Digitalisation in airport construction

In the era of fast-changing technologies, the future may be unpredictable, but one thing seems certain – the passenger demand for air travel will continue to grow. This should have a positive impact on the economy, but is the aviation industry prepared for such a boom?

digital twin

Overview of the airport construction industry

The technology advances in aviation allow millions of people easily to search, book and check-in online. According to The International Air Transport Association (IATA), the present passenger numbers will double by 2037. At the global level, this will generate huge benefits for the world in terms of better connectivity and opening substantial amount of job opportunities. However, the increased demand will also increase the risk of an infrastructure crisis.

From a need to solution

Building and maintaining an airport is a complex, multi-year undertaking. Any new construction project or upgrade is undoubtedly a challenging endeavor. In such complex building process visibility and traceability are key for the overall project implementation.

Any airport infrastructure project requires the participation of a multitude of various organisations. This could include a thousand engineers and two-thousand construction workers, all of whom sometimes are coming from different companies. There are also many consultants, contractors, sub-contractors and suppliers involved who drive specific communication and collaboration requirements. If such projects are run in the traditional way, relying on manual and paper-based communications, it is almost certain that projects would be stalled due to missing or delayed communication.

The massive amounts of documents being generated – correspondence, drawings, specifications, further clarifications and approvals – coming from these multiple parties, brings the need for project control and data governance. There is a need for a credible “source of truth” and a standardised system for information management that will allow the activities of all involved parties to be monitored and tracked, replicated and optimised.

Even if we assume that many companies have already started applying digital methods in airport construction, the usage of multiple software systems creates chaos and serves the needs only partially.

The implementation of true Building Information Modeling (BIM) seems now a mandatory condition, to achieve the required security, efficiency and cost-effectiveness. But as the industry is flooded with hundreds of systems providing only visually appealing images of the construction objects, many could forget about the essential part – the “I” part of the BIM – the data.

Data-based information management is crucial to break away from unwanted deviations, manual time-consuming practices as well as siloed processes.

The industry needs a robust data strategy based on relevant international standards.This is the first step to the digital transformation of airport construction.

With consistent and meaningful data as the basis it would be possible for all the above-mentioned actors to start working in a centralised platform that could address the specific needs of each stakeholder. This would boost collaboration and enable seamless data exchange internally and within any third-party software.

Machines need to speak to machines. This is only possible by using a common language, built upon meaningful, standard-based data. Interoperability is of key importance and it is achievable if adopting the right approach and tools.

London`s Heathrow is leading the way

Heathrow airport has 80 million passengers per annum, 2 full-length runways and 4 operational terminals. But only few know that the airport has been operating at 98% capacity for over a decade. Heathrow’s runways are full!

As a result, the airport will construct a third runway by 2026. According to their masterplan they will complete its expansion by 2050. The plan includes diverting rivers, moving roads and rerouting the highway M25 through a tunnel under the new runway.

digital twin

According to the Heathrow Expansion Program Director, the airport will embrace the digital transformation and thus deliver world-class program controls:

“Our goal is to be the first airport operator in the world who can leverage value from our digital assets, allowing our people to work in a safe environment, design and plan in a collaborative environment and operate a fully integrated asset system”.

To achieve such overall excellence, Heathrow is in the right position to have a full digital transformation. This means they need to develop a digital portfolio and implement an overall digital strategy.

As we saw in the case with Heathrow, the digital shift to better processes in the airport construction has already started. Like Heathrow, other infrastructural giants should also revise their digital strategy, plan and react better to the changing built environment.


Airports are complex infrastructural projects and are constantly under reinvention to provide the best possible service to passengers. Decision-makers need to move with the times to ensure that they have the best information about the infrastructure developed.

Digital approaches are being implemented, but the construction industry still lacks maturity in terms of the data part of “BIM”. The airport construction sector is not an exception.

To achieve higher visibility, new level of collaboration and improved communication flow, the airport construction needs to initiate thet shift towards a more data-centric approach.

By using digitally-enabled methods and operating with standardised data, airport construction could solve many of its pain-points related to the inefficient information exchange leading to project delays and increased costs.

This will speed up approval processes and trigger interoperability accross software applications. All of this will result in higher security, efficiency and cost-effectiveness crucial for building the airports of the future.

The article was updated on February 13, 2020

The article was published on December 9, 2019