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Downturn is Prime Time for Airport Infrastructure Projects

In these challenging economic times, it’s more important than ever to be aware that, historically, air travel has always been a growth industry. True – it may not be growing at this very moment. But, rest assured it will bounce back and continue to grow.

You need only look at history to be reminded of the industry’s resiliency – take the SARS outbreak and the profound impacts of 9/11. While things slowed down for a little while, demand rebounded and the industry continued on its upward trajectory.

This recession isn’t to be taken lightly. But even though the airline industry is evolving, demand for air travel will rebound and increase. When it does, we will need the infrastructure in place to meet that future demand.

That’s why, in July, San Diego International Airport broke ground on a $1 billion improvement project called The Green Build. The project, the largest in the airport’s history, includes 10 new jet gates, a dual-level roadway to separate arriving and departing passengers, expanded parking for aircraft, additional security lanes and new restaurant and shopping options.

Still, people wonder: Why are we moving forward with this project? Why during a recession? Isn’t there a better time? Why now?

There’s good reason. An economic downturn is actually a good time for a major capital improvement project.

Due to the economic environment, we’re benefiting from decreased construction costs and increased bargaining power. Bids are coming in lower, as companies need the work. It’s a win-win situation – the airport is saving money while giving business to local companies and providing much-needed jobs for area residents. We estimate that at peak construction, The Green Build will provide approximately 1,000 construction-related jobs.

But starting construction now is about more than just saving money. It is absolutely critical that we start now because of the long-term nature of airport projects. It has taken almost ten years to plan, entitle and begin construction of The Green Build. That is not unusual for major infrastructure projects of this nature. The bottom line is, we can’t wait for constantly long lines, overcrowded terminals and delayed flights before we decide to move forward with improvements. We need to think ahead, be proactive and maintain high levels of customer service for the traveling public.

Airplane Takeoff
Airplane Takeoff

The success of an airport is also critically important to the local economy it serves.

Airports are revenue drivers.

In San Diego, the airport contributes some $10 billion annually in economic impact to the region.

Other, larger airports have an even bigger impact.

Local businesses and tourism also rely on airports – if the airport suffers, they suffer. These improvement projects will ensure that airports continue to support the vital industries that matter to their respective regions, that they help grow the economy and continue to bring in much-needed revenue.

But construction itself isn’t all that matters. Focusing on efforts to reduce greenhouse gasses and keep the environment front and center are also of utmost importance. The Green Build is pursuing Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) silver certification, which will include elements that reduce energy usage and water consumption, as well as other sustainability measures. Airport capital improvement projects must be well planned and environmentally forward-thinking.

Other airports are also moving forward. In August, JFK Airport in New York kicked off a $376.3 million construction project, citing economic impact, job creation and a commitment to the community as reasons. Duluth International Airport in Minnesota broke ground on a new terminal, a $65 million project, in September. And Salt Lake City began construction on a public transit line to the airport, estimated to cost $250-290 million. Sounds like a forward-thinking group.

But more airports and transportation authorities need to step up, take advantage of the times, support our economy and consider moving forward with well-planned, environmentally-friendly, job-generating construction projects. We’re seeing it happen more and more, with Los Angeles, Sacramento and Atlanta also leading the way.

Here’s hoping the aviation industry sees more projects like this take flight.

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Thella F. Bowens is second vice-chair of Airports Council International North America, the largest of the five worldwide regions of Airports Council International (ACI), the air transport industry’s leading worldwide association. She serves as president and CEO of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, the owner and operator of San Diego International Airport, where she is responsible for a $148 million annual budget and approximately 360 employees. Bowens has 35 years of experience in public administration, and has worked at airports including Kansas City International Airport and Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport.