Airport Master Plans: More Than Forecasting

“Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.” Investor Warren Buffet’s simple observation encapsulates the reward that can be derived from a thoughtful long-term planning effort, whether that effort is for an individual or a central transportation hub. The dynamic Master Planning process creates a living document that is able to adapt to unanticipated events or external factors as they occur. Recent global events have highlighted the impact unanticipated events can have on the planning process. For airports, part of the planning process includes developing a comprehensive Master Plan which:

  • Evaluates the airport’s current and future role in the national airspace system,
  • Evaluates current socio-economic and technological trends, and
  • Assesses aviation demand to create short-, medium- and long-term development plans.

Master Plan Brief Overview:

A Master Plan looks at existing conditions to develop a forecast for the next five, 10 and 20 years. This includes an inventory of existing conditions, anticipated future demand and the facility requirements that can handle the projected demand. Once the aviation activity forecast is complete, alternative options for development are considered, and a financial plan is built within the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) for the next five years and beyond. A master plan should be reviewed every 10 years.

How to plan:

The first step in the Master Plan development process includes an inventory of the existing conditions at the airport. The existing condition study is more than an inventory of existing physical facilities such as hangars, terminal space, parking and runway lengths. The study should include socio-economic and demographic data for the airport service area, regional setting, land use and industry trends, which can affect the airport’s operation and sustainability.

This study is followed by the aviation forecast of aeronautical demand for various future time frames determined by individual aircraft types and aircraft operations. Forecasting consists of (passenger) enplanements, aircraft operations (takeoffs and landings) and fleet mix (type of aircraft using your airport, fixed-wing, jet, helicopter, etc.). This process identifies the critical aircraft, which dictates the design standards used in a Master Plan for future development.  

Once a forecast has been determined, submitted and approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, facility requirements will be proposed that specifically address facility additions or improvements needed to support the forecast demand. Alternative development options are then identified and evaluated based on operational, environmental and financial impacts leading to the emergence of a recommended development alternative. For example, the future development of a parallel taxiway is going to make it necessary to move a fuel farm. Alternative development will look at where the fuel farm could be relocated. Further assessment will determine the best relocation site, which becomes the “preferred alternative” for development.

Why plan:

As worldwide lockdowns were imposed and commercial passenger travel came to a virtual standstill, we in the industry were all left wondering the validity of thoughtfully prepared aviation forecasts and the proposed development plans associated with them.

Since Master Plans can adapt to unanticipated events, consider a Master Plan as your GPS: it can recalculate when you veer off course but still get you to your destination.

This article was written by Patrick Sharrow, AAE.