategy," says Barker.

WELL BEGUN IS HALF DONE

The importance of starting on the right foot cannot be emphasised enough. "Some 80% of lifecycle costs are affected by the decisions that are made in the first 20% of project development," says Barker. "Early design decisions are crucial, so we are geared up to include all stakeholders from the start."

Once asset development projects are underway, Barker stresses the importance of revisiting and reviewing asset management strategy often, in order to remain flexible.

However, the main priority, Barker says, is to keep things simple, and the best way to achieve that is thorough planning and inclusiveness.