From the Archives: Up, Up and Away: Airport Construction – 2021 Major Project Review

Airport Construction

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2021 Issue of Wire Rope Exchange

BY:  Bob Glenn and Mike Chalmers

If you resumed air travel this summer (2021) for the first time since the pandemic began, there’s an excellent chance that at least part of your airport didn’t look at all the same as the last time you were there.  While air travel was off profoundly in 2020 versus the prior year, numerous major airports in the United States and elsewhere were in the midst of dramatic multi-year improvement projects – many with multi-billion-dollar price tags.

To get a sense of how impactful and widespread these projects are, we assembled a list of ongoing projects in 2021 and compared it to enplanement statistics from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics or BTS (part of the U.S. Department of Transportation) for calendar year 2019, giving us baseline pre-pandemic demand.  By that measure, all nine of the nine busiest airports, and 17 of the top 20 had very substantial projects underway.  Projects we identified among the top 50 U.S. airports affect well over half of passenger volume based on that 2019 data – so if you are on your way to the airport, it’s more likely than not that you’ll see major construction work there!

Earlier work on parking structures at Nashville International Airport in June 2019. Terminal arrival/departure roadways are visible at left. Photo Credit: Jantira Namwong / Shutterstock.com

BTS data shows how dramatic the slowdown in air travel was during the pandemic, with total passenger enplanements in 2020 down by more than 60% compared to 2019.  Traffic has rebounded significantly since, as preliminary BTS data show June 2021 enplanements trailing June 2019 levels by about 20%.

The response of airport operators with major projects underway to the dramatic, if temporary, decline in passenger volume varied widely.  Some airports elected to waive-off, delay or curtail the scope of select projects.  Others forged ahead as planned, and a few even took advantage of the unique conditions – uncongested ramps, runways, concourses and terminals – to “make hay while the sun shines”.

Airport Construction: Holding Patterns

In May of 2019, Dallas Fort Worth International (DFW) Airport and American Airlines announced an agreement that committed DFW to invest $3.0 to $3.5 billion in terminal improvements, including the refurbishment of existing Terminal C, and construction of a new Terminal F which would be the airport’s sixth terminal.  The deal at the nation’s fourth busiest airport in 2019 included a long-term commitment from the airline.

Airport Construction
Part of NessCampbell’s scope of work within the PDX NEXT project has involved removing and replacing all existing skybridges. Photo Credit: NessCampbell

Local media reported as early as March 18, 2020 that DFW was suspending construction of Terminal F, citing a dramatic decline in air travel and uncertainty about the pace of recovery.  Officials emphasized the word “suspend”, adding that they expect demand for the facility, which had been on track for a 2025 opening, to eventually return.

In early August of this year, DFW announced that it had approved plans to renovate and expand Terminal C at an estimated cost of $2 billion.  Final completion of that project is targeted for 2026, and work is phased across the sprawling facility to minimize disruption.  They also noted several on-going or recently completed projects that had supported more than 4,000 jobs over the past 18 months.

The nation’s 16th busiest airport followed a similar course.  In the summer of 2019, the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport) had announced a series of projects spanning five years for Boston’s Logan Airport.  The announcement included a communication plan to keep travelers advised of major impacts they should expect to incur, particularly with respect to roadway access.

The project was initially described as including Terminal B to C roadway improvements, a post-security connection between those terminals (Terminal C is the airports busiest), seven new gates and a 2,000-space parking garage at Terminal E, and more high occupancy vehicle transportation options.

The Boston Globe reported in June of 2020 that Massport cut the $3 billion package of construction project by about one-third.  This included scrapping plans to build a “people mover”, trimming three gates from the Terminal E expansion, and eliminating two parking garages from their projects.

