Spotlight On Air Travel: How Technology Tackles 5 Key Infrastructure Challenges

Avatar Dorothee Biedermann March 13, 2019

8 min read

The future may be unpredictable, but one thing seems certain: The air travel and cargo sector will keep booming. More specifically, passenger travel is expected to expand to 8.2 billion air travelers annually by 2037 and the number of cargo freight aircraft is expected to jump 30 percent.

If these projections come true, airport designers and developers have their work cut out for them: The top 100 airports in the world don’t have much excess capacity, according to the International Air Transport Association. All but four of those face capacity constraints in the next 10 years, and 45 airports already face issues such as too-short runways or terminals operating at capacity.

Designers must also take into account the uncertain effects of climate change and anticipate potential problem areas that could impact airport operations and safety. For example, about 25 of the world’s top 100 busiest airports lie in low-level coastal areas less than 10 meters or 32 feet above sea level. Half of those, including JFK, San Francisco, and Shanghai, are less than 5 meters or 16 feet above sea level, making them prone to flooding.

Technological advancements such as Autodesk’s AEC Collection software play a key role in the design and upgrading process of the world’s busy airports of the future. By using the latest tools, airport designers can find new solutions and construction workflows to overcome the challenges of modern airports. They can simulate and test approaches, look for construction conflicts and take into account site-specific building and transportation challenges.

We’ll look at five current airport projects that use technology to address the challenges of creating efficient, passenger-friendly airports of the future.

1. Location, Location, Location: Geological and Site-Specific Challenges

As outlined above, rising ocean levels and extreme storms put many airports at risk of flooding. This challenge is perhaps most acute in Japan, where several major airports have been built on low-lying, reclaimed land.

In 2018, for example, Japan’s Kansai Airport was inundated after Typhoon Jebi hit the Osaka area. It was built on an artificial island three miles off shore to avoid noise complaints and land-rights issues that plague older airports. While the powerful storm was the cause of flooding, some of the impact was due to the fact that the terrain was lower than the designers had predicted. Initially, designers expected the island to sink about a foot per year over the next 50 years. Instead, the island has already sunk more than 43 feet in less than 10 years.

Rising sea levels were also a concern for the expansion project at China’s Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport. The project involved the addition of a third runway located between the second runway and the Guangzhou-Shenzhen Riverside Expressway, a heavily trafficked highway.

The project not only had to take into account the active runway and highway but also be environmentally sensitive and recognize the potential for flooding due to climate change. The project could not interfere with flight operations on the existing runways and traffic on the expressway, which was only 60 meters away at its nearest point.

Perhaps nowhere was the application of Autodesk technology more critical than in the environmental design stage. Designers used tools such as Civil 3D to create flood simulations for the development of advanced drainage plans, with 3D geological models used to visually inspect the soil layers.

The geological models were key in the creation of a mud disposal plan to guide the dredging in each region. The plan minimized seawater pollution from silt diffusion and airborne particulates that could have interfered with takeoffs and landings on the adjacent runway.

Using these technologies helped to keep the project on track, while also keeping the environmental impact to a minimum.

Shenzhen Airport Terminal 2/Image Courtesy of Shenzhen Airport


2. Under One Roof: BIM + GIS for Infrastructure

When the architects behind the Denver Airport expansion started working on the five-year project, they used Building Information Modeling (BIM) to guide the creation of virtual models for the 595-room hotel and transit center next to the airport’s south terminal.

The model-based design and construction workflows enabled the team to meet an aggressive project schedule, resolve conflicts virtually, reduce errors and omissions, and improve project communication. The terminal is known for its iconic fabric roof supported by a steel cable tie-down system, and models guided them in moving six of the anchors without compromising the roof structure.

By integrating data from Geographic Information Systems (GIS) into the design tools, team members could share a common, more complete picture of the project throughout the lifecycle of the asset. Today, Denver Airport planners and design teams use BIM and GIS data on an integrated basis, providing for a more comprehensive project information model for the airports on-going construction and maintenance activities.

