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JE Dunn Construction’s team at Portland International Airport was in the middle of driving piles and constructing foundations when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States hard in March 2020. It had been working on various “enabling” projects for nearly two years and had finally reached the big moment—erecting the parking deck and office building for a new consolidated rental car facility. 

Instead, JE Dunn was forced to send its entire management team home for months, leaving only critical personnel, a safety manager and superintendents at the site.

Extending the deadline wasn’t an option, however. The project was a vital part of the airport’s five-year, more-than-$2-billion “PDX Next” program, so JE Dunn quickly transitioned to all-virtual meetings to keep things moving. “The bulk of the burden was carried on the shoulders of our superintendents,” says Stacey Flint, project manager. “They came to work every single day throughout the lockdown, while the rest of us worked from home watching everything remotely.”

The contractor implemented cleaning protocols, contracting with a service company to sanitize trailers, restrooms and other facilities, in addition to implementing a 100% mask policy and temperature screenings at the gates. “Our trade partners even got in on the act,” Flint says. “The HVAC contractor created a portable, plexiglass barrier on stands that enabled them to work right next to each other, literally six inches apart.”

Ben Bunge, project executive at The Weitz Co. in Des Moines, Iowa, says there were nearly 700 people working to build the new terminal at Kansas City International Airport when the pandemic hit. Without missing a beat, the “tri-venture” team of Weitz, Clarkson Construction Co. of Kansas City and Clark Construction of Bethesda, Maryland, divided the 75-person office staff into blue and red teams and prevented the teams from coming into contact with one another. 

A deep cleaning was also performed between each shift, and superintendents were tasked with staying within certain boundaries to prevent cross-contamination.

Letting the schedule slip on the $1.5 billion project—the largest single-infrastructure contract in city history—simply wasn’t an option. “We alternated one week on and one week off from home,” Bunge says. “By separating the teams, one group would be able to carry the weight of the project should the other group go down.”

Of course, similar stories were playing out everywhere. For airport construction in 2020 and 2021, disruptions became the rule rather than the exception. Commercial aviation suffered some of the worst blows from the pandemic. After a year of averaging 2.4 million passengers a day nationwide, the number dropped to a low of 87,534 passengers nationwide during the height of COVID-19 closures on April 14, 2020, according to Transportation Security Administration data.

Several projects were running full tilt when the pandemic hit, leading to snags and project delays due to health and safety concerns, supply chain disruptions and labor challenges.

A TSUNAMI OF CLAIMS

The unexpected and unprecedented nature of the pandemic brought with it a wave of “force majeure” claims from contractors at nearly every airport jobsite, many due to productivity issues and unexpected costs related to newly-imposed COVID-19 protocols.

That was certainly the case at the Portland International site, Flint says. “The cleaning and screening services had a significant impact on cost,” she says. “We paid for medical screeners to be on-site every day, and there was a significant amount of safety equipment, sanitizer, etc. We also paid people to clean the trailers twice a day and sanitize the restrooms.” 

In addition, JE Dunn set up a real-time video feed of the jobsite and hired Multivista of Tualatin, Oregon, to take 360-degree photos of each room twice a month. It was all at the request of the owner. “The Port of Portland went fully remote during the pandemic, so they asked us to provide video access in order to view the progress, as well as review the installations and rough-ins,” Flint says.

In many ways, though, the cost of the COVID-19 protocols has been overshadowed by mounting supply chain issues. When the economy began to reboot, “They hit the gas, but there was no fuel in the tank,” says Greg Grazzini, president and CEO of terrazzo specialty contractor Grazzini Brothers & Co. in St. Paul, Minnesota. 

For Grazzini, supply chain delays and price hikes became an all-too-real concern last spring, when its biggest supplier of resin (the binder used in terrazzo applications) imposed a 20% surcharge that has yet to be suspended. The binder typically accounts for approximately 80% of the materials cost of a terrazzo project, so nearly all of Grazzini’s projects—30% of which are at airports—have outstanding claims.

The subcontractor, in fact, has multiple COVID-19 and force majeure claims, totaling more than $1 million at various airport sites, “that we’re working through and we’re hoping to get compensated for,” Grazzini says. “All of our pricing was pre-pandemic.” 

Terry Bryan, a project manager with JE Dunn in Nashville, says he’s noticed significant price inflation in petroleum-based roofing materials, particularly insulation, adhesives and roof membranes. There have been other issues with finding aluminum extrusions and miscellaneous metals. “That makes it incredibly hard to forecast and estimate how much a job is going to cost when you’re facing a price increase every time you turn around,” Bryan says. 

