Cruising attitude

July 12, 2007

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, one of the busiest commercial airports in the world, hosts approximately 88 million passengers a year. To meet continued growth demands, an expected volume of 120 million passengers by 2012, the city of Atlanta is executing a $6.2 billion, 15-year capital improvement program to expand the airport’s capacity. In fact, the program has already achieved great success—completing the first major milestone, Runway 10-28, 11 days early and $102 million under budget.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, one of the busiest commercial airports in the world, hosts approximately 88 million passengers a year. To meet continued growth demands, an expected volume of 120 million passengers by 2012, the city of Atlanta is executing a $6.2 billion, 15-year capital improvement program to expand the airport’s capacity. In fact, the program has already achieved great success—completing the first major milestone, Runway 10-28, 11 days early and $102 million under budget.

Infrastructure projects of this size are always a challenge, but the Atlanta project was especially complex. The runway was built over a 10-lane interstate highway, crossed into multiple municipalities and required the project managers to reroute miles of roads. All the while, airport management needed to ensure that flights continued to run smoothly; otherwise, the ripple effect of delays would snarl air traffic nationwide.

“I wouldn’t be exaggerating when I say that all eyes were watching us,” said Dwight Pullen, director of Runway 10-28. “We were very aware that building this runway was a project of national significance.”

Atlanta’s secret to success—institute strong program management, employ innovative technology and collaborate closely with all major stakeholders.

The monster peach

Pullen oversaw the $1.3 billion effort that would involve five separate firms and more than 200 people working on 22 separate projects. Project managers worked with the three cities and two counties on which the airport stands, as well as state and federal agencies to obtain the permits necessary to start runway construction.

The construction itself posed significant challenges—starting with the acquisition of 900 acres of land. In addition to relocating residences and businesses and rerouting local roads to make room for the runway, the team worked closely with the Atlanta utility company to remove overhead power lines and build a new power substation underground. To prepare for construction, they moved 17 million cu yd of fill material for embankment using a 5-mile-long conveyor belt, a more environmentally and cost-friendly alternative to trucking the fill.

The runway was constructed over I-285, a 10-lane thoroughfare that serves as one of the Atlanta metro area’s main arteries. The highway tunnel, a first in the state of Georgia, can accommodate 18 lanes of traffic and runs for 1,264 ft directly under the new runway. The tunnel roof itself, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, needed to support an Airbus A-380 or Boeing 747, which can weigh up to 1 million lb. In order to meet these requirements, the team used 140-ft beams weighing 195,000 lb to reinforce the tunnel. The tunnel was constructed while the highway remained open to avoid completely disrupting commuter traffic patterns. To accomplish this, the team oversaw multiple traffic lane shifts over three years.

Officials estimate that the completed runway will save the airline industry $5 million per week in reduced delays. However, the project managers also had their own hard deadline. Every day that the runway wasn’t finished after May 27, 2006, the expected completion date, would cost the contractors $5 million in penalties. They needed an effective, efficient process to manage this program and get the runway done on time and on budget.

In runway fashion

The runway team was not hierarchically driven as some organizations are, with a set agenda that comes from the top-down. Instead, management let the needs of its projects dictate the way forward.

“We’re a project-led organization,” said Pullen. “A lot of organizations don’t make that decision. But, early on, airport management decided that we were going to be led by our projects. Project managers are the core of how we execute.”

Interested parties put a lot of thought into how to structure the program team. For example, they established a board of directors that had all of the relevant disciplines represented: a planning director, a project management director, a construction and engineering director and an environmental director. These directors led consultants and city staff to create the entire organization, which made a project-driven operation possible.

To truly operate as a project-led organization, the Runway 10-28 team knew it needed strong program management to ensure that the 22 projects were all on track and that the team worked toward the common goal of opening a runway by May 27 without going over budget.

The groundwork for success was laid long before construction began. To effectively execute a program as complex as this one, Pullen knew they needed to be able to assess the status of all projects at a glance. To do this, they had to standardize processes, reporting and technology across the Runway 10-28 program.

All together

Primavera was chosen as the program management solution for all the runway projects. All contractors involved had to agree to use the approach as a prerequisite to bid.

