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Airport maintenance: A global approach to airport infrastructure

Changes are afoot in the way airport owners maintain their critical assets. It means the next 12 months could be a time of opportunity for those able to offer a fully integrated asset management approach.


Touchdown: The international market for airport rejuvenation is well worth tapping into

The last year or so has seen plenty of change for those who own and operate the UK’s airports following the enforced break-up of the BAA monopoly. Gatwick and Edinburgh are now owned by a Global Investment Partners-led consortium; Stansted is up for sale; and BAA is now a name consigned to history, with its owner - a consortium led by Spanish giant Ferrovial - choosing to rebrand and operate its remaining airports - with Heathrow the crown jewel - under the airport’s own name.

Alongside the changes in ownership there has been a merry-go-round of management teams, meaning ideas are changing fast on how the airport owners procure services, not least the vital role of maintaining critical assets such as their runways and taxiways.

Colas is in prime position to observe these changes, having spent 10 months this year working in partnership with VolkerFitzpatrick on the hugely challenging £32.52M resurfacing of Gatwick Airport’s main - and only - runway before moving on with the same partner to the equally challenging job of extending Birmingham’s main runway. It gives the man in charge of Colas’ airport business Carl Fergusson a fairly shrewd idea of what the airport owners are thinking.

“With the changes in ownership and potential for future changes there is a movement in people and procurement ideas,” he explains. “It is a driver for change.”

Fergusson suspects the airport market could be heading into more integrated bundled contracts that would include maintenance of the critical asset of the runway with what is known as “fence to fence” maintenance such a pavements, lighting, snow clearance and grass cutting.

“We are seeing some shifts to clients now looking for contractors that can bring fence to fence asset management,” he says.


“You can’t help but look at what’s happening in the highways sector and see evidence of these thought processes filtering across. Is the airports sector getting wise and starting to wake up to those kinds of asset management approaches? If that is the way things are going, we are well placed to capitalise,” he adds.

The move to integrated asset management of course mirrors Colas’ experience in the highways sector and in particular in PFI highways maintenance projects like its 25 year deal to manage all of Portsmouth City Council’s roads. Such approaches allow contractors like Colas to work with the client to plan preventative maintenance, to use products that give longer life and to plan interventions to minimise disruption and risk.

So it is no surprise that Fergusson is optimistic about the year ahead; particularly once his bold international ambitions are factored in. For he has just returned from an extensive tour of airport owners across India and the Far East, a tour that marks the start proper of a strategy designed to capitalise on opportunities across the Commonwealth.

“We are looking for other projects and of high interest is the international market,” he says. “And we have developed a strategy for that. We are analysing the market and now we are at the stage when we are identifying regions and individual projects that offer the potential for sustainable business.”

Colas’ annual investment in research and development

India, the Far East and Australasia are identified as the initial targets in 2013, and Africa “cannot be ignored”, according to Fergusson.

His cunning plan is to capitalise on Colas’ French parent’s global reach to team up with local offices, melding UK expertise and reputation with local knowledge, supply chains and acceptance

“There’s a network of Colas subsidiaries around the world - in India alone there are eight offices,” he explains. “We can harness that network. We can bring British engineering and project management to that local entity, so it is not a standing start with no support network. We’ve got Colas feet on the ground already.”

The 65 Commonwealth and other British territories have been picked because their language, legal systems and building standards are rooted in their colonial past. “A part of the strategy is to target Commonwealth countries that have English as a first or second language, laws based around English law, contract law loosely based around English contract law, and where British Standards are still prevalent and well regarded,” explains Fergusson.

And Fergusson and his team have identified plenty of opportunities.


“I’m looking at demographics,” he says, using India as an example where population growth is going hand in hand with a rapid increase in personal wealth and a desire to travel.

“These are countries that have got 10 year programmes to refurbish and rehabilitate their airports,” he says, adding that the scale of the work means he is not just looking for one-off contracts. “We will consider one-offs if they fit our strict profile but what we are really looking for is opportunities for sustainable repeat business; we want a programme. We want to leave a legacy effect for Colas companies.” And they’re decent projects: “Some of the projects we’re looking at are £50M to £100M,” says Fergusson.

It’s not just about resurfacing runways: Colas has expertise in runway rejuvenation. “In some of these countries you find lots of problems with cracking,” Fergusson explains. “We’ve got the sorts of preventative maintenance technologies that are right for our prospective airport clients, and perhaps these countries are at the stage where they are more willing to embrace innovation than the UK.”

The reluctance of UK clients to embrace innovation is a constant bugbear for Colas; its French parent invests €100M (£81M) each year in research and development in new techniques and technologies and it would love to use more of them in the UK.

It has had some notable successes: it introduced ungrooved BBA high friction asphalt to the UK at Manchester airport and was recently using the latest high capacity Intrame UM280 mobile asphalt plant and Vogele 1803-2 pavers at Gatwick.

“Perhaps these countries are at the stage where they are more willing to embrace innovation than the UK”

Carl Fergusson, Colas

“There is a greater opportunity to innovate while still delivering critical core requirements - predictable, safe outcomes,” says Fergusson.

“And if we are talking about airports that’s the key selling point, and that’s the same in UK or anywhere else in the world.”

The strategy also goes beyond pavement work. As in the UK with Volker, Fergusson is keen to team up with other contractors that share his international vision. “There are other British contractors out there doing different things. I would like to link up with them to expand the offer,” he says.

“We’re pavement specialists, and there will be contracts where we need extra skills. So we’re actually hunting for other British contractors seeking similar opportunities.”

So all in all, there are lots of opportunities out there. “I view 2013 positively,” says Fergusson. “Without becoming complacent there are certainly opportunities out there. Opportunities on a scale that are few and far between in the UK.”

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