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Interview with Roddy L. Boggus, Parsons Brinckerhoff

 

 

“Being a good partner is being a good consultant or being a trusted advisor”.

 

Roddy L. Boggus joined Parsons Brinckerhoff in 2010 as National Aviation Director responsible for managing aviation-related planning, engineering, program management, and construction management services in the United States. With almost three decades of experience in the planning, design and implementation of diverse aviation projects, Boggus is familiar with issues facing the airline industry and airport owners/operators in the US, Europe, Latin and South America, the Middle East, and Africa.

Today, WSP and Parsons Brinckerhoff have combined strengths and formed one of the world’s leading engineering and professional services consulting companies. The firm’s expertise ranges from environmental remediation and urban planning, to engineering iconic buildings and designing sustainable transport networks, to developing the energy sources of the future and enabling new ways of extracting essential resources. Approximately 32,000 employees work for this dynamic organization in more than 500 offices across 39 countries worldwide.

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What are the main issues that must be taken into account when designing an airport?

I think the first thing we have to talk about is the fact that one airport is just that, one airport. We all know that commercial airports all have very similar needs and operational constraints, but the fact remains that each airport is different. For example trying to put Heathrow somewhere else doesn’t work, you have to take into consideration the stakeholders, the public, the region it serves and remember that the primary responsibility for airport design is to get people where they are going. That, however, seems to be changing these days, and making the airport an economic success outside of the passenger aspect is becoming more common. But again, the primary reason of these airports is to get passengers where they are going and get planes in and out.

It must also be easy to park, especially here in the US where we are so automobile centric. You also have to make the airport easy to get to. So many areas, especially the growing areas in aviation, have some great airports, but they are marred by traffic problems when getting people to the airport. This makes the beginning and the end of the trip very difficult for the passengers. You know they say that the last mile, or even the last five miles are the most expensive part of air travel.

 

How would you describe the evolution of customer service, baggage systems and security in airports over the last few years?

Well over the last few years those terms, customer service, baggage systems and security have been somewhat despaired terms, they didn’t always very go well together. In years past, before we had big security issues, and what a lot of people will say was the golden age of airports, customer service was a big thing. It’s easy to look back and say it was much better then. I think we’re seeing some movement towards bringing customer service to both baggage screening and security. A lot of this, interestingly enough, is to do with self-service. While we’re talking about increasing customer service we’re also talking about a generational shift. For the millennials, the “gen-Xers” and the “gen-Yers”, in their minds self-service, as in doing it yourself, seems to be better customer service for them, they feel more in control. I think if you went back to the early baby boomers, you know, travel in the 50s and 60s they might not agree that doing yourself constituted good customer service. We may have a redefinition of what customer service is.

When we talk about baggage we’re seeing technology making things easier. Technology is being introduced, although not everywhere yet, that allows passengers to track their own bags and see where they are in the system. It’s relatively new and just starting to roll out, but we’ll see where that goes. I am not just in the business but also a very frequent traveller, and as a passenger when I check my bag in, there’s a bit of solace in knowing that your bag got on the plane and that it arrived at the same destination that you arrived at.

In terms of security it’s a whole different deal. Certainly after the events of September 11th here in the United States security has changed for so many of us. I used to do a lot of security work, and security is really about how you feel versus how secure it is. You can feel very secure up until the moment security fails, and then you won’t feel very secure at all. We’re always responding to external threats, it’s very difficult for us to be preventative, guess the next thing and get ahead of it.

 

What do you think the trends are/will be in terms of airport design in the near future?

I think one of the obvious trends is sustainability. These days we’re talking about zero carbon footprint or net neutrality for carbon. I think that’s a big thing, it’s especially big in Europe and it’s starting to show up in other places. We’ll see how well it grows, but it’s something I think everyone, as good stewards of the environment and of the world we live in, should certainly be looking at. I think that in the Western world, where airports are a lot older and we really didn’t realise what a big economic engine they are until just recently, we have found that our airports need to be more nimble and more flexible to change. Our airports that are 40 and 60 years old have had to adapt to security and new IT. This is difficult and it could be where some airports are struggling.

I think we’ll see less hard systems like ticketing and check-in and even security, and more passive systems. For example most of us check-in now using a phone, our trip starts at home now not at the airport. I think we have to start looking too at the potential for aircraft change. Will we continue to have large cylindrical fuselages and wings? Or will we see more of a flying wing shape as suggested by Boeing with their mock-up of a potential 797 aircraft? How will that change the way aircraft populate themselves around the outside of the terminal?

I’m a big believer in the next generation for passengers and for terminals. We need to take the technology we have and apply it to our terminals, and even when we leave our home to go to the terminals. Can we do more to make travel a little more hassle free for our passengers? Are we getting closer, with technology, to every passenger having their own individual experience?

 

One of the major challenges faced by the aviation industry today is dealing with the impact of climate change and the green agenda. How does Parsons Brinckerhoff tackle this issue?

As you know, Parsons Brinckerhoff and WSP are now one company, and I think one of the great examples of that is the sustainability business that we have. In fact, WSP is part of the ACI Europe Carbon Accreditation Programme which is also now in all the five regions of ACI. This has just been adopted by North America, so now we’re looking at mapping and measuring the carbon footprint of airports, along with ways to manage and reduce it. We’re also looking at how to optimise it and reduce it further.

Like you’re seeing in Europe, you can get to net neutrality by offsetting, there are airports that claim zero carbon emissions or neutrality. Being part of WSP and having that ability through them, in addition to some of the resources that came with us when we came to WSP, now means we have some pretty strong sustainability experts within the company.

