Airport capacity: when an airport reaches or exceeds its intended capacity

In 2001, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) published the capacity profiles of the country´s main airports for the first time in order to provide an evaluation of runway capacity levels. This report was revised in 2004 and then updated in 2014.

This extremely useful tool provides information on the capacity of a country’s airport system and airport consultants use this information to define the best strategies for upgrading airport infrastructure.

Definition of airport capacity

An airport´s capacity can be defined as the maximum number of operations a runway can handle per hour at peak times. In other words, the maximum number of take-offs and landings in specific weather conditions and at specific times.

In general, the world´s main airports register an imbalance between the demand for flights and the capacity of their infrastructure. This disparity is caused by the lack of a given airport´s ability to meet the demand for aircraft and passengers. This demand rises every year due to the increase in supply, alternatives offered by airlines and people´s greater purchasing power.

What alternatives are open to airport operators when their runways have reached their maximum capacity?

In these cases it is important to analyse the behaviour of the different agents involved at an airport, such as aircraft, passengers, vehicles, merchandise, etc. A balance needs to be struck in all the processes passengers are required to follow from the time they arrive at the airport to the time they board their plane, just like the processes an aircraft is required to follow from time it lands until it takes off.

Airports divide infrastructure into two separate areas: the air side, focused exclusively on aircraft, and the land side, geared to passengers. Both sides need to operate in a well-balanced manner to provide the airport with the necessary capacity and to enable planes, passengers and cargo to move in an efficient manner. Moreover, this will ensure the airline, airport personnel and passenger systems run smoothly.

Land Side

An airport´s capacity is related to the appropriate design of the passenger terminal, access roads and car parks in accordance with the estimated demand. When passenger demand increases, operators have to expand their existing infrastructure and improve their processes in order to meet passengers´ expectations from the time they enter the airport to the time they board their flight.

Air Side

All forecasts with respect to the air side are related to air traffic, without neglecting other factors such as profitability, operational safety and environmental impact. Airport operators are fully aware that delayed flights arise from a lack of capacity in the processes involved in the air side, such as blocked runway access and delays in clearing aircraft parked on the tarmac.

How to deal with a lack of capacity at an airport?

A lack of airport process capacity can´t be dealt with simply by expanding the facilities, something that often proves to be impossible due to a lack of space. What can be done, with regard to the tarmac, is to reconfigure the space geometrically. One of the measures that can be implemented to optimise the use of an airport´s runways is to restrict the use of general aviation, as the planes used in these cases are smaller and feature less equipment than commercial aircraft.

To ensure greater precision in the distances between aircraft taking off and landing, optimising runway capacities and using them in a more efficient manner is of paramount importance and, to this end, the size, speed and operational characteristics of the aircraft operating at the airport must all be consistent with each other.

The optimal use of technology also helps improve airport operations, both on the air side and the land side. This ensures the more precise management of aircraft and passenger traffic at the airport in the short and medium term.

Hence, passenger, airline and merchandise demand must be analysed to ensure an airport does not exceed its intended capacity, thereby allowing for the enhanced planning and design of airport infrastructure.

The “Airport Master Plan” provides details of this analysis and describes the needs of the airport in question today and in the future in relation to infrastructure, the environment and urban planning.

We at Airport Gurus can help you plan the capacity of any airport in detail, thereby optimising all your operations both in the air and on the ground. Please feel free to contact us.

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