Airport Renovation: The Jet Set Gets a Makeover

Patience is a virtue with complicated projects of this nature.

A bustling airport is a sign of a vibrant community with a healthy economy; however, it doesn’t make for a great construction site.

Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI), one of North America’s busiest and fastest growing, sits in the middle of the U.S.’s fourth-ranked metropolitan area. Experts project it will serve 30 million passengers in 2010, up 10 million from 2001.

With that kind of growth, improvements were inevitable, and after the Maryland General Assembly approved a $1.8 billion expansion project, Baltimore electrical contractor Gill-Simpson accepted the challenge of working in a cramped, security-conscious job site open 24 hours a day. As subcontractor to Whiting-Turner Inc., Gill-Simpson’s contract involved renovations to the terminal and adjacent garage.

One of the biggest concerns was safety. The renovations replace footbridges linking the garage to an upper-level roadway normally clogged with cars, taxis, limos and buses. The lower-level roadway, which skirts the baggage-claim area, is heavily traveled, too. On both roads, pedestrians must use crosswalks to reach the terminal.

Though posted with stop signs and patrolled by airport security, the walks are potentially dangerous. Gill-Simpson vice president Bob Miller said new “skywalks” will penetrate the terminal’s façade and hook up to a mezzanine level with escalators that route passengers to the terminal’s upper and lower levels.

“That’s really probably the biggest part of this project,” said Miller. “It’s going to eliminate people having to cross the roadway.”


But as construction continues, the airport, run by the Maryland Aviation Administration (MAA), must cater to thousands of people a day. Alex Noorani, MAA’s manager of construction, said it’s like having people working on your front door. The project’s length—begun in 2001 and slated for a 2006 completion—adds to the difficulties. He wants satisfied customers; BWI’s slogan is “The Easy Come, Easy Go Airport.”

“Keeping the building operational while renovating it is always a big challenge,” Noorani said. “We have to make sure the curb space remains available, keep the doors open and the skycap operation going. Of course, we try not to close too many vestibules at the same time.”

The “vestibules” are the six-story stairwells that provide garage egress and foundations for the skywalks. This construction phase calls for three skybridges with another slated for a future monorail/people-mover that connects rental lots and a satellite garage that’s also part of the expansion.

Miller said Gill-Simpson will “self-perform” the lighting, fire alarms, paging systems, emergency phone systems and CCTV for the vestibules and skywalks, which are climate-controlled and have moving sidewalks. In addition, they’ll provide street lighting for lane expansion on the upper-level roadway. Near the center skywalk, a foundation is being prepared for a substation that will power the new additions. It’s a double-ended, 2,500kVa unit with a 2,500kVa transformer at each end. The voltage for each transformer is 13,800-480/277Y.

“There’s a considerable amount of underground duct banks with new feeders that are running all over the place that tie back into the existing substations and substations that are removed back to the airport switchyard,” said Miller.

Night moves

The duct banks and substation feed will take three more months to install. The duct banks go beneath the roadway and traffic volume necessitates graveyard-shift work.

Gill-Simpson Field Supervisor Mark Myers oversees a 13-man daytime crew. But at 11 p.m., five journeymen and a foreman report to the site ready. Their access is limited to 11 p.m., to 6 a.m., during which high-voltage and data splicing, including 3,600-pair telephone cable and 250-count fiber optic, is performed.

There’s a $2,500 a day fine if work goes past deadline, though they haven’t been late yet. Since they need precious time to secure the road before works starts and to clean up as deadline approaches, the crew works about five hours a night.

“That hurts,” Myers said. “You’re paying a guy eight hours for four-and-a-half hours of work.”

Myers said the airport was not a “normal construction site.” Lack of space and security were two things that contributed to that assessment. The staging area and construction offices are five miles away. All material has to be shuttled back and forth by truck. If something is forgotten, an apprentice has to fetch it.

“We cannot receive any of our material at the job site ... So the planning is just a nightmare and it’s also a key to getting the job done in a timely fashion,” Miller said. But Gill-Simpson has been able to stage its work and plan as much as a week ahead. “So we put material in certain areas that we can set up to work a week at a time. But, despite the best planning, there are still pitfalls and a certain amount of time is lost being that far away.”

Gill-Simpson does have a small area cordoned off in the garage; but it’s not a true office.

“The biggest problem is not being able to do your work in a normal way, not being able to attack the job,” Myers said. “I’ve never had a job without an office on-site or without material handy. But we’re getting the learning curves down.”

The MAA and construction-management group Parsons Brinckerhoff, Quade and Douglas handle security and job-site inspections. Unattended material and equipment can be seized. Miller said two “electrically oriented” personnel from Parsons follow the work daily.

“They are very diligent about monitoring,” Miller said. “They patrol the project extremely carefully to make sure safety is a prime concern. And there is no problem with cleanup.”

