Terminal velocity



from left, Bill Ward, BMI, Castle Donington, England; David Buisson, PMP, Headland Project Management Ltd., Surrey, England; and Julian Foster, BAA, London, England




The rules were quite clear from the start.

Heathrow Airport in London, England was going in for a major overhaul of one of its terminals, but there would be absolutely no dust, no noise, no mess—and no daytime working. Basically, there was to be nothing that the millions of people traipsing through the project site might not like.

Each year, the airport handles 67 million passengers flying to more than 180 destinations in 90 countries. And no fewer than 20 million of those travelers pass through Terminal 1, the airport's oldest section. Designed and built over 40 years ago, it was cramped and crowded—hardly fitting for global jet setters.

Contaminated with asbestos, the terminal has been extensively altered over the years—but never totally overhauled—to cope with heightened security requirements and an increase in long-haul traffic.

It was obviously time for an upgrade.

Budgeted at £57.6 million, the revamp project touched almost every aspect of the passenger experience, from check-in to baggage handling.

And the terminal wasn't about to suspend operations. Only when all the passengers had gone for the day could the project's contractors converge on the site, squeezing in all the necessary work between the hours of 11 p.m. and 3:30 a.m.

British airports operator BAA Airports launched the project in May 2006 and brought in David Buisson, PMP, to lead the 30-strong team in a race against the clock to turn the concept into reality.


The number of
hours worked
on the project
without one
reportable incident

“We needed to get a clearer overall scheme design in place, then a production design that we could work to, and then make sure that all the resources—from external contractors to internal BAA departments—were in place to deliver it,” says Mr. Buisson, project manager at Headland Project Management Ltd., Surrey, England.

Along with its battle against time, the team had to deal with all the airlines that would call Terminal 1 home. Managers at BMI, the second-largest airline at the airport, openly feared the worst.

“We were very concerned indeed,” says Bill Ward, general manager for Heathrow operations at BMI, Castle Donington, England. “The impact on the smooth running of the product—the customer product and the airport experience product—was potentially very considerable.”

The risks were real, but it's amazing what a little competition can do.

British Airways was staking its claim in the new Terminal 5, giving the massive carrier and its Oneworld partners an edge over its rivals. Passengers could make their flight connections in a plush new building without the hassle of changing terminals.

Not to be outdone, BMI and the other 24 airlines in the Star Alliance wanted their own posh terminal. With that, the plan to demolish their existing home in Terminal 2 and move to a brand-new site dubbed Terminal 2A was born.

“The opening of Terminal 5 served as the enabler for the wholesale modernization of Heathrow to take place, and central to this is a new Terminal 2,” explains Julian Foster, BAA Terminal 1 portfolio manager and program leader.

While Terminal 2 was being demolished and its £1 billion replacement constructed, the Star Alliance carriers had to go somewhere. Terminal 1 was designated the temporary space for the airlines while their new home was being built. In addition, major Star Alliance partners United Airlines and Air Canada, previously located in Terminal 3, also made the temporary move to Terminal 1 before joining the others en masse in the move to Terminal 2A.

The good news was that the plan called for a relatively small amount of traditional construction work. Instead, facilities such as check-in desks and baggage conveyors were to be built off-site, tested, stripped down, shipped to a logistics holding area at Heathrow and installed at night.



Still, with so many players involved, schedule slippage wasn't an option. The timetable to move the airlines into Terminal 1 had been set in stone in a contract between BAA and Star Alliance.

And those deadlines were getting closer all the time.


Some fast footwork got the entire team and the main contractor housed in a single, large office—no small feat in Heathrow's tight quarters.

“I like to make sure that a project team follows a collaborative process to ensure effective working relationships,” Mr. Buisson says. “The challenge with this project was that the individuals involved came from many different organizations and had never worked together before. However, having everybody together in one place, as well as the main contractor with whom we'd be working, went a long way toward fostering effective and efficient collaboration.”

It also became apparent that external communication would be even more important. This wasn't going to be one of those projects where periodic updates and newsletters would assuage stakeholder interest.

“Airlines, government agencies and internal BAA resources such as Terminal 1 operations management all had concerns about what the project meant for them and what the implications would be from a functional, financial and aesthetic point of view,” says Mr. Buisson. “There's no point designing something like a check-in area that looks attractive if it takes 10 extra people to operate it.”

A November 2006 meeting between the project team, main contractors and stakeholders laid the ground rules for who would communicate what information when and how.

“The management of stakeholders was probably as challenging as the construction task itself,” Mr. Buisson sums up. “What emerged was a truly multifaceted communications strategy.”

The team aimed to go beyond merely reporting when moves and changes were scheduled to happen—they had to detail what those moves and changes involved, and how stakeholders might be affected.

Some of those stakeholders had very specific requirements. United Airlines, for example, would need its own 18-desk check-in facility, along with ticketing, customer service and baggage-handling areas.

“A greenfield
site is a ‘comfort
working in
terminals, with
millions of
multiple airlines,
pressures and
running close to
capacity, is
something of a
perfect storm.”

