Airports Readying Facilities for the Coming Surge in Traffic

01 May, 2022

As the pandemic appears to be waning, developments at airports accelerate to help prepare for a streamlined, safer, and more technology-connected passenger experience

The survival, reorganization, and renewal of airports across the country has begun as more airports are relaxing pandemic standards and have used some of the downtime from the last two years to accelerate airport facility updates.
According to a 2018 study by Airports Council International (ACI) airports are critical economic engines for the U.S. The total economic output of the 493 U.S. commercial airports exceeds $1.4 trillion annually, supporting more than 11.5 million jobs with a payroll of more than $428 billion. The 20 commercial airports in Florida alone account for $201 billion in economic development; California’s 26 commercial airports account for $171 billion.

Since 2013, the overall economic output of America’s airports has grown 24 percent.

As airports grow, they will need to stay flexible about updating their offerings. In the United States alone, airports needed nearly $100 billion in infrastructure upgrades and maintenance between 2017 and 2021, according to the report.

The Pandemic Effect is Getting More Manageable

The ACI also reported that passenger volumes remained under considerable stress due to the lasting adverse impact of the pandemic.
For the full year 2021, with final statistics being tabulated now, the pandemic is expected to have removed 5.4 billion passengers compared to the projected forecast for 2021, representing a loss of 55 percent of global passenger traffic.

Global passenger traffic in 2021 is expected to reach less than half of what it was in 2019, with traffic for 2021 totaling only 4.4 billion of the over 9 billion passengers served two years ago.

In 2022, the pandemic is expected to remove close to 3.7 billion passengers during the year compared to original projections, representing a 36.1 percent decline in global passenger traffic.
North America will continue to outperform other regions in 2022, reaching 88.5 percent of its 2019 level by the end of the year, according to the ACI study.

ACI estimates that, globally, airports have lost more than $83.1 billion in revenues in 2021. The effects of the pandemic is expected to cut by half airport revenue expectations for 2021 compared to the original projections.
The impact of the pandemic on airport revenues will continue in 2022, reducing revenues by an additional $60.8 billion, or 34.6 percent, compared to the original projections.

Airports Stepping Up Development

Now that a slow recovery is happening, airports need to look for solutions that enable them to become more efficient, reduce costs, deal with an evolving workforce including the loss of experienced staff, and find new revenues all while ensuring cybersecurity, safety and aviation security levels are sustained.

The ACI study confirmed a commitment by a significant percentage of airports planning major programs plus research and development in new technologies to enhance operations and business results, including: cyber security (94 percent); cloud services (90 percent); business intelligence (87 percent); in-house virtual and IT services (84 percent); staff mobile services (84 percent); and biometrics and passenger ID management (83 percent).

Updates or other significant developments are happening at many U.S. airports this year.

For instance, Denver International Airport, the largest in North America, is working on extensions of its concourses in its Great Hall Project. The first two phases of the three-phase project will be completed within the original $770 million budget, and will focus on building a new ticketing/check-in space for some of the airlines as well as one new security checkpoint in the northwest corner of Level 6.

The final phase of the project will include completion of the full build-out of the Jeppesen Terminal, bringing it up-to-speed for future growth and critical infrastructure needs. The project is expected to be completed by the summer of 2028.

Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport is planning a $3 billion renovation of its terminal C. Los Angeles International Airport is working on extensions and updates of two of its terminals in preparation for the 2028 Summer Olympics.

The Kansas City International (KCI) Airport is three years into a new terminal project. At one million square feet, the terminal is the largest single infrastructure project in the city’s history. Completion of the KCI terminal is estimated to be in 2023, with 39 gates and the ability to expand to 50 in the future. The terminal project will include a 6,300-space parking structure along landside and airside improvements.

The Pittsburgh International Airport is in the early stages of modernizing its facility, including a terminal modernization program, designed to reduce travel and wait times for passengers and their bags; and the construction of a new 700,000 square foot terminal facility that is expected to generate $2.5 billion in economic activity.