 

Do you think there is space in the market for both the large engineering firms and the smaller SMEs? Do you think the way forward is in specialization or in providing the full package (one stop shop)?

I think the answer is yes. I think there is room for both, but it moves around in 8-10 year cycles. Some clients like the one stop shop, some like the involvement of multiple firms. I look at the UK and the framework agreements there that we don’t have so much here in North America. These frameworks seem to work easier with one stop shop firms, but in the U.S, the majority of the agreements are more decentralised. They want to have the involvement of disadvantaged and local business enterprises. For example in San Francisco, for a large hub and gateway airport, probably involves the largest number of enterprises by chopping up projects to get the most involvement. People say they get best of everyone because they involve so many people.

I think it’s very regional, each group depends on the rules of their governments, but specialisations will always be there. I think many larger firms have dropped certain things, and therefore will go out there looking for people that have that particular specialisation. It’s also about profitability. As a large firm do you offer a full scope of services while the majority of your business may still be in small segments of that because very few clients will go after a full framework of services?

 

What would you say are the most emblematic Parsons Brinkerhoff airport projects?

We do everything from very large projects on a global scale, to very small projects. We describe ourselves as globally local. I think a great testament of what Parsons Brinckerhoff can do is for the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority. We’ve been at that authority for about 25 years and, with other firms, have really helped stand up Washington Reagan Airport and Washington Dulles Airport from when they were federally controlled to the airport authority today. We’re coming to the end of that cycle, but a 25 year programme with local projects of support services I think speaks a lot to the value of services that Parsons Brinckerhoff has been able to bring.

I also think our involvement in the frameworks at Heathrow recently for terminal 2B and also for terminal 5 says a lot about what we’re able to do with our partners. We were involved in some great projects there with Balfour Beatty.

Another example of a testament to what we’re doing now is with San Francisco. They are very strong in purposeful partnering, which is something we don’t see in a lot of the airports so far in North America. Being a good partner is being a good consultant or being a trusted advisor. I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to do there with partnering.

Finally, everyone says that WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff is so large that’s why it can manage big projects, but we also take on small projects. For example small airports like Palm Springs in California, we’ve done financial work, airfield work and terminal work there. We’re very scalable.

 

As a global expert consultant in the aviation sector, what would you say is the difference between investing in infrastructures in Europe as opposed to the USA?

I think the United States is trying to come to grips with investment in infrastructure across the board, not just in aviation. Currently there are major funding bills under consideration that deal with aging infrastructure. Most people don’t see the aging process of infrastructure. It’s not about the potholes on the runways that make high speed take-offs and landings difficult, but the support systems that people don’t see at airports.

It appears to me, as a citizen of the U.S. that much of Europe and probably a lot of the world is probably ahead of us when addressing infrastructure. For example 10 to 15 years ago when the UK started privatising their airports it appeared to me that this takes the politics out of making these changes a little, as they are now privately run and have a degree of expectation. In the U.S. airports are still political pawns, funding is very political and there is never enough funding to go around.

We’ve seen a pilot programme from the FAA on how to privatise U.S. airports, but in my opinion I think it’s a start, but I don’t think we can judge success on how well the pilot programme has gone.

 

In your opinion, does the perfect airport exist? Or which would you say is the best airport in the world?

I don’t think the perfect airport exists, I think it’s a compilation, the target is always moving. Certainly the new airports in the Gulf States are fantastic architectural pieces and testaments to moving people back and forth, especially in these gigantic A380 aircraft. We’re seeing very similar and wonderful offerings in Asia as they build these aerotropolis, and these indoor airports with forests in them for example. There are things we would have never thought of and are phenomenal for the passenger to be a part of. But I don’t know that any one of these airports is perfect.

The pieces that make a good airport come from several different airports. The efficiency and versatility of Atlanta, which has been ranked the number one airport for a while now, and it works really well. Also the customer experience that you are receiving in San Francisco and Dubai. The new security checkpoints at DFW, people hate to go through security check points and they have done it a different way. The parking at Kansas City Airport is fantastic, you can park and be at your gate within minutes. Also I think a great terminal is Jakarta Airport. It’s an old airport and it’s hard to get to, but it has a sense of place, it feels like I’m in Jakarta. I like airports to represent where I’m at. As an architect I appreciate when I go there that this is the airport that describes the region that it’s in and not a monument to something I may not see around the rest of the region.

 

According to the articles we are reading lately in the media, the outlook and trends in the aviation sector seem to be positive. What in your opinion are the fastest growing markets in terms of aviation?

In the United States, obviously you are seeing large hub gateway airports, and this is happening at the expense of the medium hubs. Funding is limited and is going to go to the large hub gateway airports where most of the people come in and jump off for international flights.

South East Asia too, as the rural society continues to move towards the cities and middle class mobility increases. We’ve been seeing that for a number of years in China, and we’re starting to see it in Vietnam and other places. I think that is still a very strong market out there, however one may question for how long, but it seems to have some good staying power.

Obviously the IT market everywhere. Everything is driven by smartphones and Wi-Fi, and when you’re doing masterplans of airports and you’re planning and designing them you cannot overlook that data pipe, as it’s as important as any part of the building.

Also if the growth in demand is growing the cities and regions around airports, then I think this urban planning concept of airport cities and aerotropolis is also something beyond just the planning of an airport, I think it may be important how you see the growth of your airport outside the airport fence.

 

 

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