Airport Consultants Council’s Podcast The Hold Room with Carrie Shaeffer

Today Max is joined by Carrie Shaeffer, Director of Aviation at Swinerton Builders and Board Members for the Airport Consultants Council. In this episode, Carrie shares best practices for managing a construction project at an airport and highlights the benefits of being involved with the Airport Consultants Council.
The Hold Room, Season 2 Episode 9 Transcript TJ:
Welcome to The Hold Room with ACC: a quick update on all things relating to airport development as well as the Airport Consultants Council. Laura: This episode is part of the Passenger Experience series hosted by ACC’s Terminal and Facilities Committee. In this series, we are collecting the experiences and perspectives about the future of passenger travel, including changing demographics (such as the U.S. population aging and becoming more multi-cultural), new technologies, labor and supply chain shortages, and what the future may have in store. Thank you for joining us in the Hold Room!
Paula: Welcome back to The Hold Room. Today Max is joined by Carrie Shaeffer, Director of Aviation at Swinerton Builders and Board Members for the Airport Consultants Council. In this episode, Carrie shares best practices for managing a construction project at an airport and highlights the benefits of being involved with the Airport Consultants Council.
Max: Welcome to the hold room, everyone. We are excited to have Carrie Shaeffer here with Swinerton. Carrie, could you go ahead and introduce yourself and what you do on a day-to-day basis?
Carrie: Sure thing, I’m Carrie Shaeffer. I’m a Vice President at Swinerton. We are a construction company that primarily deals in construction management at list and design build. We still performed several trades, including mass timber and cross laminated timber through our group called Timberline. I personally have been in construction for 35 years, and I’ve been the National Director focused 100% on aviation at Swinerton for the last five years. In addition to that, I chair ACC’s Finance and Project Delivery Committee this year, and I joined the Board of Directors for ACC back in the fall of 2022, very much enjoying that experience.
Max: Awesome! What are some of the evolving trends that you’re seeing these days in airport construction projects?
Carrie: A big overall concern of airports right now is the concept of stability, and for us, from the construction point of view, this includes constant accessibility, no hiccups at all in security because building systems are going down or communications are going down because of construction projects. We have to recognize that we have to keep the airport operations flowing or else the passenger experience will definitely be affected, and a good construction manager contributes to the design and engineering of the new facility by performing really thorough investigations. It’s amazing what one finds below an airport. Sometimes it’s pieces of the old airport and the old airfield, but usually it’s a maze of old abandoned utilities and then more modern utility distribution running through that. – and I would note that there are some great emerging multimodal technologies for better modeling the underground space, which is really exciting thing for us and planning construction.
Max: Would that be technologies like BIM?
Carrie: Yes, when I say multimodal, there are a few companies out there that are combining ground penetrating radar and other scanning techniques that have been used. They’re enhanced now so they can use them pointed underground and we can actually use them to model.
Max: Are you more focused on, say, airfield construction or terminal construction, land side construction, or all the above?
Carrie: That’s one thing we don’t do the airfield piece. We rely on our partners to do the flat work, but other than that, we touch pretty much every other aspect of the airport from the passenger boarding bridge all the way backwards to the curbside and even airport parking structures as another specialty of ours here at Swinerton.
Max: What are some of the biggest changes that you think you’ve seen as time has gone on in terms of how say, how the passenger experience is coming into the consideration of various construction projects on airports?
Carrie: I would say the evolution, especially on a multi-phase project where functions may move around the past may change from time to time, that planning is best done with a comprehensive set of stakeholders. Certainly including all the usual players, AEC industry and airport operations and security, but, also, in airports now accessibility and inclusion officers. We’re really hoping we’ve learned our lesson as an industry and now we know we need to plan for the less common traveler than the weekly business traveler. One of our field operations manager says he tries to think about if his grandma were traveling alone. So, when we’re planning these pieces, we’re striving to offset any negative impact to the passenger experience by the construction process. So when we’re planning our means and methods, we look for solutions that actually enhance that by maybe easing some anxiety or building excitement for the project. All of this coming through communications. We often have to create a temporary environment in order to create that new permanent space. So if we select the right materials and create the right communications plans, passengers will still travel through the airport process from curbside to sitting in their seat without confusion. Big, bold, clear wayfinding and informational graphics and great lighting are essential to these temporary measures. We know that more and more airports are allowing their communications directors to drive this process, along with architects and builders, as opposed to keeping those airport functions segregated as in the past.
