Airport projects can be complex and involve a number of stakeholders, funding sources, and project delivery methods. To help navigate these complexities and stay current on the latest trends and technology advancements impacting airports across the U.S., we sat down with four airport planning and design experts − Josh Holbrook, Ryan Falch, Brenda Hanson, and Chris Brett.
Meet the experts
JOSH HOLBROOK, PE,* is an airport engineer with more than 17 years of experience in planning, design, and construction. He has worked with airports across Wisconsin and Michigan and has in-depth knowledge of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, state and federal funding and policies, aeronautical safety, airport layout plan development, capital improvement plan development, airport operations, environmental documents, stakeholder engagement, and education programs. Josh previously served as Airport Development Engineer at the Wisconsin Bureau of Aeronautics (BOA), managing projects across commercial and general aviation airports.
*Registered Professional Engineer in WI
What are some of the biggest challenges currently facing Wisconsin airports?
One of the most significant challenges is the stagnation of entitlement funding over the years, despite the rising cost of projects. The funding isn’t going far enough to meet critical needs at airports. The recently enacted Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) will provide support to airports for a limited time, however, the funding will eventually run out. It is crucial for sponsors to distinguish between their wants and needs and collaborate with their consultants and BOA project managers to devise a strategic plan for future funding. With my five years of experience at Wisconsin BOA, I have learned that there are innovative methods to finance larger projects; teams just need to think creatively.
What advice do you have for general aviation airports as they plan for the future?
It’s important to develop a feasible airport capital improvement plan (CIP) and airport master plan. The desire for swift and effortless projects is natural, however, a sound CIP is beneficial not only to the BOA and FAA, but to the sponsor as well, in terms of financial planning for future projects. Unexpected projects may arise but adhering to a well-crafted CIP will make your life easier in the long run. Along with the CIP, I strongly recommend developing an airport master plan, which serves as a blueprint for the airport's direction over the next 20 years. A comprehensive master plan will reflect the airport's current status, its future vision and how to achieve it, and facilitate FAA support for your projects. These two documents are among the most crucial assets that will aid in future endeavors at your airport.
RYAN FALCH, PE,* is an airport engineer and licensed drone pilot with more than nine years of experience managing reconstruction/rehabilitation of runways, taxiways, taxilanes, aprons, and parking lots for airports throughout Wisconsin and Minnesota. Since joining SEH, Ryan has worked with multiple commercial service and general aviation airports in Minnesota and South Dakota involving terminals, snow removal equipment storage buildings, airfield lighting, and pavement projects, while continuing to build upon his relationships throughout Wisconsin.
*Registered Professional Engineer in WI, MN, and VA
How have drone capabilities impacted or improved airport projects?
Drone technology continues to advance, providing efficient, accurate, and cost-effective methods for data collection in airport projects. Drones allow for high-resolution imagery, providing valuable insights in remote or difficult-to-access areas that were previously challenging or impossible to obtain. This imagery can be used for a variety of purposes, such as surveying land, mapping, and monitoring construction progress. And as the saying goes, "A picture is worth a thousand words," which is particularly relevant to what data we can collect and the expanded scope of insights that can now be gained through the use of drones.
How have recent regulations impacted airport design or maintenance?
The FAA recently updated its Advisory Circular for Airport Design, which sets the standards that all airport design consultants, sponsors, and airports must now follow. This is the first update in over 10 years, and it requires all stakeholders to re-evaluate and confirm that their projects meet the new standards. Our airport planning and design team has been evaluating this new guidance and will be releasing a summary article soon reviewing the examples of benefits and impacts these new design standards have on airport projects.
What is one of the biggest challenges facing the airport development industry today?
The cost of constructing any project can vary greatly. This can be due to a variety of factors such as lack of materials or workers. As consultants, we do our best to accurately estimate the project cost for an airport or client, but as the world has seen, pricing can fluctuate and will continue to do so in the future. Our team helps airports plan ahead for these fluctuations to keep project costs down and the project on track.
BRENDA HANSON is a planner, pilot, and Geographic Information System (GIS) specialist with 18 years of diverse GIS and aviation experience providing her with a strong understanding of state and federal grant programs, FAA standards, and program and project management. Prior to joining SEH, Brenda led the development and administration of the Wisconsin BOA Airports Geographic Information Systems (AGIS) program, managed the Wisconsin Airport GIS Web Application used for airport planning and decision-making, and led the Wisconsin NextGen Initiative Program: Obstruction Clearing Project.
How have GIS advancements helped with managing airport projects?
Advancements in GIS can provide much more than just visual and geographic answers to airport planning and engineering issues; in fact, it can also be a solution for data analytics, asset management, real-time metrics, and a platform to share information with airport stakeholders, and the aviation community. For example, GIS can be used for asset management by creating a digital inventory of all airport assets, such as runways, taxiways, and buildings, and tracking their maintenance and repair schedules. GIS data can also be used to optimize the layout and design of the airport to increase efficiency and capacity.
What are some creative ways airports are paying for their projects?
At SEH, we stay current on new funding sources and are always looking for ways to help airports understand and take advantage of those funding opportunities. Recent programs such as using COVID relief funding, BIL funding opportunities like the Airport Terminal Program, and Airport Infrastructure Grants (AIG) funds, can open up funding opportunities for both commercial service and general aviation airports.
CHRIS BRETT is a pilot and skilled airport planner with experience in airport operations. He has more than seven years direct experience in the development of airport master plans, CIPs, airport layout plans (ALP), feasibility studies, land use, and compatibility planning, aviation activity forecasts, facility planning, and site development. Chris has completed planning work on airports large and small, including airfield simulation models at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.
How can airports best prepare for the future, including funding opportunities?
The best way to prepare for the future is to establish a realistic planning strategy now. This includes developing a master plan to identify areas of need and a capital improvement plan to chart a realistic path forward. This will help to ensure that the airport is prepared for future funding and can address any emerging issues or challenges.
How important is community engagement with airport projects?
As a planning consultant, I strongly believe community engagement is critical to any airport project. The airport is an integral part of the community and being a good neighbor is the best way to foster a healthy relationship with the local residents. It is important to educate the public on the value that aviation provides the community, as this is crucial for the continued success of an airport.
What advice do you have for airport leaders?
It's important to be prepared for the unexpected; as we have seen in recent history, unforeseen circumstances such as natural disasters, economic downturns, or sudden changes in demand for air travel can significantly impact airports and the aviation industry as a whole. Having a strong foundation built through thorough planning can help an airport be better prepared for future events − both expected and unexpected.
Interested in discussing the latest trends in more detail, or learning more about how SEH can help your airport plan for and navigate the latest regulations or funding opportunities? We invite you to connect with Josh, Ryan, Brenda, Chris, and others from the SEH airport planning and design team.