Keeping things running on the ground

posted on 6th April 2018

Airside International talks with John Means, facilities director at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (officially the world’s busiest passenger airport) about the myriad of responsibilities and challenges he faces on a daily basis

Q. COULD YOU GIVE ME SOME IDEA OF THE NATURE AND SCALE OF YOUR TASK AS FACILITIES DIRECTOR AT

HARTSFIELD-JACKSON?

A. As facilities director at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, my responsibility is to maintain the ‘built infrastructure’ of the site – including all buildings, which cover over 8.5 million square feet. In addition, the team and I must accommodate the needs of 2,500 daily flights and 96 million passengers per year. A little more than a half million square feet of our facilities are dedicated to cargo warehousing and contain some of the most sophisticated conveyor and queuing systems in the world.

Atlanta’s airport is the largest employer in the state of Georgia and delivers a regional impact of nearly US$35 billion. Our above-ground assets are estimated at a worth of over $4.6 billion – with that figure ranging closer to $20 billion when land, roads, runways, ramps, taxiways and underground infrastructure are included.

Q. WHAT RESOURCES DO YOU HAVE UNDER YOUR WING TO MAINTAIN THAT INFRASTRUCTURE AND THOSE FACILITIES?

A. We are organised under Planning and Development (P&D), which encompasses engineering, planning, sustainability, asset management and facilities. All in all, this comprises roughly 100 full-time employees (FTEs) that report to the Department of Aviation (a bureau of the City of Atlanta) and another 150 contract engineer employees. Our jobs focus on managing that 8.5 million square feet by leveraging contractors like Atlanta Airlines and Terminal Corporation (AATC) with 75 FTEs and thousands of contract employees working in the terminals each day, with the objective of handling the maintenance and operational duties of the airlines (our lessees).

We serve the Department of Aviation and act in the role of owner (the City of Atlanta owns the airport) and thus we supervise the maintenance implementation of all contractors and track their effectiveness at minimising total cost of ownership and maximising equipment life and productivity. Our annual operating direct budget is in the millions, but the capital budget we control or influence is over $6 billion for the next 20 years.

Q. THE CONCEPT OF ‘STRATEGIC FACILITIES MANAGEMENT’ COMES UP A LOT; IS IT PARTICULARLY RELEVANT TO AN AIRPORT, AND ESPECIALLY SO TO A MASSIVE HUB LIKE ATLANTA?

A. Strategic Facilities Management covers a lot of territory: from the basics of defining the vision, mission and purpose to the detailed and enlightening work of working out your strategic competencies, and how you can best leverage these to become a major winner in the marketplace. Airports and airlines are engaged in a long-cycle business and so everything we do requires long-term thinking. This means that, whilst other businesses might think of a three-to-five-year time horizon as long-term, we’re envisioning demand and market conditions for typically 20 to 30 years in the future.

Because Atlanta is the busiest hub in the US, we face many special challenges. We also sit in the fastest-growing region in the country and have the world’s largest passenger carrier and second-largest cargo carrier based here. We have – and need – many variables to plan and forecast to accommodate demands that are steadily changing. This means a lot of collaboration and teamwork, investing heavily in early planning with key stakeholders so that costly mistakes are kept to a minimum.

Q. CAN YOU TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT SOME OF THE FM AND INFRASTRUCTURE PROJECTS YOU HAVE UNDERTAKEN AT HARTSFIELD-JACKSON IN RECENT TIMES?

A. Our airport is now over 35 years old, which means many of the mechanical and electrical systems we installed years ago have reached end-of-life or become obsolete. That’s why we’re embarking upon a $350 million modernisation project that will improve many of our systems. In fact, we recently invested $75 million to improve our baggage handling and screening systems, $70 million to improve a portion of our air conditioning and control systems and yet another $70 million to replace roofs. These improvements will help save millions of dollars in energy efficiency, render improved customer comfort and reduce the cost of maintenance.

Q. WHAT DO YOU SEE AS THE PRIMARY BENEFITS BEHIND EFFECTIVE FM AND ARE SOME OF THESE BENEFITS UNIQUE TO AN AIRPORT, AND ESPECIALLY TO A GATEWAY’S AIRSIDE ENVIRONMENT?

A. The fundamentals of FM are not unique to airports. Everyone needs effective communications, up-to-date technologies, feedback systems to help manage maintenance and metrics to track how we’re doing at staying on plan – all whilst keeping a constant eye on sustainable stewardship that reflects a genuine, socially responsible attitude toward customers, employees and stakeholders.

These, and the rest of the FM fundamentals, are just good business. The difference at Atlanta Airport is scale. At major transport hubs everything is much bigger than other businesses: real estate is bigger, equipment is bigger, etc.

These factors mean that we must be more prudent and smarter than most, and – with supreme experience within the airport, airline and city – luckily we’ve been blessed with a lot of terrific talent in all categories.

Q. CAN OTHER GATEWAYS AND HUBS LEARN FROM THE WAY FM IS CONDUCTED AT ATLANTA?

A. I’m certain we can all learn from each other, but Atlanta has had to face a host of challenges quicker than some. For example, we have a tremendous volume of flights and passengers, which is why we invested in a light rail system over 20 years ago to enhance the ease of getting around inside the airport.

Also, given the air traffic we manage, we’ve had to invest in highly sophisticated baggage handling, air traffic control, security and people-moving systems. They all work together to get visitors to and from gates as quickly as possible.

I would estimate we have some of the quickest turnarounds in the industry. How else could we have a take-off or landing on average every 30 seconds?

Q. YOU PERSONALLY ARE AFFILIATED TO THE ROYAL INSTITUTION OF CHARTERED SURVEYORS (RCIS); HOW HAS RICS SUPPORTED YOU IN THE IMPLEMENTATION OF FM?

A. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) is a major inspiration for our strategic approach to FM. The organisation is committed to driving quality and performance within the FM sector, as well as helping to professionalise it, and we back this 100%.

One of the main problems facilities managers face is that it can be hard for business leaders to grasp the full concept and the value it adds. However, our affiliation with RICS and use of its resources has helped us to learn and master the FM craft