Denver Airport/Image courtesy of Gensler and DEN

3. Keep ‘Em Moving: Crowd Simulation

The recent expansion of the Oslo airport doubled the size of the terminal, increasing airport capacity from 20 to 35 million passengers. The project included an update to the existing train station, which enables 70 percent of the passengers to reach the airport via public transportation.

The new terminal improved passenger flow with a maximum walking distance for passengers of approximately 450 meters, much shorter than most other large airports. The new terminal pier houses domestic and international areas one on top of the other, allowing all travelers to use all gates for a flexible passenger flow. Overall, the compact layout of the building and open spaces enhance visual legibility and way-finding, reducing the stress associated with air travel.

Launched in 2009, the Oslo airport project leaders made the unusual decision for the time to design the entire project using BIM. Analysis and simulations were critical to keep the project on time and on budget and to foresee any impact on the existing terminals, which had to remain in operation. Crowd simulations in the early stages pointed out passenger flow bottlenecks. They used Revit to analyze sun/shadow, air capacity, sprinkling and other factors. The existing terminal was laser scanned and modeled in Revit to visualize conflicts with existing operations and aid in future remodeling projects.


4. Getting There: Airport-City Transportation

The passengers’ journey doesn’t start or end at the airport terminal doors — it begins and ends at their homes. Transportation to and from the airport as well as the city is an essential piece of the puzzle of future airports – even when they are built outside of urban areas.

Cities are looking for ways to provide fast mass transport linking city centers and airports, with rail capacity growing at many airports. One of the most innovative visions today is the Virgin Hyperloop One, a high-speed rail system in a tube linking Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports through downtown Paris. A journey that would take an hour by car could be made in a few minutes in the tunnel train. One of the project’s goals is to give back time to busy travelers and reduce road congestion.

The team used Autodesk AEC collection to create designs based on mathematical models, using BIM products to create the corridor design. It’s one vision for the future of airport transport that could change the way we commute in urban spaces.



5. From Old to New: Renovating Existing Infrastructure

In many cases, building the airport of the future means renovating existing infrastructure to handle more passengers in a limited footprint and with minimal impact on existing operations during construction.

For the replacement of Calgary International Airport‘s 20-year-old domestic baggage handling system, the design team turned to Autodesk software. The baggage handling system occupied 22,000 square meters and sorted more than 8,000 bags per hour, supporting 16 million passengers moving through the airport on a yearly basis. Construction of the new tote-based system was completed in phases to ensure uninterrupted operation during the replacement.

In the planning stage, the team developed a highly accurate 3D representation of the existing terminal building to guide a systematic clash detection process down to the millimeter. All systems were coordinated in three dimensions using a combination of Autodesk Revit, Autodesk Recap, Navisworks Manage, and Autodesk AutoCAD. Simulations optimized the baggage handling and sorting efficiency by routing the bags to and from the airplanes and baggage carousels in the shortest amount of time.

The preparation paid off: During the project, the Calgary airport did not experience any downtime. Now the airport can handle an additional 1 million passengers per year, and airlines track bags individually during their journey on 7.2 km of baggage lines that handle more than 1,500 totes. The system can process 99 percent of bags in less than 20 minutes, reducing wait times for passengers.

Model view of the coordinated screening area showing existing structure (red), Beumer’s system (dark blue), new platform steel (orange), mechanical (light blue), electrical (yellow), architectural stairs & guardrails (white)/GEC Architecture
Technology Key to Future Airport Design

Whether it’s geological or site-specific challenges, the integration of BIM and GIS information, crowd simulation, transportation options, or renovation and general improvement projects, these examples show how important technology is in driving solutions and tackling the challenges facing the modern airport industry. As airports must continue to grow and respond to passenger needs, flexible technologies such as Autodesk’s AEC Collection will play an even larger role in the planning and design stages. After all, the right models and data can help ensure passenger safety and airport efficiency during construction and operations!

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