Myers said only “nickel-and-dime” stuff has been confiscated but all equipment must be identified with stickers, even hand tools. Myers said he understood their safety concerns but security sometimes didn’t know what real construction tools look like. In which case, a roto-hammer might be mistaken for high-tech weaponry. The MAA is always on site, said Myers, and in full force.

“They are by the book and not everything on a construction site is by the book,” he said. “But it’s best just to play it by their rules.”

The MAA’s Noorani said airport security has been a grave concern, long before Sept. 11, 2001.

“There’s always been requirements for identification badging on personnel,” Noorani said, adding that all construction workers go through an MAA training program. “They go through the process of what areas they can work and what areas they need to wear badges. For the most part, for what Whiting-Turner and Gill-Simpson are doing, their work is on the public side of the airport, away from the aircraft, so there are fewer restrictions

“However, even within those areas,” Noorani said, “there are requirements for their vehicles to be identified, for the folks to be identified. There are roving security people who go around to make sure the site is secure.”

The EC liaison

Gill-Simpson bid the job in August 2001 and Miller said a $150 million contract was awarded to Whiting-Turner in early 2002. Gill-Simpson got their contract in April 2002 and started work the next month, contacting vendors that were supplying all the components. Since it was a government job, extra yards of red tape were involved.

Whiting-Turner has a liaison handling the mechanical and electrical contractors, something Miller called “relatively new in our business.” Miller said he always talked directly to the engineers before, either in person or through a request for information (RFI).

Gill-Simpson has contracted often with Whiting-Turner, which has its headquarters in Baltimore and is ranked by Engineering News-Record as the country’s 13th-largest contractor. Miller, who has been in the business 42 years, reasons the general contractor has had problems in the past with contractors who haven’t performed.

However, Miller said it’s not as bad as it sounds, the liaison has been cooperative, but “it’s another layer of bureaucracy that delays getting answers, and on a project like this, getting answers is a key to moving forward.”

Fazed by the phases

Because the job site is an open area with a lot of public access, Miller said all parties “have to be careful safety-wise and PR-wise.” Still, the MAA’s project phasing concerned him. The project’s core—the middle skywalk and “orientation center,” a kind of pre-terminal in the garage that directs pedestrian traffic—was scheduled last.

“Which meant that we have things that run from one end of the garage to the other. And if you’re going to do the middle section last, how do you tie all that together?” Miller said. “And that was creating a tremendous problem for all the trades. They were asking us, you’re going to have to do the core section as a temporary.”

The phasing is set to be changed, but as of early May, Gill-Simpson hadn’t seen the revamped schedule. It had been reviewed and re-reviewed during a four-month process between Whiting-Turner and Parsons, and Miller said a seminar on the new schedule was pending. Still, there had been a lot of jumping from vestibule to vestibule and Miller hasn’t had a single area where he can settle in and get the job done.

But Myers said it was hard to gripe, especially with four solid years of work ahead, and Miller added he’s been proud of his crew.

“I have as good a quality electricians and supervisors out there as you could possibly have. I give them direction and forget about it,” he said.

An airport is an octopus

Mike Roberts is a project manager for URS Engineering, which, like Parsons, has extensive airport construction experience. URS work on the BWI expansion includes the satellite garage. Roberts said the project had a “funny” beginning.

The expansion was developed by BWI’s biggest client, Southwest Airlines, and funded by them with MAA having a keen interest. When the state had bonding capacity, Roberts said, it planned to buy it back. But the state found another bonding mechanism, and as URS was completing design, MAA became the client.

“And that’s kind of a trick because an airport and airline do not have precisely aligned interests,” said Roberts. “At that point, you’ve been answering to one and trying to satisfy the other, then you’re trying to answer to the other one and satisfy the one, and I think we have a design that does that pretty well.”

One aspect to airport construction, Roberts said, is that, even though your check comes from one place, there isn’t just one client. With these competing mindsets, the designer must figure out where the interests meet and produce a design that works for everyone. One of the BWI’s problems is that it’s “a very thin site and was “never intended for the kind of building and the traffic and the volume we’re fitting into it.”

“I think the designed developed, I’m not sure there were a lot of design changes. We were still developing it well into our construction-drawing phase. And I think that’s a function of a really big, complex project ... The whole thing is a kind of organic process,” Roberts said. “Once you get into a big project like an airport, you start to realize that it’s just all these pieces, it’s like an octopus and you’re wrestling with all these pieces. You push one down and another pops up and you keep doing that until finally, you just wear down the octopus.”

FULMER is a former associate editor for ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR magazine and a freelance writer specializing in the industry. He may be reached at


About the Author

John Fulmer

Freelance Writer
John Fulmer is a freelance writer based in Joppa, Md., and former editor of ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR magazine. He can be reached at .

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