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Airports round table | delivering capacity

Airports around the world are growing rapidly to cope with increasing numbers of passengers. But are the airport operators getting the best from their supply chains?

While the wait goes on for a government decision on airport capacity in the South East, this does not mean a hiatus in airport construction and development – far from it. The airport operators continue to spend billions of pounds every year expanding and modernising their facilities to meet the changing demands of passengers and airlines, as well as addressing the current security situation.



And, with all this work being done within existing operational airports, there are significant challenges for the contractors and consultants working within the sector.

As WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff aviation director Tim Morrison says: “This is an exciting time in the industry. We’re facing some interesting challenges: more people are flying to more places than ever before. But there are still a few hurdles to overcome.”

tim morrison bandw

tim morrison bandw

Morrisoin: Exciting times for aviation

Morrison made this comment at a round table event organised by New Civil Engineer and sponsored by WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff that brought major airport operators together with key members of the infrastructure supply chain. 

Smooth operation

Heathrow Airport development director Phil Wilbraham outlined what he, as an airport operator, wants from infrastructure suppliers: “What we want is the operation of the airport to run smoothly – that is absolutely clear – and for the passengers to have a fantastic experience.”

He added: “We have framework agreements with our supply chain, so we are collaborating together. We believe our supply chain needs to understand us as much as we need to understand them, which is why this is not about lowest cost tendering: it’s about value.”

For Dublin Airport managing director Vincent Harrison the priority is flexibility. “We had 25 plus years of solid growth, then the economy – and the airport – went into a very sharp correction between 2008 and 2012,” he explained. “Since then we’ve had recovery, and last year Dublin was the fastest growing airport in Europe.

phil wilbraham

phil wilbraham

Wilbraham: Timing for new ideas is crucial

“You somehow have to be able to react to that. There is nothing of any impact in an airport that you can build in less than two years, but there can be an awful lot of change in that time.”

Harrison also highlighted the often conflicting requirements of an airport operator’s two main client groups: the passengers and the airlines: “Airlines are much more interested in the operational impact airside than what goes on within the terminal. The last thing we want to do is disappoint them, which means we have to describe what will be done, and then do it when we said we’d do it. What they want is certainty.”

Imagination required

Neil Thomson, Manchester Airport Group’s asset management & capital programme director at Stansted Airport, agrees that certainty is a priority, but he also want to see the supply chain being more imaginative. “There are so many bits of airport work going on across the world – surely we should be seeing something new and innovative,” he said.

“If you look at runway resurfacing, for example, we’ve been doing the same thing for 20 years. There must be ways of doing it better and shortening the timescale. That’s where the value comes from.

“There must be things that can be brought from other industries to help freshen things up. What’s happening elsewhere that can be used to respond to the challenges we have?”

neil thomson bandw

neil thomson bandw

Thomson: Innovators should not fear failure

He added: “Every airport is so busy – we are back to 2008 [passenger] levels at Manchester and Stansted – so the value of biting a [construction] programme back a month is huge.”

Thomson says consultants and contractors should not let the risk of failure hold back innovation. “There are risk professionals who will balance that up,” he says. “It’s not one or other: what we’re looking for are options that can be investigated.

“The airlines are willing to be pushed in terms of their operational requirements if there’s something in it for them. So we really do need to look for new ideas – otherwise we will be doing the same thing in 10 years’ time.”

Timing is the key

Wilbraham agrees. “I’m happy to move things on, but it’s all about timing,” he told the suppliers at the event. “You can come up with an idea, but it has to be at the right time in the process. We need to have them quite early on. Hopefully you will bring innovative ideas, and we can balance with the experience we’ve got at the airport.

“Whatever happens, we can’t risk the operation,” he added. “We maintain and operate these airports for years and years. You could put in all the best innovation, but if you can’t maintain and operate it, you are in a mess.”

vincent harrison

vincent harrison

Harrison: Reacting to rapid growth

Mace director Nigel Cole responded by saying: “It comes down to the procurement strategy of the individual airport. That decides whether a construction organisation gets involved at an early stage – and that decision comes through trust that you, as the constructor, are going to add value to the process.

“In the last few years we have gone further towards the front end,” he added. “The traditional route of doing design then going to market means you lose that benefit. We could have ideas but it’s almost too late to significantly change the design. You need to talk to contractors who can add value during the design process.

“Getting contractors involved as early as you can, will give certainty to cost and programme.”

Tailoring procurement

But Dublin Airport Authority head of design & delivery Stephen Byrne says that different projects need different types of procurement. “Some projects are quite utilitarian, and for those we are quite happy to go traditional design and build, where the designer sets out the functional needs and issues a performance specification. But for something like our new runway, we would probably go with competitive dialogue. It’s about tying it in with our overall infrastructure, and competitive dialogue offers us the ability to control the design.”

It was obvious from the discussion that the airport operators feel they are not being best served by the supply chain – especially regulated airports like Dublin and Heathrow. These airports have to negotiate their annual charges with their regulator, as well as any money they want to spend on capital projects.

Consultants fall short 

“We’ve gone through the last regulatory process and engaged the top consultants in world and asked them how we should develop,” said Byrne. “They didn’t all hit the nail on the head – in fact they were quite far away.

“The consultants are not fully attuned to what’s happening in terms of regulation, security and the changing needs of airlines. There’s a gap, and we’ve paid a price on that gap while they’ve learned from us as an airport operator.”

Wilbraham agrees. “I do think the contractors have taken a bigger interest in our business than the consultants,” he said. “Consultants have been busy taking what they’ve learned from the UK around the world, and we don’t necessarily see a return on that.

“Consultants tell us Heathrow is a great marketing tool. What we would like is to get ideas brought back to the UK from around the world. We go to places like [Changi Airport] Singapore, and we can see that they do great things, but we don’t always get the ideas brought back to us.”

While the consultants in the room may have found these comments a little difficult to hear, they did admit that there was probably more they could do to understand their UK airport clients better.


Around the table

Hiro Aso, aviation & transportation practice area leader, Gensler

Matthew Butters, director, Pascall & Watson

Stephen Byrne, head of design & delivery, Dublin Airport Authority

Keith Cannin, aviation director, Morgan Sindall

Darren Colderwood, delivery director, Heathrow Airport

Nigel Cole, director, Mace

Jason Fowler, partner, Gardiner & Theobald

Mark Hansford, editor, New Civil Engineer

Vincent Harrison, managing director, Dublin Airport

Chris Mead, director, WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff

Tim Morrison, aviation director, WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff

Peter Sharratt, head of strategic consulting, WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff

Neil Thomson, asset management & capital programme director, Stansted Airport

Phil Wilbraham, development director, Heathrow Airport


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