Airport Excellence: An SEH Roundtable Discussing the Future of Aviation

In this roundtable, a team of SEH aviation experts discuss the biggest challenges facing airports today, funding opportunities, advancements in technology, where they see the aviation industry in 10-20 years and how airports can best position themselves for long-term viability.



Meet the experts:

Brandon Twedt

Brandon Twedt, aviation engineer, drone pilot, director of UAS operations. I currently lead our drone program and provide technical resources to help the team function efficiently as well as design and project management work.
Contact Brandon

Benita Crow

Benita Crow, principal, designer and engineer. I am the regional practice center leader for the airports group, project manager and I serve as a client service manager (CSM).
Contact Benita

Kaci Nowicki

Kaci Nowicki, senior aviation planner, environmental expert. I manage our planning and environmental projects and work with the other groups that contribute to those projects.
Contact Kaci

Bob Cohrs

Bob Cohrs, principal, senior planner, project manager, client service manager and business development manager. I have provided airport consulting services to clients for over 30 years. I like to share my expertise with clients, be an advocate for them and a partner to help achieve their goals.
Contact Bob

Lindsey Reidt

Lindsey Reidt, senior aviation engineer. My primary role is project manager and CSM for the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) in addition to some out-state airports. These relationships give me a unique outlook for solving the many challenges airports face.
Contact Lindsey

Shawn McMahon

Shawn McMahon, senior aviation engineer. Prior to joining SEH, I served as a C-17A Globemaster aircraft commander and instructor pilot in the U.S. Air Force. These experiences allow me to bring a unique perspective to project management and design, providing our Airport Planning and Design group a balanced technical approach with a pilot and airfield user perspective.
Contact Shawn

Dan Triller,

Dan Triller, aviation engineer, project manager and client service manager. I’ve been an engineer for more than 30 years and an aviation engineer for almost 20 years. I use my experience to solve complex engineering projects for our clients.
Contact Dan

Melissa Underwood

Melissa Underwood, senior aviation planner. My area of expertise is airport planning and environmental projects. I enjoy working with clients to develop a plan for their airport that has community and agency support for future project ideas and goals.
Contact Melissa

What is one of the biggest challenges facing the aviation industry today?

Bob: For sure, funding. Getting access to funding remains one of the biggest challenges our airport clients face. Project costs continue to increase but the level of funding at the federal and state levels has remained pretty consistent over the years. Coming up with the local match is also an issue for many clients.

Brandon: Yes, one of the biggest obstacles is that funding has remained relatively flat. But, project costs continue to rise year over year. Inflation goes up, the prices of asphalt, concrete and steel goes up. Everything continues to rise but the funding levels have remained relatively flat.

Benita: I think today we’re doing projects much quicker, within shorter timelines. And the costs around projects continue to go up too.

Dan: Since general aviation airport funding is based on entitlements, it’s often necessary for smaller airports to rely on discretionary funding for improvements. It can also be challenging to raise local matching funds for the available Federal and state funding.

With this funding challenge, what are some creative ways airports are paying for their projects?

Bob: One thing I think that's promising right now in Minnesota is that we're starting to use more state bond funds for projects. That is a funding source that hasn’t been used regularly until recent years. On the local side, another idea is creating revenue generating facilities such as hangar leases, fueling facilities, leasing land to local farmers and growing crops compatible with aviation.

Dan: There is a great opportunity for funding projects with the FAA Supplemental Funding applications. It’s an opportunity to fund higher priority projects that can compete nationally. There is a lot of need for arrival/departure buildings at the GA airports as well as hangar space. But, it’s is challenging finding funding for these types of projects as they are low on the funding priority list and don’t always meet the FAA eligibility criteria.

Shawn: For these low priority projects, we can help communities calculate local share estimates, provide hangar rent analysis, and find alternative funding sources, such as the MnDOT Hangar Loan program. SEH is even exploring the potential for design build for certain facilities at airports to help communities with cash flow difficulties.

Let’s talk about entitlement funding. What are some things airports can do to maximize this type of funding source?

Benita: If an airport doesn’t have enough entitlement dollars in their FAA bank account for a project, there are creative things you can do to get money by borrowing money from other airports.

Kaci: Yes, if Airport A isn’t doing any projects, and Airport B is doing a project but doesn’t have enough money, they can borrow the money from Airport A’s entitlement balance to get the project done. Since airports are limited as to how long they can bank entitlements, it also benefits Airport A as this money can be returned to the airport at a strategic time when they have a larger project scheduled to be completed.

Bob: Right, if airports don’t use these funds within four years, they go back into the national pot. By transferring the money around between different airports in the state, it ensures this money gets used and stays in the state. Some states manage this process, in other states, it’s managed by the airport sponsors and we help facilitate that effort.  

Benita: Right. Different states handle the transfers differently. In Minnesota, the airports or their consultants negotiate all of that amongst themselves. In South Dakota, the State DOT does all the transfers, the airports have less influence and ability to strategize where the money goes, but they also don't have to do the work. In Iowa, the DOT and FAA facilitate the process and decide which airport and which projects should receive the funds. There are pros and cons to each but each state does it differently.

How can airports best prepare for when funding becomes available?

Bob: You always have to have your eye on the future. As a group, we are constantly thinking about what is the next funding source on the horizon and how can we be ready to take advantage of it. We plan for more accurate capital improvement plans (CIPs) in the one to five-year timeframe, but we are also looking 20 years down the road. We know what projects our clients need to do right now and what they’re going to need down the road. Then, we position them to take advantage of the funding sources coming out at those times.

Benita: Yes, we’re always keeping clients ready for funding opportunities. Recently, there was a billion-dollar supplemental appropriation in federal dollars which provided a potential funding opportunity. Our Master Plan effort in International Falls allowed the Airport to be in a position to compete for that funding.