—Julian Foster, BAA




The amount BAA spends every month on the Heathrow Airport refurbishment program

The plan called for the United project to be finished in just 21 weeks. Tight, the team thought, but hardly impossible.

Then it dug up the floor.

“The first sign that this was going to be a far more difficult task than originally anticipated came when the flooring in the area was lifted,” recalls Mr. Buisson. “Rather than the continuation of the terrazzo floor tiling that we'd expected, it was simply plain concrete.”

It would all have to be tiled. Even worse, the underlying surface was uneven. The team had to figure out how to rip out the concrete floor in its entirety without damaging the steel structure of the building.

“It sounds easy, but underneath was one of the most congested airport baggage-handling areas in Europe,” explains Mr. Foster. “One piece of concrete falling loose would have jammed a conveyor and brought it to a halt. That would have been unacceptable to passengers and airlines, so we worked very hard at planning the work and monitoring construction activity.”

And because the area is located in an active part of the terminal, the floor had to be torn up section by section, night after night. Every morning, workers scrambled to get each area up to par for normal passenger usage by the time the terminal opened for business.

With so much going on, the team conducted quarterly meetings to review progress and identify issues for the next period. A rolling, five-week look-ahead issued weekly kept the project team, the main contractor, key suppliers and major stakeholders in sync.

Weekly onsite meetings with individual carriers during critical phases also kept airline management in the loop, an approach that was particularly effective in the case of BMI, adds Mr. Buisson.

“There were working groups in place, and we were fully involved in the decisions that were being made,” recalls Mr. Ward. “At times it felt like a little too much communication, but it was ultimately to our advantage.”

Prioritizing communication helped leverage one of the most precious resources available to the team: time. Daytime activities were prohibited, but as trust and experience built up, airlines and other stakeholders were happy to bend the rules.

“One of the secrets of success in a project like this is making every effort to squeeze the maximum out of the available working windows,” says Mr. Buisson. “If we had a quiet activity planned that could take place in a boarded-up area, we'd say, ‘Can't we do it during the day?' We didn't get a ‘yes’ all of the time—but enough of the time to make a difference.”

Just a few extra hours shaved time off the schedule and gave the bottom line a boost because contractors weren't paid overtime wages. When the project faced a major hiccup during construction, that extra time and money came in handy.

As it turned out, the project did have its fair share of turbulence.

Much of the work in the departures hall, for instance, involved bringing in specialist contractors to remove asbestos from the ceiling. On top of that, an increased power load from the additional equipment involved replacing part of the electricity sub-system, necessitating a temporary shutdown of the terminal for the first time in its history.

With space already tight, the terminal's luggage-handling system required tons of equipment to be located in a highly congested area. And that was only the beginning. It had to be installed in a roof void without any disruption to a busy duty-free shopping concession below—all while keeping passengers and airport personnel safe.


With the project coming close to completion, the team and its airline stakeholders got a vivid peek at just how badly things could go awry.

Terminal 5, the slick new British Airways home that had precipitated the Terminal 1 project, was a mess. Television footage beamed around the world, showing thousands of stranded passengers, countless lost and misplaced bags, and flight delays measured in days, not hours. For both BAA and British Airways, those few days in April 2008 turned into a public relations nightmare.

The Terminal 1 project team paid close attention, determined to avoid a repeat performance.

“We took the learning from Terminal 5 and used it to ensure that as we opened new infrastructure and moved airlines, the airport's operation continued smoothly,” Mr. Foster says.

The first confirmation that the Terminal 1 team took those lessons to heart came on 4 July 2008, when United Airlines and Air Canada moved their operations to Terminal 1. Almost a year later, on 10 June 2009, the second wave of airlines moved in without incident.

“The world's press was watching and waiting—and nothing happened,” says Mr. Foster. “We are mindful that issues at Heathrow can make international headlines. The story these days is that Terminal 5 continues to work very well and Heathrow Airport is changing.”

And it will keep changing for a while.

“The work at Terminal 1 was the first set in this complicated transformation program,” Mr. Foster explains. “Once we had renovated it, airlines could move in. This created space in other terminals so that they could also be modernized. BAA is spending around £70 million every month on redeveloping the airport.”

At least one key stakeholder praised the air traffic control.

“BAA managed it very well,” says Mr. Ward. “Despite a long period of pain and disruption, we're very happy.”

Even with a few glitches, the project didn't just come in on time. It also came in under budget, despite incurring unplanned costs of £6.3 million due to unexpected out-of-scope work such as the flooring replacement, adds Mr. Buisson.

“The most difficult projects are always those taking place in existing terminals,” sums up Mr. Foster, a 20-year Heathrow veteran. “A greenfield site is a ‘comfort job’—but working in existing terminals, with millions of passengers, multiple airlines, security pressures and operations running close to capacity, is something of a perfect storm.”

For his part, Mr. Buisson credits traditional project management disciplines and strong teamwork.

“There were a couple of immovable dates by which work had to be completed,” he says, “and I’m delighted the team worked so well together to meet them.” PM


The amount of money spent on work beyond the project’s original scope


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