Max: So temporary facilities that I saw recently was traveling at Portland International Airport. They’re building their whole T-Core project right now, and because of that, they no longer have an airside connector between concourses B and C and D and E, and so they have these temporary wings that kind of go around and connect B to C and D to E. That would be one example of a project that works as kind of an interim?
Carrie: Exactly and Portland has gotten, you know, really some of their graphics and communications are kind of playful, and they are that part that I was talking about helping to build the excitement for what’s to come. Almost everybody likes to peek into a construction site and see what’s going on. We really do like to bring that practice inside the airport. I really recommend and like to employ both low-tech and high-tech communications when change is happening. I’m talking about putting cheerful, friendly personnel posted human beings with stickers and cookies to hand out at the point of change of the flow. Long Beach Airport, our expansion there is a good example of this. Whenever there was a new phase put in place, that place [Long Beach Airport] looked like a party was going on to greet those like first guests and help guide them through their new flow of check in the bag check and all the way through the security checkpoint. They almost felt celebrated, I hope, by the actions of the airport and our team.
Max: On one hand, there’s the technical and the hard side of the construction, physical infrastructure and the financing and all that stuff. But then there’s the softer side, which is the messaging and the communication to the past, like you were talking about, getting passengers excited for this new facility that is going to enhance their experience. Is that something that Swinerton does, or do you collaborate with partners?
Carrie: Definitely, we do. We really recognize that while what we’re doing is delivering construction and permanent structures, what it really is all about is relationships. So, the more that we as a project delivery team can all get behind one mission and do what’s best for the project, which means what’s best for the ultimate end user, the better it’s going to be for everybody. It’s easier to make decisions that way – when you have one definition of success. We all know that during the actual construction phase, it’s rare for it to go exactly as planned. What we really have to do is remember that we are problem solvers, and we have to really carefully choose not just our field management, but the field supervision of all of the trade partners and make sure that the right personalities are out there – they are good problem solvers and they are proactive. For example, some element may be impacted and addressing it right away and being willing to go do whatever it takes to address it on the spot. That kind of on-the-fly problem solving, that practice especially comes into play on the mini-Delta sky clubs that we have updated. It’s really difficult to anticipate the number of guests at any certain time or any certain day, and, also, the arrival of provisions because of that fluctuation. So, in a process like that, I mean we have to always be ready to reorder or even suspend our activities mid-pass to allow that experience to be better for the passengers; therefore, better for the client, therefore better for us.
Max: To what extent do you think passengers are aware of all this behind the scenes work?
Carrie: I think that passengers are just really wanting to get where they want to go and anything that is not as anticipated is going to cause stress for them, so I think primarily it’s probably the airport that takes the brunt if someone’s unhappy. So that’s one of the big measurables that we [Swinerton] use. Getting immediate report from the airport if they receive some complaint or concern. We want that direct line of communication to us so that it’s immediate, so if there is any chance to address it. Now, sometimes things change at the airport itself, and that can easily affect what we’re doing and our construction schedules. When lots and lots of flights get delayed and all of our work has already been planned at night and we have to do active airfield access to these spaces, you can imagine that all of a sudden a bunch of grounded aircraft – we need to know about that as soon as possible, so that we can safely do all our work as well.
Max: And do you mostly work at larger hubs or smaller hubs?