Kaci: Our Triggering Event Master Plan ensured the planning, including extensive stakeholder outreach and construction phasing, was complete, so when those funds were available, we had everything in place to position International Falls to compete for those funds for their upcoming runway project.

Can you explain how technology can benefit aviation clients?

Brandon: Drones have made the surveying aspect of airport projects so much more efficient. You get a new level of understanding about the project that you didn’t have before. Instead of renting a helicopter or aircraft to survey an approach, one person with a drone can identify any objects in the way and adjustments can be made. They help save both time and money.

Bob: Drones can also help with the inspection and documentation aspect of projects too. Drones have been a valuable resource in construction observation in many of our projects.

Brandon: We can provide airports with a different vision of how their project will look when completed. The drone can map out precise coordinates and produce a video where you can overlay exactly what a project will look like. We’re able to see things from a new perspective with drone technology.

What are some advances on the project management side of things?

Brandon: With GIS project websites, all of the information we used to gather on paper is done digitally now. All of the data is web-based, so we can see what's going on in real-time at job sites.

Bob: These online GIS tools are adding precision and lowering costs because teams can collaborate from anywhere.

Lindsay: All of the different stakeholders can use it too. They can log in and see the progress of their project – it's another way for them to interact with the project.

Melissa: This also keeps data information about the airport updated so when land use, zoning, or building projects are initiated within a community, city and county staff have up-to-date airport information available to ensure compatibility with their surroundings.

Brandon: And when you add webcams into the mix, you can actually see what’s going on at a project site without physically being there.

Talk about the future. What do you see as a focus for airports 20 years from now?

Brandon: There’s going to be a big focus on drones and other personal flying vehicles. There will be airspace congestion issues that will have to be figured out. With all of these flying vehicles around, figuring out flight paths and where everything is in the airspace will be essential.

Bob: Yes, I’ve been to conferences recently where they are talking about drone taxi services that pick riders up from one place and deliver them to another. It’s coming, and we have to be prepared for it.

Melissa: There’s also the security aspect that will have to be figured out.

How can airports stay on top of the constantly changing regulations?

Shawn: Regulations are constantly changing. We are constantly watching what the changes are and how they're impacting our clients.

Melissa: Our world revolves around regulations, and our clients look to us to know what's going on because they might not have the time to stay up on all of the federal regulations. But, the funding that they get depends on being in compliance with the regulations. That's one of SEH’s key roles.

Kaci: It's not just the FAA regulations that we have to stay on top of, we also have to understand the regulations happening on the environmental side. The environmental group within SEH helps us keep track of regulations by the Army Corp of Engineers, the DNR, water conservation districts and others.

Shawn: We take a holistic approach to all of our projects. It's not that we do planning and then the planner hands it off to the engineer, and then the engineer does the engineering. We're constantly doing the planning, the environmental, and the design collectively so that we're making sure that what we're designing can be built, and it's built to the criteria established in the environmental document.

Dan: One of the best things to do is to perform additional research during the scoping phase of the project. This can help get an idea of how involved the process will be.

Bob: Throughout that whole process we're keeping in contact with the FAA and the DOTs to make sure that funding is set up, regulations are being followed and that all of the stakeholders are involved and being brought along in the process.

Talk about the benefit of working with a firm on an airport project that is also the city engineer.

Shawn: I think it's a benefit in that a lot of times we'll be working with the same individual. A lot of times at the municipal level the city engineer, or the city administrator, or the city clerk is also in charge of the airport. They already know how we work, they're used to working with us.

Lindsay: I think there are a lot of efficiencies that come from that. There's a lot of sharing of information between us and whoever at SEH is the city engineer on the municipal side.

Brandon: There's also a cost savings for clients in that if there's a street project going on and there's an airport project going on one person can get to the community and check-in on both projects.

Dan: When you’re familiar with the community and the environment, things tend to go more smoothly. If municipal and airport projects in the same community are tracking on the same schedule, some of the resources can be shared. There can also be savings to the community as many of the processes are already set up like billing, communication, scoping and contracts.

How can community engagement efforts help airport projects?

Kaci: Tailored, proactive community and stakeholder engagement efforts are critical to the success of projects. We ensure we identify the right stakeholders and involve them from the beginning rather than just having a project open house. We also create materials that are engaging, understandable, and meaningful to stakeholders and the general public.

Lindsay: In the past, public involvement meant having an open house at the end of the project. But today, we’re going to the stakeholders’ meetings, we’re meeting people where they are, and we’re involving them from the beginning. That way, the project can be something everyone stands behind.

Melissa: There’s also funding available for public outreach. The FAA supports those efforts and many times offers financial support for them. They want to make sure everyone’s voices are heard. They really want to know what’s going on in a community and give the community an opportunity to influence projects.

How important is phasing to an airport project?

Kaci: Phasing is critical in finding the outcome that has the least impact to both stakeholders and the airport as a whole.

Brandon: A lot of times airports have only one runway. We have to phase the project so that they can keep the airport operational during construction or only have it down for the shortest amount of time.

Shawn: There are some creative things you can do like shortening the runway so that it has some restricted use during that time. When one side is constructed you shift down and do the other end, and then you do the middle, making sure it stays open as much as possible.

Melissa: For many communities, maintaining air service is critical to their community, their community depends on it. The summer seasons are the high point for tourism and travel, and it’s also construction season. You have to find a balance where you can accommodate both.

Bringing it all together

The aviation industry is complex. Airport projects involve a number of stakeholders, funding sources and project delivery methods. It’s important to understand how all of these critical elements are intertwined when coming up with the best outcome for each community.

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