For the better part of a decade, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has given our country’s infrastructure a barely-passing grade in its recurring, “Infrastructure Report Card.” And for good reason. From crumbling roads and bridges to deteriorating, overcrowded airports, America’s infrastructure has badly needed attention and investment to create not just a more globally competitive US. One of the best ways to bring infrastructure back to its former glory, as many in the industry has said, is to leverage many of the technological advancements made over the last few years.
The challenging state of the industry will benefit significantly from the Biden Administration’s “Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act,” which seeks to make America’s critical infrastructure competitive with the finest in the developed world. It was also the inspiration for some recent grant programs from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which will give airports access to billions of dollars over the course of the coming years to make improvements and implement new technologies that can increase sustainability, accessibility, and improve the passenger experience.
To learn more about the current state of America’s airports, the trends that have impacted and shaped their needs and requirements, and what this FAA grant program can do to help, we sat down with Augusto Santos, the Head of Airport Systems Design and Innovation at Collins Aerospace.
Connected Aviation Today (CAT): What are some of the current trends impacting airports, and how are those trends affecting the FAA grant programs and the funding that the government is making available for airports?
Augusto Santos: We saw a very interesting trend during the COVID-19 pandemic. People were empowered to work remotely. As a result, people began working from anywhere and everywhere. We saw a migration out of big cities, as the workforce began to—either temporarily or permanently—relocate to smaller towns and cities.
And this migration had a large and rather surprising impact on airports and the airlines that fly to them. With people relocating to or visiting smaller towns and cities, we witnessed a spike in traffic at smaller airports and among low-cost carriers. While the entire travel industry was being challenged by the pandemic, we saw smaller, lower-cost carriers actually increasing in traffic and usage – which was quite different.
In the past, people in the US viewed airports as infrastructure. But there is a new way of thinking about airports that you see in much of the rest of the developed world. Airports are more than just infrastructure; they’re drivers of economic growth and development.
These small airports, along with their larger urban counterparts, are looking to modernize, increase their accessibility, improve their operations, and generally make their passenger experience better to capitalize on this trend and drive economic growth for their regions. And the government is helping them accomplish that with these new FAA grant programs that they’ve introduced.
CAT: The FAA recently announced the application process and criteria for $1B in grants – of a planned $5B – for terminal improvements. What do that criteria look like? What kinds of projects and investments can that money be used for?
Augusto Santos: Unlike previous grants for airports and infrastructure, these grants are less about building new terminals and larger ticketing areas. Instead, they’re more about improving the existing infrastructure to make it better for passengers, the local economy, and the planet.
“The sub-optimal operation of aircraft is a large contributor to the airport’s carbon footprint. Aircraft use a tremendous amount of fuel while on the ground. If we can give airlines and pilots a better understanding of their takeoff time, they can better manage fuel usage while on the ground and reduce taxi time.”AUGUSTO SANTOS
While not prescriptive on the exact types of projects or technologies that these grants can be used for, specifically, the FAA grant programs encourage applicants to prioritize projects that increase airport safety, equity, and sustainability among other criteria. There are a few that I specifically think airports should be aware of as they approach any modernization efforts.
First, they’re looking for projects that increase equity and make it easier for people with differing abilities to utilize the airport’s services, businesses, and facilities. Inclusiveness is essential today, and these grants are an important step to ensuring that all people have equal access.
In addition to inclusiveness, another topic that became increasingly important during the pandemic was sustainability. That may be a result of people being so focused on their health and needs, that they are also more concerned about the health and needs of the planet. But, regardless of why sustainability has become such an area of focus, it’s another area where these grants are working to drive change.
These FAA grant programs specify that the money they provide must go towards projects and technologies that increase sustainability. And that’s incredibly important in airports, which have massive carbon footprints and, conversely, offer substantial opportunities for environmental improvement.
Finally, there is a criterium that the funding can be used to help increase safety for all for-profit activities in the airport.
CAT: What do you mean by for-profit activities? What do these entail, and why is the FAA looking to increase them?
Augusto Santos: Every airport and airport terminal has two sides – the infrastructure side and the commercial side. While airports and terminals are critical transportation infrastructures, they also offer products, services, and amenities to travelers.
If you visit airports like the ones in Japan, the Middle East, or parts of Europe, you’ll notice that they’ve invested much more heavily in the commercial side – in offering products and services to travelers as a way to drive revenue. This can have a large impact on the passenger experience.
