Taking Flight: From hangars to restrooms, airport construction surges
Just outside the airport fence line, construction has begun on the new, $135 million Southwest Airlines Tech Ops Hangar. The first facility of its kind at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, the LEED-certified, 129,000-square-foot building is designed to hold three Boeing 737 aircraft and provide Southwest personnel with maintenance shops, parts storage and administrative space.
Once construction wraps up in 2025, the 27-acre site will also have a fire/pumphouse building with a 300,000-gallon water storage tank and a 300,000-square-foot apron to support eight additional 737s.
“There are a lot of unique features to this project,” said Steve O’Donnell, Vice President of Clark Civil, which is construction manager for the $93 million hangar and apron portion of the project. “The structure itself is unique. It will have a 280-foot box truss to support the roof and the opening for the hangar door system which allows two airplanes to get into the hangar side-by-side. That’s a large span and heavy members. It will require a lot of coordination and a very large pick.”
That hangar door will be 276 feet wide and 60 feet tall. Unlike standard sliding hangar doors, it will be a hoist-up door made from industrial fabric panels. In addition to providing electrical, mechanical, teledata and security services, the building’s systems will also include a custom network of underground pits to deliver 400-hertz power and pre-conditioned air to the 737s parked inside.
“There is also a very elaborate fire alarm system in this building,” said Robert Henninger, Project Manager at Hatzel & Buehler. “It has a fiber optic detection system and a high-expansion foam system which, in the event of a fire, will fill the hangar with foam. The test of that system is going to be interesting to witness.”
Construction projects at BWI are both seemingly endless and endlessly challenging. In addition to the Southwest hangar project, the airport is currently undergoing a $332.5 million renovation of Concourses A and B, extensive taxiway improvements, central plant modernization, extensive bathroom renovations and other projects.
In addition to meeting the requirements of the airport, airlines and the Maryland Aviation Administration (MAA), the project teams must deal with strict security procedures, busy airport operations, complex project phasing, and uncommon contract requirements. The challenges of the aviation construction niche, however, have proven so enticing to some construction professionals that they have worked at BWI for decades.
Henninger spent 20 years upgrading lighting along runways and taxiways at BWI before beginning work on the Southwest hangar project.
“I like that airport projects are different, niche work and always very challenging,” Henninger said.
Airfield work must be completed during the airport’s quietest hours in the middle of the night and must be phased and completed in a manner to support normal flight operations.
“The biggest challenge is having backup equipment,” he said. “If you are utilizing a piece of equipment that you absolutely need and that equipment fails, you better have a backup to finish your work that night. Most contracts are written with a $2,500 liquidated damage fine for every 15 minutes that you don’t reopen the runway or taxiway. So if you put a hole in a runway, you better have a plan and a backup plan to fill it before the planes need to take off at 6 am.”
Airfield work also has to constantly comply with MAA regulations. A long-standing consultant at BWI, Froehling & Robertson is currently providing materials testing services on upgrades to multiple taxiways.
“The airfield requires quite a bit of testing,” said Hasan Aboumatar, Branch Manager. “For example, we have to do gradation analysis on the aggregate material used in runways and taxiways and that analysis has to be done almost daily per MAA specifications as aggregate materials can change from day to day.”
And those airfield requirements apply to much more than runway and taxiway projects. When BWI embarked on its now renowned restroom renovation project, Froehling & Robertson was again contracted to provide materials testing.
Any bathroom renovation in part of the airport that extends out over the airfield “has to comply with the requirements for taxiways,” Aboumatar said. “Most of the foundation [of those parts of the airport] is on caissons, so any concrete pads or paving underneath would have to meet airfield specifications.”
In the face of major project requirements and challenges, experience and attention to detail are key in excelling in airport construction.
“Some of my guys have been working out at BWI for as long as 25 years. They know the airport better than anyone and they know the secrets to getting things done as efficiently as possible,” said Matthew Beck, Project Manager with Hatzel & Buehler.
Beck has run projects at BWI for the past 10 years and learned the nuances of airport construction from his father who worked at BWI for 25 years. Beck’s team is currently completing a $2 million lighting upgrade on the lower/arrivals area of the Terminal Loop and preparing to start a two-year project to expand and modernize Southwest Airlines’ bag belt system in Concourses A and B.
“I have witnessed quite a few contractors go out of business at BWI. Some of the larger contractors can absorb a bad bid, but the smaller guys never end up recovering,” Beck said.
Daily requirements that workers and all material deliveries pass security screenings can increase the work hours on a project at least 20 percent higher than a project on a non-secure site.
“Sometimes people ignore the specs and don’t realize how important they are on a BWI job,” he said. Consequently, less experienced contractors may make simple, cost-saving changes, such as using a different type of cable, only to be told that the specified cable was an MAA requirement so the installation must be reworked.
Most BWI projects also follow federal Buy America requirements which can increase the price of key components.
Extensive communication and coordination with stakeholders can dramatically improve performance on a project.
“The Clark team proactively engages with MAA’s engineering and inspection teams to provide a transparent construction process,” O’Donnell said. For the hangar project, “we have also worked closely with Southwest stakeholders, conducted lessons learned meetings about Southwest’s similar hangar projects and gone on site visits to similar hangars.”
That process provided insights about several aspects of the project, including fireproofing the building and transitioning the concrete from the hangar to the apron.
In some cases, that expertise at airport construction can deliver striking results. While working on upgrades of 30-year-old mechanical systems in Concourse D, Johnson Controls found itself running both ahead of schedule and under budget.
“We were able to replace the controls on six additional rooftop units that were not originally part of the project. We revitalized that equipment and still stayed within the project schedule,” said Eric Badders, Senior Account Executive.
Johnson Controls, which is currently working on upgrades to BWI’s central utility plant, conducts all the building automation work at the airport and serves on BWI’s facilities team, operating those controls. Assigning dedicated teams to both the operations and construction activities at BWI provides expert service as well as valuable insights on future projects, said John Prusak, General Manager of Johnson Controls’ Maryland and Delaware division.
“The value we bring to a designer or architect is we can help them select equipment, talk about how the airport operates and show how changes will impact operations,” Prusak said. “We can also identify areas where we are using a lot of energy and propose ways to improve facility operations.”
Aviation industry experts predict the current glut of airport projects isn’t likely to ease anytime soon. The combination of airport projects delayed by the pandemic, the dramatic rise in leisure travel, new funding from the federal infrastructure package and growing deployments of new technologies in airports is driving large and ongoing demand for construction work, said Jeff Stiles, Executive Vice President of Transystems, an architecture and engineering firm specializing in transportation infrastructure. Transystems recently acquired WBCM.
Airports and airlines are investing in automated check-in systems, biometric screening and other technologies to help passengers move through airports more efficiently, Stiles said. Meanwhile, airlines are embarking on master plans to modify their gates and holding rooms to improve the efficiency of their operations, provide added comfort to passengers and support recent conveniences, such as food services that deliver meals to passengers as they wait to board.
In addition, the rise of electric vehicles is spurring renovations of airport car rental facilities.
“Many rental car companies have indicated they wish to have 80 percent EVs in the five years,” Stiles said. “That creates infrastructure challenges. You have to get enough electric service to a parking structure to support EV chargers and, in some cases, you are talking about thousands of vehicles. In some locations, the electric requirements for the rental car facility will be higher than the entire airport’s demand for electricity because these Stage 3 chargers are very power demanding.”