Airport Construction: On Time Arrivals

Destination CLT rendering of future pedestrian bride inside terminal lobby. Photo Credit: Charlotte Douglas International Airport

The Charlotte Douglas International Airport kicked off its “Destination CLT” capital improvement program, describing it as the first phase of their Master Plan Update, and valuing the slate of projects at $2.5 – $3.1 billion.  The nation’s 11th busiest airport has long served as a growing hub for American Airlines and its predecessors.  Projects completed to date include expansion of one concourse and construction of an elevated roadway and terminal curb area.

In December 2020, the airport reported that its progress on the $600 million Terminal Lobby Expansion remains on schedule for completion in 2025.  Described as the signature project of Destination CLT, the 366,000 square foot space will include an architecturally impressive canopy to welcome visitors.  The 15-foot-tall bronze Queen Charlotte statue, which previously stood outside the terminal, will eventually take center stage inside the terminal lobby.

Work also continued apace at the Nashville International Airport as it pursues a $1.4 billion capital plan dubbed BNA Vision – the facility’s International Air Transport Association (IATA) code is “BNA”.  The project will ultimately include three six-story terminal parking garages, a spacious terminal lobby with additional screening lanes and expanded ticketing and baggage areas, a sweeping canopy linking the terminal lobby with one of the parking garages, a state-of-the-art international arrivals facility, an on-site hotel, and concourse expansions with additional gates.

In the course of 2020, the airport opened a new concourse with six gates, opened expanded ticket counters and new security checkpoints, completed a second terminal garage, and began reconstruction of one of four runways.  Work continued on the terminal lobby and international arrivals facility.  Work also began on erection of the steel structure for the canopy linking the terminal and the garage.  When complete, the canopy will be 695 long and 224 feet wide and stand 105 feet above ground level at its highest point.

Airport Construction: Strong Tailwinds

At what are arguably two of the nation’s most congested, space-constrained airports, project planners took advantage of the slowdown to advance their work.

Crowded terminal roadway at New York LaGuardia with adjacent construction work in October 2019. Diminished travel in 2020 allowed planners to adapt more efficient workplans. Photo Credit: rustycanuck / Shutterstock.com

New York’s LaGuardia Airport is in the midst of a comprehensive redevelopment representing an $8 billion investment.  In whole, this effort is building a new airport right over the old one while it continues to operate while attempting to minimize disruption in what they describe as “LaGuardia’s uniquely small geographic footprint.”  The new airport will be a single, unified facility with better access to transportation, plus expanded and improved amenities.  The design is intended to be more intuitive for passengers to navigate.  When complete, the airport structures will be closer to Grand Central Parkway, making airside space to add more than two miles of taxiway in an effort to reduce ground delays.

There are two major elements to the project at LaGuardia, Terminal B and Terminal C, funded separately.

LaGuardia Gateway Partners, responsible for Terminal B, is described as the largest public-private partnership in US aviation history.  The partnership will have a 35-year lease in which to operate the terminal when complete.  The terminal will have 35 gates, a central arrivals and departures hall (opened in June 2021), a parking garage (previously completed) as well as new roadways and supporting infrastructure.  It will serve American Airlines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Air Canada.

The new Terminal C will replace the previous terminals C and D and is will be designed, built, operated and maintained by Delta Air Lines.  It will include four concourses hosting 37 gates connected to a central check-in, security and baggage claim hall with direct access to a parking garage.  It will offer 30% more concession space than the existing two terminals combined.

As noted above, the new terminals are moving considerably closer to Grand Central Parkway.  In a March 2021 article, The Wall Street Journal noted that these projects entail rebuilding all of the roads at the airport.  Rick Cotton, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, told the Journal that the dramatic reduction in traveler volume during the first year of the pandemic allowed that work to advance by six or eight months.

In the same article, Mark Pearson, Delta’s vice president of corporate real estate told the Journal that crews were able to close lanes and place large cranes immediately adjacent to the new terminal’s site, not part of the original work plan.  This has advanced that project by about six months as well.