“The presence of higher quality concessions and amenities for passengers can make that three-hour layover much easier and more bearable. But it can also help the airport generate more revenue…”AUGUSTO SANTOS
We’ve all arrived at the airport at 6 PM and had to wait for a connecting flight at 9 PM. The presence of higher quality concessions and amenities for passengers can make that three-hour layover much easier and more bearable. But it can also help the airport generate more revenue, which can give them the funds needed to continue to maintain and improve their facilities moving forward.
CAT: What new technologies are out there that can make airport operations better, more sustainable, and more inclusive? Can these technologies be purchased with this grant money?
Augusto Santos: While the actual grant criteria are a little bit generic, they can be used to finance technologies and make technological improvements. Especially if these improvements benefit the service and accessibility for people with disabilities, advance sustainability initiatives or improve safety. And while all of these areas can benefit, sustainability is where technology and data can have a large impact.
As we discussed, airports have large carbon footprints, and there are a lot of opportunities to make those footprints smaller. One of the ways we can accomplish that with technology involves optimizing the turnaround of aircraft and improving the data available to airport personnel and passengers.
The sub-optimal operation of aircraft is a large contributor to the airport’s carbon footprint. Aircraft use a tremendous amount of fuel while on the ground. If we can give airlines and pilots a better understanding of their takeoff time, they can better manage fuel usage while on the ground and reduce taxi time. Maybe they push back with one engine instead of two – saving a significant amount of fuel – because they have extra time.
“In the past, people in the US viewed airports as infrastructure. But there is a new way of thinking about airports that you see in much of the rest of the developed world. Airports are more than just infrastructure; they’re drivers of economic growth and development.”AUGUSTO SANTOS
Having better transparency into the aircraft that are at the airport, arriving at the airport, and departing the airport can also enable other efforts that improve sustainability and reduce emissions. Today, baggage handlers and catering companies will find themselves driving around from gate to gate trying to find the aircraft that they’re supposed to service. Or, they’ll find themselves traveling long distances from the first aircraft they’re supposed to service to the second, and then the third.
If the airport has better transparency into take-off and landing times, they can plan better and operate more efficiently. Baggage handlers, catering companies, and other stakeholders can have a planogram of where aircraft are parked and reduce the time they spend searching for planes. There can also be a better, more efficient placement of planes so that connecting flights and aircraft that are in need of the same services can be grouped. This eliminates travel time and reduces emissions.
Then there are technologies, like biometrics, that can streamline the security and boarding process. Advanced biometric technologies can identify who a person is from the second they arrive at the airport. This also makes it possible to serve passengers with tailored information – like gate directions and the status of their bags – which makes their journey from the entrance of the airport to their gate faster and more efficient.
All combined, biometrics can streamline the passenger’s journey, get them to the gate in a more timely manner, and improve the accuracy of departure times. This can then be utilized to further improve the efficiency of the aircraft on the ground and reduce taxi times.
CAT: How could this benefit the airlines? What impact would it have on their operations and business? And how could this impact the passenger experience?
Augusto Santos: Every technology and advancement that we discussed saves time for the airlines. They also save fuel. And those are two very important savings. All of these technologies and advancements improve operational efficiency, which ultimately reduces operations costs and improves sustainability.
For passengers, it comes down to the experience.
“…biometrics can streamline the passenger’s journey, get them to the gate in a more timely manner, and improve the accuracy of departure times. This can then be utilized to further improve the efficiency of the aircraft on the ground and reduce taxi times.”AUGUSTO SANTOS
Imagine arriving at an airport and not having to wait in a long security line. Imagine being given customized, tailored directions to your terminal and gate of departure without having to stop and stare at unclear signs – only to find out that the previous plane hasn’t left that gate yet because of delays, and your flight is now leaving from a gate on the opposite side of the terminal. Now imagine not having to sit in a long taxi line, waiting for takeoff, and arriving late at your final destination – or missing your connecting flight.
This is all possible with the airport and terminal technologies that are available today. And – considering the benefits that these solutions could have on sustainability and reducing an airport’s carbon footprint – they all could qualify for this most recent FAA grant program.
These grants represent a significant source of funds that will help airports grow to meet the needs of the current air traveler. By bolstering sustainability, enabling more efficient air travel, increasing accessibility, and improving the passenger experience, these grants offer a way to modernize and revolutionize airports and air travel.