Well before Hartsfield-Jackson International Atlanta Airport (ATL) opened its new Maynard H. Jackson Jr. International Terminal in mid-May, a dedicated team began working to ensure the transition process would be as smooth as possible for both travelers and airport stakeholders.

The airport's strategy was to have a team in place that was prepared to take over the new facility from the construction team and operate it the first day possible, explains Balram Bheodari, ATL's aviation deputy general manager. To make that happen, the airport formed an activation team of nine people: Bheodari, six Department of Aviation employees and two contract employees from the terminal project group. The activation team was responsible for working with all stakeholders that will ultimately operate out of the terminal, to ensure that they had plans in place and were ready to begin operations at the end of the construction process.

The main benefit of a carefully engineered activation process, relates Bheodari, is a seamless transition of operations when the new facility opens. "Your employees know what to do," he explains. "They know what type of information to give to the traveling public, and it reduces the stress and anxiety of the traveling public when the employees know what to do and how best to serve those customers."

"Activation is a key component of a construction project if you want to have a successful opening of the facility," Bheodari emphasizes. He encourages any airport planning a construction - small or large - to use an activation team.

At ATL, it's a proven strategy. The airport benefited from using an activation team when its new rental car center debuted in December 2009. "At the end of the day, it ensures a smooth transition from construction to operations, and it gives us an opportunity early enough to identify if we have a troubled area from an operational perspective, and to correct those troubled areas," Bheodari says.

How Early is "Early"?

The activation process for ATL's new international terminal started in February 2010, when Bheodari's team identified more than 1,700 tasks for the building operators to accomplish prior to the opening. Primary items on the list included:

• Incorporating an up-to-date security plan into the new terminal - an item that had to be approved by the Transportation Security Administration

• Updating the airport's certification manual to include the 12 new gates - changes that had to be approved by the FAA

• Coordinating ground transportation operations processes and procedures for the new facility

• Developing adequate signage to guide travelers through the new space

In early May, ATL staged a large-scale simulation with more than 1,500 volunteers, including many local community members as well as visitors from Canada, Germany, and Trinidad and Tabago. Tenant operators were also involved in the simulation, which allowed the activation team to validate all the processes, procedures and training they had completed since the team began its work.

For the exercise, Bheodari's team scripted 17 mock departures and 17 mock arrivals. Each volunteer came with two pieces of check-in luggage and was given a script detailing how they should arrive at the international terminal, where they should park and which flight they were scheduled for. Volunteers were also encouraged to use airport facilities such as restrooms, concessions and retail stores - and to record their experiences.

The airport received more than 1,000 surveys from activation simulation volunteers. The feedback identified more than 67 "areas of concern" that required attention, but identified no building system failures, reports Bheodari. "Most of it had to do with operational functions," he explains.

For example, volunteer comments prompted the airport to move handicapped parking stalls in the parking deck closer to the vertical transportation. urvey responses also led to further refinements of in-terminal signage and additional trashcans in the gate areas.

Because unveiling highway signs for the new terminal during the simulation could have caused chaos for those not participating in the drill, that portion of the project was not put to an early test. And although the airport received positive feedback from customers when the new signage was unveiled for the "real" May 16th opening, it continues to monitor reactions to ensure the signage is adequate.

The airport promoted the simulation by launching a webpage and communicating through local media outlets. "It was amazing," Bheodari recalls. "In the first hour that the webpage was up, we had 800 volunteers signed up." To make the simulation more accurate, the airport selected participants from various demographic groups.

Recruiting people who were not otherwise affiliated with the airport as "passengers" for the simulation provided the airport with a fresh, unbiased perspective of the new facility. "We want them to tell us what's wrong, because when we open the facility, we want it to run flawlessly," Bheodari explains. "We as employees see the facility day in and day out. Sometimes we may miss something because we are so familiar with the facility."

Other Info Sources

In addition to benefiting from its own previous experience with activation planning, ATL also learned from the experiences of other airports, including Denver International and John F. Kennedy International. When considering the outside lessons, however, Bheodari recognized that all airports are unique and knew it was necessary for ATL to formulate its own processes specifically for its new facility.

The airport learned about the importance of open communication with stakeholders during its rental car facility activation. Discussing issues at frequent meetings helps keep the process on schedule, notes Bheodari.

The increased scope of the terminal activation made it important to identify all the relevant parties early in the process and secure their involvement, he adds. "When you have total buy-in in the process, you will find that you will get good support in what you're doing," he explains. "And we had exceptionally great support from all of our tenant users here."

Bheodari also cites the formation of working groups as instrumental in the success of its process. ATL established separate groups to address activation issues pertaining to the terminal, ground transportation, federal agencies, airside processes and communication/marketing.

Looking back, Bheodari says it's important to focus on small, seemingly minor matters such as a broken soap dispenser as well as major big-picture items such as facility systems. Everything matters in the process, he emphasizes.

He also leaned how much energy, focus and dedication a terminal activation requires, and consequently advises airports to have a set of employees dedicated only to that process. "They can't do it as a second- or third-tier job," he cautions. "It has to be the focus of these individuals."

SIDE BAR

All Systems A-Go

Knowing that systems commissioning goes hand-in-hand with terminal activations, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport hired a separate contractor for commissioning services during the design and planning of its new international terminal. Sebesta Blomberg provided the services as a subcontractor to Atlanta Gateway Designers, a joint venture between Gresham, Smith & Partners and Duckett Design Group.

Sebesta Blomberg's role was to work with the activation team to ensure that the project was being designed, constructed and commissioned for optimal operation. Its scope included the cooling and heating equipment; air handling systems; HVAC controls; plumbing water systems; life safety and fire alarm systems; and electrical systems. The firm assessed operation, maintenance, lifecycle sustainability and energy efficiencies, including the application of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) principles.

"We performed design reviews to basically serve as another set of eyes," says Kevin Garrett, an associate partner at Sebesta Blomberg. When architects and engineers are designing a facility, he explains, they might not always consider how the various systems in it will be serviced and maintained. Having an operational check of designs as early as possible can prevent potential glitches such as incorrect heating and cooling sequences or lack of training for the building operators or service contractors.

Sebesta Blomberg also verified that the terminal's systems were working per the design intent - doing what they were supposed to do. "Instead of individual equipment, we commission it as a system," Garrett notes, referring to the inter-related nature of individual airport components.

The main goal of the commissioning process is to make sure that everything begins its lifecycle at optimal productivity, Garrett summarizes. "We try to improve the likelihood that the building will maintain this level of performance," he adds.