As a result, some suppliers have become makeshift commodity brokers, buying materials from wherever they can find it, while others have had little choice but to increase prices. “In one case, we had the pricing locked in and the supplier told the roofer to tear up their quote,” Bryan says. “They couldn’t guarantee what the materials would cost until they shipped it to the jobsite, and it would take nine months for them to ship it.”

GETTING CREATIVE 

Some airport projects had to make significant adjustments in the pandemic’s aftermath. JE Dunn was just beginning construction of a new 12,000-square-foot expansion of the Delta Sky Club at Nashville International Airport when the world came to a halt. “We’d finished foundations and started steel erection when everything shut down,” says Bryan, who managed the project.

To save on upfront costs, Delta asked the contractor to find a way to finish the building’s core and shell while postponing completion. “They wanted to get it to a stopping point,” Bryan says. “Delta didn’t want to pay designers to redesign it as a core and shell, so they asked us to mark up the drawings and tell them what a core and shell should be. Essentially, they wanted to minimize the sunken costs that they would have to absorb once the project started back up.”

While Dunn has engineers on staff, the contractor instead relied upon its mechanical, electrical, fire protection, elevator and plumbing trade partners to offer suggestions. “We took all 20-something pages of the drawings and marked them up,” he adds. “We’re not designers, but we gave them our best guess as to what needed to be done to get it to a good stopping point. For example, we would recommend the installation of a particular duct, but not another, this electrical panel, but not another, etc.”

At Portland International, Flint says, the design team made significant, midstream changes to the interior layout to accommodate the new reality of COVID-19. “They revised the layouts to change the way desks were situated,” she adds. “They also added plexiglass dividers between the furniture and counter installations. It was all intended to spread people out more.”

Looking ahead, various, pandemic-friendly technologies will likely play a bigger role in airport design. Weitz’s Bunge expects that Kansas City International could eventually add biometrics technology at its new terminal. “Bio-screening and biometrics are going to be the wave of the future and will help in the COVID-19 and contactless world,” he says. “Biometrics” refers to unique physical characteristics, such as fingerprints, that can be used for automated recognition. At the Department of Homeland Security, for example, biometrics are used to detect and prevent illegal entry into the United States.

Interior finishes are just getting underway at the Kansas City site, with the first building not expected to enter the punch list phase until January 2022, so there is still time to add biometrics, or another technology, Bunge says.

“In the future of airports, there will be a focus on the elimination of close contact and interactions. For example, at KCI we are installing smart restrooms, which will tell patrons the wait times and when stalls are open.” 

As for Grazzini, he’s confident in terrazzo’s ability to adapt to the post-COVID-19 world. In fact, there is the potential for significant demand growth. “That’s one of the beauties of terrazzo in this environment,” he says. “It’s so easy to clean, and bacterial growth is virtually zero. There’s not a janitor out there who doesn’t like it.”

RELENTLESS PACE

Fortunately, there has been a silver lining amid the global pandemic and supply chain chaos. The dramatic drop in passenger numbers allowed some projects to increase their speed of construction. Salt Lake City airport officials, for example, bumped up the next phase of the airport’s construction by two years, potentially shaving $300 million off the project cost.

And at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, a five-year plan to remodel the facility’s interior flooring systems has been considerably accelerated.

In fact, schedules remained largely unchanged at many sites. The Houston Airport System continues its $1.3 billion IAH Terminal Redevelopment Program. Airport officials are pushing forward on one of the biggest parts of the program: combining terminals D and E to expand the international footprint at the airport.

The expansion is targeted toward improving the airport’s capacity and customer experience for international services. Construction on the new Mickey Leland International Terminal is underway and will serve as a hub between terminals D and E. The building will consolidate the ticketing lobby for international flights, create a larger security checkpoint area to expedite Transportation Security Administration lines and increase baggage handling capacity. The airport system expects the new international terminal will be completed by late 2024 or early 2025. 

The Salt Lake City Department of Airports’ new, $4.5 billion Salt Lake City Airport Redevelopment Program is on track to become the first major hub airport replacement built in the 21st century. The multiphase project will enable the airport to accommodate 26 million passengers annually and replaces the existing airport with two new linear concourses. In October, the project team marked a major milestone by topping out the construction of Phase 2. 

Ultimately, the Holder-Big-D Joint Venture will construct all new rental car facilities, a central terminal, South concourse, 3,600-car parking garage, new roadways, tunnels and underground utilities, as well as a modernized jet fueling system, airfield paving and central utility plant. 

Elsewhere, Newark Liberty International Airport is also moving forward with its $2.7 billion Terminal One, scheduled to open late this year.  

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