Construction adjacent to terminal roadway on Terminal 1.5 at LAX in 2019. Photo Credit: Glenn Highcove / Shutterstock.com

Similar opportunities were pursued by Los Angeles World Airports in the midst of their $14.3 billion modernization program at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) according to the Wall Street Journal.  When passenger volume collapsed, managers rethought projects underway at LAX, working around the clock with roadways narrowed all day long instead of working only overnight.  And in Terminals 2 and 3, being rebuilt by Delta Air Lines, their work was advanced by roughly 18 months!  Rather that working with both terminals partially operating, Terminal 3 was entirely closed, making construction operations vastly more efficient.

Work at LAX has been underway since 2009, and is slated to continue into 2023.  The sweeping project includes work on all nine terminals as well as reconfiguring road and transit options to reach the airport.  The scope of this project is genuinely immense.

Previously completed projects at LAX include:

  • The complete renovation of Terminal 1 concluding in 2018, which had dated to the early 1980’s.
  • Redevelopment of the Tom Bradley International Terminal in 2013.
  • Renovation of Terminal 5, completed in 2015.
  • Renovation of concessions and gate area in Terminal 6 completed in 2016
  • Complete modernization of Terminals 7 and 8 opened in 2018.

Projects completed this year and now in use include:

  • Terminal 1 extension (dubbed Terminal 1.5 during construction) adding additional baggage claim and ticketing space, and connection between Terminals 1 and 2 beyond security.
  • The Midfield Satellite concourse, a 15-gate extension of the Tom Bradley International Terminal

Work now underway or still to be commenced includes:

  • The Landside Access Modernization Program (LAMP), the centerpiece of which is an Automated People Mover or airport train connecting the terminals with parking and transit options away from the terminals.
  • Continuing reconstruction of Terminals 2 and 3, now expected to be complete in 2023.
  • A vertical core to connect Terminals 4 and 5 to LAMP improvements, and create a unified departure hall and 28-gate interconnected facility, and complete modernization of Terminal 4.
  • Further work on Terminal 6 to include roomier gate areas, and connection to the vertical core between Terminals 5 and 6 connecting to LAMP improvements.

Airport Construction: Lifting and Rigging

Of course, each of these construction projects requires a large and diverse array of lifting, rigging and load securement gear, and we couldn’t begin to catalog it all.  But we have a couple of perspectives to share from yet another project, this one at Portland (Oregon) International Airport (PDX).  The PDX Next project is a $2 billion reimagination of the airport.  An expanded and fully refreshed Concourse E opened in July 2020 to serve Southwest Airlines, and work is expected to wrap up before year end on expansion and renovation of Concourse B (which will completely replace a cramped, aging Concourse A).  The project also includes landside transportation improvements, and a new Main Terminal will open in 2025 with twice the square footage of the old facility.

Portland-based NessCampbell actually began work at PDX in 2018, and is slated to continue working there through at least 2025.

Currently, NessCampbell provides service to all contractors and subcontractors at PDX for various ongoing projects. They’ve removed and replaced all existing skybridges, transported the old skybridges across the airport, moved them into a hangar, and even stretched them out so they could be refurnished with new carpet, paint, and more.

Patrick McCarthy, Inside Sales/Rigging division at NessCampbell. Photo Credit: NessCampbell.

According to Patrick McCarthy, who works in inside sales with NessCampbell’s rigging division, steel erection and rooftop air units are also typical crane jobs at PDX. And the company has utilized plenty of assets onsite, including boom trucks, truck cranes, all-terrain cranes, crawlers, and RTs.

McCarthy explained that some jobs have resulted in more meeting hours than work hours. “For example, removing and replacing two forty-five-foot-long, twenty-thousand-pound escalators in the existing concourse, through a window. And installing more than five hundred linear feet of brand-new moving walkways—moving each thirty-foot-long piece through a narrow hallway that had functioning business offices below.”

Ongoing projects, added McCarthy, include eight more new escalator installs; replacing all the rooftop concourse lights with LED poles; housing, trucking, and installing a 15-foot-wide by 40-foot-tall manhole; and setting several underground vaults in unusual and difficult-to-reach locations.

