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Denver International Airport sits with the Rocky Mountains as a majestic backdrop. As airports become increasingly busy and new technology such as drones crops up, the management of airports becomes more complex.

Flying into turbulence

Faced with more passengers, red tape and security concerns, airports are buckling. Aviation Professor Jeffrey Price discusses how they can stay a step ahead.

May 29, 2018

By Mark Cox

Looks like aviation might be in for a bumpy ride in 2018 and beyond.

In 2017, around 232 million air-traffic passengers traveled to or from the U.S. – the equivalent of everyone in California catching six flights each. At any given moment, there are 5,000 aircraft in the sky above America. And they all need to land somewhere.

How U.S. airports cope with ever-increasing demand, security concerns and creaking infrastructure is a topic that Jeffrey Price, aviation professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver and a trained pilot, has given a lot of thought to. RED connected with Price to learn more about the challenges facing the nation's airports over the next few years and how those challenges might be overcome.

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1. The pros (and cons) of drones

The potential impact of unmanned aerial vehicles at airports is the hot topic in the aviation industry. On the positive side, drones could be used to patrol the airfield perimeter. During emergencies, they could hover over incident scenes and provide real-time streaming video to emergency-operations centers. And some test programs are already using unmanned ground vehicles to conduct airfield inspections.

But then there’s the flip side: dealing with unauthorized drones trespassing on airport property. A key difficulty here is that drone technology is so new, the Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t yet have much guidance on how to deal with it. (For example, it’s illegal to shoot one down.) And while the military is developing several prototypes to bring down “rogue” drones, they have yet to see widespread distribution. Ultimately, the airport industry will need to adapt quickly to emerging aerial technologies if it is to prevent serious security breaches from occurring.

Finding new revenue streams is a must for airports, and restaurants, shopping and bars have been multiplying in concourses.

2. Paying the bills

Finding money will always be one of the top priorities for an airport director. That’s because, even before you take into account additional costs – such as expansion projects and new safety, security and environmental regulations – airports already demand a lot of ongoing maintenance. These are simply not cheap places to run.

That’s why airport operators, guided by the FAA, are continually looking for new ways to build their revenue streams. And their primary focus is on getting more money from non-aeronautical sources – such as concessions, parking-lot fees and access fees for taxicabs and airport shuttles. The reason for this is simple: Earning more revenue on the ground means airport operators can keep down aeronautical charges such as landing fees, airline lease space and fuel-flowage fees. And those low aeronautical charges ultimately mean more air traffic, which is kind of the point. So if you ever notice it’s quite expensive to park your car or buy a burger at an airport, those extra dollars are going to the planes.

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3. Making the “Aerotropolis” concept work

This might sound like something from a sci-fi movie, but many airports are embracing the Aerotropolis (or airport city) concept. The basic idea is to use public-private partnerships to create a commercial and residential region where everything – the layout, infrastructure and economy – is built around a central airport hub. The theory is that by connecting aviation-dependent businesses with the airport and a central business district, everybody will thrive. But good luck getting a fair night’s sleep if you’re essentially living next to a giant airport.

The more people there are in airports, the more safety concerns have to be prioritized. Emergency-management professionals are increasingly moving into aviation.

4. Keeping us safe

Maintaining security in the public areas at airports is a major concern. A number of recent devastating attacks – the Fort Lauderdale mass shooting and the suicide bombings at Brussels and Istanbul – all occurred within such spaces either in or around airport property. And for airport police and security departments, the challenge of protecting against deadly attacks in a public area is just that – It’s a public area.

Some suggest the answer might be to establish new screening checkpoints at the curbside. But that would not solve the problem – it merely moves the contact line. Ultimately, this is a serious issue with no easy answers.

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5. Emergency management

Here’s an issue that isn’t often noted but should be: Airport operators and emergency services aren’t always so great at speaking to each other. Airports have no more solemn duty than ensuring their passengers’ well-being, and in truth they have typically been at the forefront of emergency-management practices. But up till now, the aviation industry hasn’t fully embraced lessons from the broader emergency-management community or adapted to its ways of working.

Still, things are slowly getting better. These days, more emergency-management professionals are moving into aviation, while airport personnel are in turn crossing over to emergency-management services. This is important because the two sectors need to learn from each other and share their expertise. In genuine emergency situations, collaborative thinking definitely counts.

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