Creating Airports by Systems Engineering: doing it right the first time

Imagine an airport that is modernizing its core facilities. An airport which is planning a renovation project of significant size to modernize and redesign the passenger concourses. The airport organized an opening party and celebrated the opening of the new modernized facility, but days after the opening the facility had to be closed down. The fire department disapproved the escape routes of the facility. The dimensions of these routes were based on the existing regulations for existing facilities, but regulations for new buildings have been changed and the project organization was not aware. Failure costs added up to millions, but more importantly, the facility was not available for operations.

This imaginary story may seem as a rare and occasional story to you, but in fact it is not an incident. Airports develop continuously in order to meet the ever growing and changing demand. Unfortunately, it is way to often that we see projects on airports exceeding budget and planning and not fulfilling the demands of stakeholders. This is not because people do not do their best, it is because working in an implicit way within a complex environment is disastrous.

Optimal results through System Engineering

It is in the interest of airports to meet the requirements of their customers (the traveler, airlines, partners and other stakeholders), and to keep Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) within the limits of what is acceptable. These are often under tension: requirements cost money and costs are not properly constrained because not every requirement is always pictured correctly. Systems Engineering, helps with making the right choices. How? By using the principles of SE, which outline the need to keep the  goals and requirements of stakeholders in mind when making decisions. Systems Engineering helps to decrease costs of failure because ‘management by failure’ changes in ‘first time right management’, simply by thinking before doing.

So how does this work for airports?

The Systems Engineering method is being applied on the project ‘Area A’ at Schiphol. The Area A creates a large expansion of the airport with a new terminal, pier, enlargement of the air-sided infrastructure, the baggage system, garages and a reassembly of the land-sided road system. The investment amounts to 1.5 billion euros. Key question is how to control this project considering the fact that the renovation works are carried out in the middle of an existing and full operational environment.

The principles of Systems Engineering were implemented from the start in the development of the project. As a starting point, the objectives of the project were structured in the layered triangle approach. Using this approach enables the project team to work top-down.

To specify and document the requirements for the project, a set of questions where defined:

  • Which needs do the stakeholders have? These will be documented in the client requirement specification.
  • Which functions must be made possible within Area A in order to meet the need of the stakeholders? These will be documented in the function analysis.
  • Which systems and subsystems are necessary to provide these functions? These will be structured in the system breakdown.
  • Which performances must be provided? These performances will be documented in functional requirements belonging to each system or subsystem.
  • Which possible solutions are available per system or subsystem and how do they score on project ambitions and TCO?
  • Does it suffice? Information for each level of detail in the design will be verified with the requirements and validated with the stakeholders. This way we quickly identify undesirable solutions before detailed designs are performed.


Would you like to know how Systems Engineering can help you develop your airport into an airport of tomorrow? Contact us! We offer a team of consultants with knowledge of airports and extensive experience in the application of Systems Engineering.


Figure: Definition and Design triangles

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