As for what types of cranes NessCampbell looks to use, given the circumstances, McCarthy pointed out that the ever-changing PDX jobsite boasts pavement, concrete, gravel, and loose dirt locations.

“There’s also a quarter-mile-long excavated pit between the C and D concourses with dozens of pieces of equipment moving throughout,” he said. “We’ve done work from inside the excavation with RTs, and we’re doing work from outside the excavation reaching into it with all-terrain cranes. The most unique areas we do work within are inside the existing structures. Moving long pieces of machinery (like an escalator) into an existing building with multiple floors, and underneath the spiral parking structure helix, is something only our specialty equipment can do—like a forty-ton-gantry.”

To that end, some of these unique lifts come with their own sets of challenges. “Handling the fifteen-foot-wide manhole is a very complicated project,” McCarthy affirmed. “The initial part requires coordinating the crane offloading and reloading at our NessCampbell yard—and further details get ironed out in the trucking across downtown Portland.”

Along with handling rooftop air units, steel erection is also a typical crane-related task onsite at PDX for NessCampbell. Photo Credit: NessCampbell

McCarthy indicated that state and city permits, truck curfews, pilot cars, scheduling, and utilizing skilled drivers are just a few aspects of the planning for this type of job. “All the while, our onsite crew with our Liebherr LTM 1300-6.1 is swinging the skybridge out of the way so the crane can wedge up against the concourse as tightly as possible.”

Having to juggle both daily operational challenges as well as working in an active airport, McCarthy acknowledged that this overall project is a large engagement for NessCampbell across all aspects. “Not only is PDX NEXT a multi-year-long project, but the scope varies day by day. That said, the most important procedure we follow on every single job at PDX is adhering to the badging regulations. Following proper protocol to get badged and unbadged employees and equipment onto and off of the airfield is imperative to keeping all employees, public, and equipment safe.”

But ultimately, he added, the equipment usually steals the show. “Our Tri Lifter and Hoist were vital pieces in the success of inserting the one-hundred-foot-long sky bridges into the hangar. Additionally, our forty-ton hydraulic gantry is the bread and butter for the escalator installs. And even our hand tools have proven crucial: skates, jacks, cribbing, plating, and chain hoists.”

That said, it should come as no surprise when noteworthy numbers or scenarios emerge from the worksite dust. McCarthy pointed to one memorable moment: “In order to remove one escalator that was fifty feet long, we had to lower it down onto its side and roll it out through double doors. It fit through the doors by less than two inches.”

And within an ongoing project that has seen zero slowdown related to the pandemic since work began, McCarthy spoke to what has been perhaps the most inspiring development.

“What is truly unique is that two-thousand-plus workers have come together and agreed to follow all social distancing guidelines and practices in order to keep this massive project moving forward.”

JE Dunn working in constrained space at Portland International Airport. Photo Credit: Jarrod Kern, LGH

LGH has also been very active at the Portland airport as well, supplying a variety of lifting equipment and rigging gear to several contractors performing various tasks.  In addition to supplying Ness Campbell with four 5-Ton Steel gantries, LGH noted that they had supplied Schindler Elevator with a hand chain hoists and come-a-longs, and Northstar CG with a 2-Ton aluminum gantry, just to cite a few items.

Jarrod Kern, LGH’s local Rental Representative shared a few details about one particularly challenging application for customer JE Dunn.  The work involved opening up an existing parking structure to facilitate connection between that structure and an adjacent expansion into a new parking structure.  Accessing the work area required digging down one floor level, and then lowering and lifting a variety of equipment into the work area to be used to open up the wall into the existing structure.  Existing overhead structures made the worksite inaccessible to mobile lifting equipment.  The LGH-supplied solution used two 3-Ton electric chain hoists and two steel gantries, one 3-Ton and one 5-Ton, to facilitate movement of equipment to and from the lower level.

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