One of the most anticipated new airport developments is happening at LaGuardia Airport in New York. The comprehensive $8 billion construction of a new LaGuardia airport is happening while keeping the existing airport fully operational. Contracts for the construction at the LaGuardia Airport Redevelopment Program exceeded $1.58 billion, the largest for any public-private partnership project in New York State.

When complete, expected to be sometime in late 2022, LaGuardia will be the first new major airport in the United States in more than 25 years, according to information from the airport’s development website.

Other airport developments of interest include Chile’s new 2 million square foot square international terminal that was expected to triple Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport, also known as Santiago de Chile Airport (SCL), by the end of 2021.

Focus on Toronto’s Airport

Deborah Flint, president and CEO of the Toronto Pearson Airport, is currently overseeing updates at that airport after the work she managed at her previous job with the Los Angeles World Airports, where she initiated the $14-billion modernization of its terminals, runway improvements, and a comprehensive ground transportation and transit program that brought the first rail line to LAX.

According to Toronto Pearson Airport spokesperson Tori Gass, responding via email to questions for Flint, at the outset, with public health as their first priority, management at Toronto Pearson implemented a range of health and hygiene measures which ended up being one of the first workplaces in Canada to require mandatory masks for both employees and the public.

The airport deployed new technologies to support a hygienic environment. “We worked together with all of our airport partners and tenants, including the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, our airline partners, the Canada Border Services Agency, Public Health Agency of Canada, and many others to collaborate on safety issues and protocols,” Gass said.
They also looked into innovative ways of updating the airport, including using autonomous robot floor cleaners and Bluetooth-enabled elevators, ultraviolet light to kill pathogens on floors, escalators, moving walkways and specialized air handling systems. “We expect increased cleaning, hygiene and air quality measures that have been introduced will remain in place even when the pandemic has been declared to be over,” Gass said.

Toronto Pearson Airport management worked with their government partners to get funding for new infrastructure projects, the largest being a complete rehabilitation of their 06L/24R runway, originally built in the 1960s, according to Gass.

Airport management is also pursuing improvements to check-in and border processing technology, as well as modifications in Terminal 3 to streamline the connection process for transfer passengers.

Work continues to support the connection of a light rail line called the Eglinton Crosstown LRT to Toronto Pearson. Most airport update work is expected to be completed by 2023.

Forecasts report that normal air travel to pre-pandemic levels will happen within three to five years, Gass wrote. But Toronto Pearson’s annual report for 2021 states that there continues to be limited visibility with regard to future travel demand given changing government policies about travel and a lack of harmonizing of testing requirements in Canada and around the world. “These restrictions and concerns about travel due to COVID-19 are severely inhibiting demand,” the annual report concluded.
The annual report added that, while the full duration and scope of the pandemic cannot be known at this time, “in the long term the Greater Toronto Airport Authority believes that recovery will happen, and the pandemic will not have a material impact on the long-term financial sustainability of the airport.”

In the meantime, Gass wrote, they are seeing passenger volume peaks which make their facilities appear as busy as they were prior to the pandemic during certain times of the day. “Airlines are choosing to condense the majority of departures in the morning with arrivals in the evening, leading to longer wait times for passengers at busier times of the day,” Gass wrote.
She adds that business was impacted greatly by the reduction in passenger volume during the pandemic, which is what drives their revenue. “As a result, we reduced our capital program significantly in order to focus on immediate and essential areas to ensure our passengers and employees were safe and protected while they passed through Pearson.”

Cautious Optimism for the Future

The airport industry is cautiously optimistic that revenue earnings have bottomed out at last and passenger traffic levels will slowly but surely increase.

For example, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) reports North American carriers experienced a 236.7 percent passenger traffic rise in February, 2022 compared to February 2021.

IATA Director General Willie Walsh said that, as the long-awaited recovery in air travel accelerates, it is important that infrastructure providers are prepared for a huge increase in passenger numbers in the coming months. “We are already seeing reports of unacceptably long lines at some airports owing to the growing number of travelers. And that is even before the surge of Easter holiday travel in many markets next week,” he said. “Now is the time to prepare.”

David Hodes

David Hodes is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at

More Posts