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Robert Chicas on Returning Anticipation to Air Travel, Transforming LaGuardia Airport and Indy’s Enduring Success

Robert Chicas

Robert Chicas is director of HOK’s Aviation + Transportation practice and design manager for the firm’s efforts on New York City’s LaGuardia Airport’s Central Terminal B.

As part of the LaGuardia Gateway Partners’ team, the HOK/WSP joint venture is the architect and engineer for LaGuardia Airport’s new Terminal B. To support New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s vision for a unified airport, HOK was also contracted to develop a master plan and design criteria for the overall airport.

Chicas, who was born and raised in New York City and earned a degree in architecture at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, has spent almost three decades of his career directing significant airport projects. Before coming to HOK in 2002, he was a project manager for the expansion of the iconic Eero Saarinen terminal at Washington Dulles International Airport, for the redevelopment of Terminal 4 at John F. Kennedy Airport, and for the expansion and redevelopment of Terminal C at Newark Airport. In addition to his leadership role on LaGuardia Airport’’s new Terminal B, Chicas is HOK’s principal-in-charge of the multi-billion-dollar expansion program taking place at Salt Lake City International Airport and was HOK’s project director for the design of a new midfield terminal at Indianapolis International Airport.

Here he talks about his passion for A+T facility design, current trends and challenges for this building type, the design solution for terminals at LaGuardia and Salt Lake City International, the move toward architect-led master plans, the long-term success of the HOK-designed terminal in Indianapolis, the importance of MBE/WBE project participation and more.

As a young boy, my family would travel to Central America every summer to visit family and friends. We would fly out of JFK in New York. I recall it being an annual ritual—and getting on an airplane was a big deal! Fast forward a few decades and air travel started to lose its luster. Arriving at the airport began to feel more like arriving at a bus terminal. The aviation industry, which found itself processing more and more travelers, lost its focus on the customer experience. And the increasingly process-driven travel experience fed unpredictability and uncertainty, which increased customer anxiety.

In the last decade or two, improving the passenger experience has become the mantra for most airports and airlines. There is a renewed awareness that customer satisfaction and its impact on the commercial proposition has a major impact on the bottom line. HOK’s A+T practice is focused on designing buildings that transform air travel from an experience people dread to one they look forward to. We want to make it more civilized, predictable, exciting and fun. And we want to recapture the awe and glamour of air travel.

I enjoy airport terminal projects because they are complicated and continuously evolving but have a tremendous impact on people. These infrastructure facilities are constantly changing to accommodate emerging technology, changing security protocols, aircraft sizes and passenger expectations. The challenges we’re facing today will be different than those we’ll experience in coming years. As the adage goes, “If you’ve seen one airport, you’ve seen one airport.” How could you not love working on these projects?

As terminals that could not adapt to change grow obsolete, the challenge for many airports is how to redevelop facilities on highly constrained sites—and how to fund these expensive infrastructure projects. Very few airports have the luxury of spare real estate. Creatively solving these problems in a way that enables uninterrupted airport operations is critical. We can relocate operations or add temporary facilities, but airports and airlines simply can’t afford to reduce capacity—even during construction.

LaGuardi Airport Terminal B HOK

The successful design solution for LaGuardia’s new Terminal B (above) was rooted in a collaboration between the architect and the builder. We conceived the idea of building a new terminal complex in three segments—a headhouse, Concourse A and Concourse B—linked by elevated pedestrian bridges. This enabled the team to build major elements of the new terminal while minimizing the impact on the existing terminal’s operations. This solution also created the perfect framework for enhancing the passenger experience. Arriving and departing passengers crossing the bridges will have unprecedented views of the New York City skyline. There will be no better example of an airport terminal with a powerful sense of place.

Our combined Terminal B and airport-wide master plan efforts at LaGuardia Airport are great examples of HOK’s full-service offerings. We are providing a good portion of the structural engineering, all plumbing and fire protection engineering, as well as the IT and low-voltage design work.

LaGuardia Airport’s New Terminal B project is the largest aviation public-private partnership in North America. Determining how to pay for much-needed infrastructure projects is a challenge across the aviation industry. I suspect this project at LaGuardia will in large measure inform the future of aviation P3 investments.

The stakes are incredibly high. When this project is over, it will reflect on everyone involved. It’s satisfying to see so many firms and people rising to the occasion. For HOK, the work is being led out of our New York City office. But this effort is being supported by design, production and engineering professionals in other HOK offices including Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago and Houston. We have had more than 150 staff dedicated to the LaGuardia project at one time.

HOK is also serving as the A/E for the complete redevelopment of Salt Lake City Airport in Utah (below). As with LaGuardia, the Salt Lake City project requires the design and construction of a new terminal complex over the footprint of the existing terminal to be constructed without interrupting existing ongoing operations. The effort involves the wholesale replacement the existing facility—a collection of 29 separate structures which over the years were knitted together to create the existing terminal—with a new 21st century terminal complex.

We are increasingly seeing interest for architect-led master plans. These plans help airports manage their capital improvement projects on constrained sites over time while making the best use of their real estate. They also serve as the basis for decision making in the context of overarching design principles that reflect the owner’s aspirations. With the full picture laid out, airports can make more intelligent decisions on what needs to happen—and in what order—while maintaining design continuity.

Common-use facilities are increasingly becoming the standard for terminals not being developed by a specific airline. Historically, each airline has had its own branding, check-in and bag-check positions, and technology. McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas was one of first U.S. airports to adopt common-use technology. LaGuardia’s new Terminal B is planned as a common use terminal with a flexible technology backbone that enables any airline to occupy any desk or gate, resulting in economy of space and an overall more efficient terminal. Because brand recognition is vitally important, the airlines understandably have generally resisted a common-use approach. But current and emerging technology permits almost immediate branding and operational adjustments.

My first project at HOK was the Col. H. Weir Cook Terminal at Indianapolis International Airport (below), which opened in 2007. It continues to be regularly recognized as among the best airports for customer service. I moved to Indianapolis for two years to manage the project. We had an exceptionally talented HOK team, and the mayor of Indianapolis and the airport’s project director pushed us to actualize an exceptional design. They wanted this new terminal to reshape the perception of the city and to help reposition Indianapolis as a 21st-century center for life sciences, research, art and technology.

Our team delivered on the client’s aspirations with a dramatic yet simple and economical terminal complex that reflects both the past and the future of the Indianapolis. We used local building materials like Indiana limestone and created a wonderful canvas for an extensive art program at the terminal. This also was the first LEED-certified greenfield terminal in the U.S.

As a first-generation American and former partner in an architectural MBE firm, I take MBE/WBE participation in our airport projects very seriously. My first job was in a small MBE architectural practice, where I learned firsthand the challenges of successfully managing a small practice. To me it’s not about fulfilling an affirmative action requirement or quota. It’s about supporting diversity and supporting disadvantaged architects and engineers with exposure to projects they may otherwise not have the opportunity to work on. We offer mentorship and providing them with opportunities for growth. That said, given the scale and complexity of our aviation projects, we are very selective when we identify our subconsultants. Competency and a desire for excellence are essential, and these selections typically are very competitive.

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