Plenty of travelers at the airport snap Twitter or Instagram shots of 747s or panoramic views, but if you happen to see an upbeat and curious man aiming his camera at airport concourses or calculating runway slope, chances are you’ve located James McCluskie. Originally from Scotland, McCluskie plans and designs upgrades for airport authorities, and he recently moved from the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL) to the Reno-Tahoe Airport, where he serves as vice president of planning, engineering, and environmental management.
McCluskie, an entrepreneur at heart, spent the first 20 years of his career in city and regional planning and urban development, but even though he only has seven years in the airport industry, his work on a $750 million runway plan and a $500 million concourse reconstruction has quickly established him as a respected expert. He has taken to the work because of his experience in regional planning. “A lot of my career is going and doing things that I’m fascinated by in planning and developing the future,” he says. “It’s all driven by curiosity.”
Here’s a look at the two projects that solidified his credentials and a roundup of what he’s currently working on.
A New Runway
When McCluskie arrived at FLL in 2006, the facility, with more than 600 daily flights, was stuck on a runway concept originally conceived in 1994. The ambitious addition of a new south runway was dogged by community controversy because of its location near wetlands and a surrounding neighborhood, and its hefty price tag approached $750 million.
After the Board of County Commissioners approved the project and the airport’s CEO committed to long-range planning, McCluskie was tasked with designing and implementing the long-standing concept. He orchestrated a master plan and coordinated a noise study and an environmental study for the new runway—all in cooperation with the FAA.
McCluskie had a strong planning team, including internal staff at Broward County and a group of consultants, that helped schedule the project to fit an extremely tight timetable. Then, in coordination with the planning and program-management team, he began drafting a new design for implementation. The plan, however, hit early snags. “The site was very constrained, and it was difficult not to impact the existing Concourse H operations in construction,” McCluskie says. “Also, the original plan of the elevated runway would require grade changes that [would] impact the rest of the airfield and [involve] costly improvements.”
Airport traffic and flight schedules are notoriously inflexible, and airlines must plan for airfield changes six months in advance, so phasing the project was also difficult. McCluskie had to streamline communication between construction teams and airport personnel because his revised plan called for the decommissioning and relocation of aircraft gates and the expansion of one of the concourses, with more additions to the airport’s international facilities.
To achieve the appropriate runway length, the airport’s plan calls for an elevated surface that would stretch over an existing highway and railway situated at sea level. The planning team redesigned the middle of the airfield to flatten it out for operational simplicity, and in doing so, it raised the runway from an original plan of 45 feet to 65 feet, which will accommodate the required FAA slope-design guidelines.
The entire airfield took six million cubic yards of fill—enough for two NFL stadiums. An added railway spur from an adjacent railway brought the dirt directly to the site, and workers have now erected an on-site, mobile concrete plant to produce the 480,000 square yards of concrete necessary for the new runway, taxiways, and aprons.
Slated to wrap in September of 2014, the 8,000-foot-long structure will include a tunnel to support the runway and bridges to support an adjacent taxiway. Separating the structure into a tunnel and bridges has helped minimize costs related to project, fill, and fire-suppression infrastructure. The plan mitigates impact on area wetlands and on a nearby county park, and the county is coordinating with the project to replant native flora and provide shoreline protection. The plan also mitigates aircraft noise for the surrounding neighborhood.
McCluskie worked to simplify all aspects of the plan and to incorporate sustainability while saving corporate dollars. Additionally, high-speed exits, which reduce emissions and save fuel costs, were added into the design with the help of the FAA. “We looked at aircraft runway occupancy and how long an aircraft has to sit,” McCluskie says, “and we tried to find ways to get them in and out of the airfield as fast as possible while limiting idling time.”
Terminal 4 / Concourse G
The other key element of FLL’s expansion is an addition to Terminal 4—the new $500 million Concourse G, to be completed by 2018. The new concourse will add 14 new international swing gates, laid out linearly and connected to Concourse H’s existing 10 gates situated in a pier design. The six-year project will include an array of new concession areas and restaurants, and it will more than double the existing structure’s square footage.
McCluskie says the redesign will drastically reduce many traffic problems on the airfield and inside the terminal by helping to ease the bottlenecking of aircraft and passengers. An additional runway and dual taxiways alongside Concourse G can accommodate larger group-five airplanes, and terminal passengers will benefit from a new security checkpoint and exclusive corridors leading directly to a customs area. Additionally, a pedestrian bridge to the neighboring terminal will make catching connecting flights at FLL easier than ever before.
McCluskie chose to prioritize Terminal 4 over FLL’s other three terminals because Concourse H was being impacted by the work on the south runway. Modernization of the remaining three terminals and five concourses will follow. The airport eventually hopes to modernize all areas to post-9/11 standards, a simple step that will help drive revenues up by moving concessions behind security checkpoints, where passengers have more downtime.
The well-planned airports in McCluskie’s native Europe have influenced his design choices. He draws particularly from Patrick Geddes, a fellow Scotsman and the father of regional planning. On a large scale, European facilities are better integrated with their communities via buses and other modes of transit. At FLL, the terminal facilities are similarly integrated on a smaller scale, with added pedestrian bridges, intuitive design, and improved wayfinding signage that will help travelers get from gate to gate more quickly. “America was industrialized so fast and populations increased so quickly that sometimes the terminals are massive and other times disjointed because of the rate of growth,” McCluskie says of other airports. “It’s hard to walk from point A to point B.”
European designs are based more on the needs of affiliated cities and what people need from the facilities over a long period of time. So, McCluskie repeats one simple question when designing: what will the airport need over the next 20 years? That question helps him plan structures that will stand the test of time and be better integrated.
At FLL, he built in accommodations for future light-rail stations because the airport is next to existing heavy rail that could become light rail. This was coordinated with local and state planning agencies, including the Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Florida Department of Transportation. “These facilities are not just airports,” McCluskie says. “They are a piece of the city and a regional driver of the economy. What we do should respond to that as a legacy to future generations.”
A year ago, McCluskie accepted his new position as a vice president with the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority (RTAA), which operates Reno-Tahoe International Airport and Reno-Stead Airport. McCluskie and his new team have already worked on the Gateway Central Checkpoint Project, a few airfield upgrades, the completion of a noise-mitigation program, and the construction of a new terminal at Reno-Stead. McCluskie has also brought in a geographic information system, a planning tool to assist with meeting FAA guidelines for developing airport layout plans and to assist future land development.
The Gateway project included consolidating two checkpoints into a single, centralized checkpoint. And, like he did at FLL, McCluskie added concessions beyond the checkpoint to increase the revenue from passenger purchases during wait times.
At Reno-Stead, the $6 million new terminal facility McCluskie is building will include an auxiliary emergency operations center and a pilots’ lounge. And at Reno-Tahoe, he’s making improvements to touchdown areas and aprons around the terminal in order to (literally) pave the way for future terminal modernization.
Working for the RTAA presents McCluskie with a new host of challenges. Reno’s higher altitude means facilities must have longer runways with more take-off distance, and aircraft must approach over mountains rather than flatland. The area’s high temperatures in the summer affect density-altitude conditions and thus aircraft performance, and the cold winters make the construction season five months shorter than it is in Florida. There are also more seismic considerations to take into account.
McCluskie’s new airports are smaller, and he’s working with a more limited budget, so he must find ways to leverage his resources to create projects without huge capital campaigns. He’s letting his curiosity and passion for continued learning drive him forward. “I still like to challenge myself and see how I do in different environments,” he says. He will continue working on airfield projects next year that will help the Reno-Tahoe International Airport keep its place as an asset in the community.