Upgrading Airfields: Challenges and emerging practices in airport construction

Airport construction in India has undergone a major shift due to the involvement of multiple stakeholders and the introduction of various complex technologies. There have been inordinate delays in the construction of many airport projects. In the last 10-12 years, a few greenfield airports, such as those in Kannur, Goa and Navi Mumbai, have faced time and cost overruns. The situation was different before, when government re­gulatory authorities were more bureaucratic, and projects such as the Bengaluru and Hy­de­rabad airports were completed on time despite the absence of airport expertise in the private sector and global consultants in the industry. The upside of this was the strong commitment of promoters and stakeholders. Engineering, pro­curement and construction contractors were also project owners, as in the case of Be­ngaluru airport, where Larsen & Toubro and Siemens held stakes in the special purpose vehicle. Decision-making was quick, and issues were resolved more effectively th­ro­ugh a collaborative approach between stakeholders. The trends have changed in recent ti­m­es, with emerging technologies and the adoption of sustainable approaches to construction.

Underlying issues in airport construction

Despite the advent of new technologies in airport construction and more liberal policies, most of the greenfield and brownfield projects have missed their completion deadlines. This is primarily because of siloed decision-making. Earlier, promoters and contractors used to work in tandem, with a large amount of responsibility and power vested in contractors.

Now, the design concept is introduced by the operator, who brings a field consultant, who in turn engages multiple subconsultants. Follo­wing the completion of the preliminary design, technical and financial bids are invited for airport projects. Due to information asymmetry in the concession agreement and other factors such as change of scope and design, project implementation is further delayed. At times, the contractor may not have the right expertise, ne­cessitating peer reviewing and the involvement of multiple consultants. Further­more, the government appoints somebody abo­ve the operator to oversee project developme­nt. The involvement of multiple stakeholders makes it difficult to obtain timely approvals. Stro­ng leadership is thus also required to drive a project in the right direction and deliver it on time.

There is a huge shortage of managers, workers and engineers in the sector. Although there might be an overlap of expertise in certain aspects of airport construction with other sectors, such as with highway and road construction for pavements, and with building construction for terminals, managing the construction of airports is enormously complex. Moreover, airport construction technology is becoming far more complex. While there is more demand for these technologies from users, there is also the possibility of them becoming obsolete with the completion of projects. Information technology and internet of things are rapidly evolving and pose a big challenge in terms of integration with airport construction projects. Another big pitfall of the use of complex technologies is the lack of compatibility with passengers who are technologically challenged.

Technology integration

Delays in project completion have necessitated the shift towards the adoption of building information modelling (BIM) during the construction stage. Assessment of a project using BIM allo­ws the quantification of materials and reso­urces, which helps the contractor understand the risks involved in the project. The work-brea­kdown structure also allows operators to create a time frame for construction activities and accordingly issue the tender document, facilitating clear commitments by contractors.

The implementation of a common data en­vi­ronment (CDE) has also become widespread in airport projects. Material providers make use of CDE to integrate the construction components with the overall structure in BIM. This fa­cilitates a complete value engineering economy, and exact quantities, required for fabrication of steel, can be worked out on a large scale. CDE also ensures that inputs at every stage of construction can be plugged in by multiple stakeholders, and accessed via permissions based on their role in the project, such as review, approval and query. Cost estimation can also be done based on the quantities work­ed out through the model. For instance, the cut­ting and bending process at Tata Steel Limi­ted is undertaken by importing the bar-bending sche­dule format from a BIM model. Besides, the information and details required at different stages can be obtained from the various levels of development in a BIM. The operator can use these details for asset management or operations and maintenance (O&M) at airports. Bengaluru International Airport Limited is also planning to implement digital twins and 5D visualisation, alongside developing an asset ma­nagement tool in collaboration with IBM and Maximo. These will be used during the con­struction and O&M phases.

Adoption of sustainable strategies

Various environment-friendly strategies are gaining traction in airport construction. These include optimisation of steel usage; use of gr­een materials; and setting of environmental, social and governance goals by stakeholders. Companies such as Tata Steel Limited are adopting economical and eco-friendly strategies such as 4E. Sustainability has also become a big factor in addressing cost margins, by ensuring better detailing at the design stage. There has been an uptick in the use of fabricated steel in airport projects. Additionally, welded wire fabrics ranging in size from 2 mm to 12 mm, instead of the conventional 8 mm, 10 mm and 12 mm reinforcement sizes, are also being used. Reducing the diameter by 1 mm without changing the design allows the saving of around 25 to 30 per cent steel. A wel­ded wire fabric called SmartFAB 5 mm mesh was used at the Indira Gandhi Interna­tional Airport in Delhi in the construction of a drain where tying the reinforcement bars during concrete work was becoming a challenge. The use of rebar couplers further reduces the consumption of steel.

A sustainable approach to design has also been adopted by Bengaluru airport. Atte­n­tion is being given to the amount of waste generated during construction, and the principles of reduce, reuse and recycle are being applied. Bamboo has also been extensively used to achieve a low carbon footprint. Similarly, green steel is being explored by Tata Steel Limited. The company is establishing a steel plant in Ludhiana, which will use 100 per cent recycled raw material. Moreover, it has received a green pro-certificate for its sustainable products, which are recognised by the green building rating system of the Confederation of Indian In­dustry. It also plans to develop product carbon disclosures that comply with the leading global green building certifications.

Summing up

In conclusion, airports are deemed to be a critical part of any country’s infrastructure. There should be no room for compromise in terms of the quality of airport construction with respect to the aesthetics or material usage. Every project requires a stringent process of quality assurance and approvals. The project stakeholders must collaborate and ensure timely completion by following a systematic project management approach.

Based on a panel discussion between Sundar Chandramouli, Vice President, Special Projects, Bangalore International Airport Limited; Prashant Kumar, Head Downstream Business, TMT Projects & Solutions, Tata Steel Limited; Dr Hari K. Parameshwar, Director, Design & Build, Shapoorji Pallonji and Company Private Limited; and N.K Singla, Vice President, and Plant Head, Surya Roshni Limited, at a recent India Infrastructure conference