Carrie: Really, all of the above, Swinerton itself is not ever going to be a billion-dollar airport construction builder. That’s not our zone we’re looking for. We like to get into the airport often via an airline relationship. I mean really, I have described the airline relationships as a foundation of our aviation practice and then we build that with airport authorities and other entities on top of that. – And building those relationships with airports. We love their [airports] on-call contracts. We’re happy to do whatever they need done. Those on-call or task order contracts have many, many different names, but our goal always is to get into an airport and stay there.
Max: I want to go back to something that you alluded to a couple of times and that’s airline relationships, talk a bit more about the importance of the airline relationships for working in the airport space.
Carrie: The reason that the airlines are the foundation of our aviation experience is because that’s a relationship with a client and we deliver for them a consistent and reliable process and product in multiple locations. They gain confidence in us and then they asked us to go to airports that we haven’t worked in before, because they know what they’re going to get from us. So, then it’s the dance of making sure that you are communicating with your clients you have a contract with, but you’re also client of the airport, the airport authority, whose space you’re working within. We’re able to really rapidly deploy best practices, whether we’re doing Provo project in San Diego or whether we’re doing it in Austin, TX. That getting up to speed and that learning part, it doesn’t include that scope, because we’ve already done the scope. It’s just identifying what are the different practices, what are the new inspectors, you know, the new names of the individuals, but the process is there. Whenever there’s a really big project going on at airport, whether it’s a new gate or just a modernization of a concourse or a rework of the arrivals and security checkpoint work, many of the airlines don’t actually like that big builder also doing their portions of the work. That creates the necessity for us to be able to work with our competitor partners.
Max: Even if it’s a competitor, you’re still trying to accomplish the same goal, and that is ultimately providing a better facility for whoever the user is. In the case of the passenger terminal, you’re trying to improve the passenger experience, whether representing the airport or whether representing the airline.
Carrie: That’s right, you can’t arrive at an airport to do aviation construction without being accepting of the government requirements that they. You have to be a team that accepts that that’s part of what we’re going to do, so you have to build relationships to make that happen.
Max: What does a positive passenger experience mean to you?
Carrie: For me personally, it means that no one is inhibited by getting from the curbside till they’re sitting in theirs eat on the aircraft. Positive passenger experience means that they can see at all times where they’re going and what’s happening around them. You can always see where the restrooms are, and you can always see where your gate is, but if all of that is there, then I like to add a little delightful surprise on top. Whether that’s that window to see what’s happening behind the wall or some fun graphics or just some fun along the way.
Max: Yeah, and that helps create that sense of place. C
arrie: I would like to talk about ACC.
Max: Go for it.
Carrie: Is a really, really dynamic board of directors that are really committed. I’ve been on the board only since the fall of 2022, and I’m so impressed at how hard working you roll up your sleeves and make things happen. The board and the committees of ACC are. There’s a tremendous diversity, equity and inclusion effort going on to roll out a solid platform. That will then be really actively incorporated into all the aspects of ACC. And I also think that we have great leadership in the ACC office, who are really committed to making the organization what its members want and what its members need. So that’s my thoughts on the committees that make things like this [The Hold Room podcast] run. It’s all for us and it’s really beneficial. There is a really deliberate, thoughtful process to make sure that it reflects the views of the membership and then it is something that can be applied, and it’s not just as we said before, it’s just like you know, you create one little poster, put up while you don’t think about it anymore, that’s not what’s happening at ACC. It’s something that can truly be incorporated in every component of the organization. It’s very educational and it’s very mind opening to everybody. We all have something to learn about ourselves.
Max: Well, thanks for the shout out, that’s great. Carrie thank you very much for joining us in the hold room today. Carrie: Oh, I really appreciate the opportunity. Thank you. Wendy: Thanks for joining us in the hold room for this special podcast series exploring the new passenger experience. You can find more from this series on the ACC training hub that’s, or wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, etc. Follow us for more content from the Airport Consultants Council. You can support this podcast by leaving a rating or review and by telling your friends and colleagues about the podcast. Thanks again.