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Don’t let construction ground your airport: 5 ways to manage traffic disruptions

May 25, 2023

By Chad McGhee

Traffic management plans can reduce disruptions during airport projects. Here’s how.

Being late to the airport conjures up images of frantic travelers dashing through terminals to make their flights on time. Studies by Priority Pass have shown that “the single thing that worries 63% of travelers the most is simply getting to the airport—with traffic and public transport significant factors.”

As airports are constantly upgrading and expanding through large-scale modernization programs, the construction that comes with these upgrades only adds to that anxiety and impacts the passenger journey to the airport.

Shutting down airport operations during improvements is not an option, so program managers phase construction activity around travelers. Despite this, construction inevitably results in closed parking garages, lane closures, and road detours. These impacts can completely change traffic patterns and impact the passenger journey if left unmanaged.

Every construction project has a traffic control plan, but the best projects have traffic management plans. A traffic control plan will lay out which lanes need to close down, but a traffic management plan will consider why and account for movement of people in and out of airports during construction.

One of the major airports currently undergoing a transformation is George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) in Houston, Texas. IAH’s ongoing $1.3B Terminal Redevelopment Program (ITRP) will support the airport’s continued standing as a premier global gateway and a vital economic engine for the region.

Our Stantec team is working with IAH as part of the Program Management team to deliver ITRP. They are helping IAH upgrade and modernize several areas of the airport and providing overall traffic management support. Our work has taught us five key traffic management tips that airports undergoing major development programs should keep in mind.

Understanding traffic patterns helps airport owners identify periods where temporary lane closures can occur without impacting traffic flow.

1. Understand traffic demands

Strong airport planning decisions are based on accurate data. Recent technological advancements like using existing closed-circuit television cameras to provide analytics on traffic volumes, curbside dwell, and utilization are being used. In addition, location-based service can collect travel time information to track delays during busy periods.

Last year, our team started working with IAH to implement tools like these to better understand airport traffic demands. We track every metric related to movement in and around the airport, including travel time delay on its roadways.

Continuous data collection shows how traffic patterns change throughout the week or during seasonal surges. These systems help airport administration and landside operations personnel understand the link between flight activity and roadway demands while being mindful of ongoing and upcoming projects. IAH can then use this data to identify times when temporary lane closures can take place to minimize disruptions to the traveling public.

If you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

2. Leverage traffic modeling and trial runs

A deep understanding of traffic patterns can be gained by microsimulation traffic modeling, which can help assess phasing schemes. We have used this tool to help IAH identify opportunities to adjust the design or sequence of construction activity, reducing potential impacts on the passenger journey.

By implementing trial runs or ‘dress rehearsals’ of major traffic control plans, we can virtually test them out and quantify the impacts prior to mobilizing construction crews and equipment. This can help identify any needed adjustments before shovels hit the ground—particularly before beginning any roadway excavation work.

Modeling and trial runs help all stakeholders evaluate the performance of the traffic control plans in the field. This helps everyone to be comfortable with the measures prior to implementing any longer-term closures.

3. Unlock hidden roadway capacity

Working with an experienced traffic management consultant can uncover new ways to keep drivers moving during construction. Construction activity on or adjacent to airport roadways may require temporary lane closures, leading to traffic backups during busy peak times. Before closing any roadway lanes for extended periods of time, consider looking for ways to use your roads to your advantage.

At IAH, we have repurposed unused sections of roadways, such as painted gore areas, for merging and weaving. We have also found opportunities to construct additional lanes with minimal roadway modifications.  These changes may seem modest in the grand scheme of a large program, but they have a tremendous impact on improving the travel experience by keeping travel times in check.

The first and last impression of a city is its airport. Investments in aviation infrastructure like new terminals and renovated concourse concessions will boost the user experience.

4. Collaborate with stakeholders

Large modernization programs touch a range of areas beyond airport terminals. This means all stakeholders like airlines, rental car agencies, and other on-site providers are affected by construction.

A construction program’s success can be boosted by airport operators distilling complex information into a format that appeals to a variety of stakeholders. Effectively sharing information on progress and future construction activity helps to identify issues early on allowing planning for operational changes and buy-in on the approach.

As a Program Manager at ITRP, we have developed intuitive traffic phasing diagrams that communicate proposed construction activities to all stakeholders. This approach helps IAH better plan the sequence of work with stakeholders in a collaborative manner while minimizing overlapping impacts to cut down on delays to the traveling public.

5. Help travelers plan

Finally, successful airport programs provide timely and valuable traffic information to the most significant stakeholder of all—the traveling public. 

Information on construction activity is critical to help passengers plan. A simple message in a flight confirmation email advising travelers to build in extra drive time goes a long way toward easing some of the stress associated with air travel. 

IAH uses social and traditional media outlets to successfully get the word out about upcoming traffic impacts that may result in additional travel time to the airport. We work with IAH to develop messaging that includes alternative modes of transportation, such as off-site park-and-fly lots or cellphone waiting lots, to provide travelers with options. IAH also works closely with airlines to provide passengers with text message information alongside digital boarding passes to alert passengers of roadway conditions.

All these measures provide travelers with helpful information to plan for a smoother drive to and from the airport. 

Every construction project has a traffic control plan, but the best projects have traffic management plans.

Travel doesn’t stop

The first and last impression of a city is its airport. Investments in aviation infrastructure like new terminals and renovated concourse concessions will boost the user experience. In the years it takes to deliver these shiny new facilities, travel doesn’t stop.

IAH is proof that major terminal improvement programs at active airports can be completed while minimizing traffic impacts on the traveling public. Drivers on pick-up duty, travelers laden with luggage, and airport employees and construction crews all benefit from IAH’s careful planning.

Whether you are considering starting a new airport program or are currently working through extensive upgrades, a traffic management plan is one to keep in mind. Harness its power to ease the traveler experience as part of a holistic approach to managing the passenger journey during construction.

  • Chad McGhee

    Chad has been a leader and manager on engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) projects for over 30 years. He’s worked on architectural, civil, and industrial projects domestically and internationally.

    Contact Chad
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