“We knew that with a program this size we were going to have to get everyone on board using the same technology,” said Curtis Wilson, the program cost and scheduling manager for Runway 10-28. “[The program management solution] enabled our contractors to resource- and cost-load their schedules so we could track what the project managers were spending and whether the work in place matched the contractor’s application for payments.”

The team developed baselines for each of the 22 projects, and program management made it possible for them to perform “what-if” scenarios that helped them see where they could further improve upon their plan.

“We could identify alternative plans,” Wilson continued, “and lay them out, side-by-side, to see how we could cut the project back by six months or eight months. We could do risk assessments to see which activities could go on in parallel to cut out time in the runway construction.”

But a standard technology platform was only part of the picture. Again, long before contracts were assigned, the team standardized all operating, business and construction processes and reports. Milestones, procedures and processes were all written into the contracts. Everyone knew exactly what would be expected of them from the very beginning.

Just as important, Hartsfield-Jackson strictly enforced these standards. Contractors were not paid, for example, until all costs and schedules had been uploaded in the proper format.

“All of our memos referenced the work breakdown structure,” Pullen said. “It became integrated into our program management plan, into our policies, into our procedures. Everything referenced it. Everything dictated and spelled out that you had to follow it this way. If a document didn’t have it, the document was rejected.”

Serving stakes

The most difficult challenge of the project was not necessarily the actual construction of Runway 10-28 over the interstate. The most difficult challenge, according to Pullen, was negotiating the agreements with the three cities and two counties in which the airport is located, and the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT).

Hartsfield-Jackson sits in a unique place. The airport is located in the city of Atlanta, which also owns and operates it, but it also is located inside Fulton County and Clayton County. In addition, the airport touches the cities of College Park and Hapeville. As a result, early on in the project inter-governmental agreements had to be drawn up to cover condemnation rights, permitting, exchange of properties and a myriad of other issues.

“There were tough negotiations,” Pullen said. “We had smaller counties and smaller cities that wanted to help the runway, but they also wanted their own stake.”

Pullen’s first piece of advice: Get a good legal team. “That’s not necessarily for dealing with litigation,” he explained. “It’s really to keep the managers knowledgeable about the thick agreements. We had some very large agreements and, as individuals, we couldn’t possibly understand or have memorized every single detail, but those details are often crucial to success.”

Keeping good relationships with key players also was essential. Top managers kept in close touch with city and county governments, informing them on a regular basis about the runway’s progress. And within the budget, the team included a “cushion” so that they could proactively solve issues and address changes as they happened, without having to ask for additional funds.

Pullen and his team continually worked to understand what city and county council members needed to get out of the project. In one case, the project required relocation of a four-lane road because it was in the path of the future runway. The council members knew the airport needed to relocate the road, but also knew constituents would not be pleased to have the road closed for as long as was initially proposed. In a compromise solution, the project team was able to open the road early, initially using two lanes.

“It really took a lot of negotiation,” Pullen said, “a lot of dealing with the contractors and engineers to come up with a solution that would satisfy everyone.”

Last, in this electronic age, it is very easy to rely on e-mail for communications. Sometimes, however, there is no substitute for face time. In one instance, the construction team needed access to one of the interstate cells to keep the tunnel construction project moving. The team initially worked through the construction manager and the contractor, but to no avail. To make it work, Pullen personally picked up the phone, scheduled a meeting and went down to visit the GDOT in order to understand its needs and come to a resolution.

“They were holding up a close-out of one project, and were holding up a decision on another project,” Pullen said. “We just couldn’t afford to have any more delays. Simply picking up the phone, going down there, sitting face-to-face, to hear their needs and make a commitment, it was just that simple. At times, I think it’s simply open, face-to-face communication that can get you a lot further.

“It was very gratifying to see them at the runway opening and shaking their hands,” Pullen continued, “because together we were able to get a lot accomplished.”

In fact, by finishing Runway 10-28 early, the airport was able to close down another main runway to do some much needed repairs and maintenance, a $60 million, three-month project, without affecting airport traffic at all. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is currently operating all five runways, while continuing in its improvement plan to better the experience of all travelers and operate more efficiently. Now that’s a smooth landing.

About The Author: Sappe is the engineering and construction marketing manager for Primavera Systems.

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