A recent spate of power outages affecting flight operations at over a dozen major metropolitan airports in the U.S. exposes the hidden risk of aging infrastructure. Most recently, on September 7, 2022, a power outage at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (ABIA) caused significant delays at the airport and traffic backups along Highway 71 after airport roadways closed.
Austin Energy released a statement attributing the outage to an underground electric equipment failure. It took additional time for the technicians to pinpoint the exact location, disconnect the power, splice into a new conduit, and then restore power to the airport.
While Austin Energy has not yet released the exact cause of the electric equipment malfunction at ABIA, degrading power delivery components, like cable splices and switchgear, threaten operational reliability.
Degraded cable splices and failing switchgear discovered by automated IR inspections performed using Power Intelligence analytic software.
Airports are particularly vulnerable due to the extensive subterranean power distribution networks traversing in underground tunnels beneath every major airport complex. The vast number of cable splices, known to degrade over time, present a clear and present danger to the nation's aviation infrastructure.
Another massive 11-hour power outage triggered by a fire in the tunnels below the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta forced the cancellation of hundreds of flights on December 17, 2017. It not only caused the main power supply to shut down, but it also caused the redundant system to fail. It resulted in significant delays and financial loss.
Considering recent airport incidents, it should come as no surprise that the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) ranked U.S. aviation with a D+ in its 2021 Report Card for America's Infrastructure. The airport power outages and electrical incidents brings the issue of aging airport infrastructure front and center. To avoid setting themselves up for future outages due to equipment failures, airports should focus on updating and improving their infrastructure, including primary and back-up power systems supported by switches, transformers, underground cables, and generators.
Most airports operate 24/7. Closing for renovations would result in lost revenue and accessibility for travelers, especially international travelers. The air freight shipping industry would likely face negative impacts if airports closed for renovations. It’s simply not feasible to shut down an airport for any length of time. Airports must also consider the impact of renovating versus building new in a thorough analysis presented with supporting data and facts to an internal review board.
Regulatory guidelines for aviation construction must be fulfilled to the satisfaction of regulatory agencies. Before any renovations can begin, airport authorities, like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), must review and approve a master plan provided by a team of architects, engineers, and additional subject matter experts (SMEs).
Airports are steadily packed with travelers, airport staff, and contractors. These plans need to account for bringing in more people and equipment into that same bustling environment without entirely hindering the movements of staff and travelers. Modernization and restoration extend beyond airport aesthetics and terminals. It addresses equipment reliability and safety by replacing aging infrastructure with new equipment and installing state-of-the-art technology to aid in equipment failure monitoring and detection.
Funding aviation infrastructure overhauls is another challenge faced by airports across the country due to revenue losses from the pandemic. Funding comes from a variety of sources, but the main federal source is the Airport Improvement Program (AIP) provides funding based on passenger volume. As a result of the pandemic, many could only perform critical maintenance to ensure safety. Other airports delayed or even canceled considerable infrastructure projects altogether.
As of 2021, according to the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS), 3,304 public-use airports operated in the U.S. Most of these facilities are in dire need of an infrastructure overhaul. Fortunately, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) awarded $25 billion in funding to the FAA to invest in airports across the country. The FAA plans to distribute $5 billion to airport terminals, $5 billion to air traffic facilities, and $15 billion to airport infrastructure.
Grant distributions began in July of 2022. Airports seeking to secure a grant must submit an application that meets FAA selection criteria, have a project plan that’s ready to begin, and adhere to guidelines outlined as part of the acceptance terms if selected.
The BIL funding only puts a small dent in the estimated cost of $237 billion over the next 10 years needed to cover maintenance, repairs, and implement airport infrastructure improvements. Airports are under intense pressure to begin plans for renovations to ensure operations run smoothly and continue to support the steady growth of travel numbers.
Airports are vital in the success of our economy—from the national level to the local level. The need to replace critical aging infrastructure is not going away—and time is running out as conditions continue to deteriorate. Click here to learn more about how thought leaders are addressing these issues with advanced technology and best practices.