The Secret Science of Airports

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Technologies are embedded in every aspect of airport life. I got to see some of them up close

Every piece of baggage that goes through an airport is subject to scanning (Photo by: Andia/UIG via Getty Images)

I fly out of New Zealand’s Wellington Airport pretty regularly, but last week, the airport itself was my destination. I’d been offered a behind-the-scenes tour of the terminal, so (obviously) I jumped at the chance.

Wellington is a relatively small airport – my host Ayolt Wiertsema (GM of Operations) told me that it carries six million passengers a year, compared to Amsterdam Schipol’s 60 million. But even so, there’s still a lot to manage. In many ways, an airports act like a miniature city – its temporary residents need transport links and easy access to information. They also need to eat and drink, and have clean, safe and comfortable areas in which to rest. The buildings needs water, electricity, internet, and waste removal and security systems. The planes need navigation aids, somewhere to take-off and land, cargo management, and access to fuel, maintenance and cleaning. And just like cities, airports are managed by groups of companies with different expertise, all working together.

So, post-visit, I thought I’d give you a rundown of just some of the roles science, engineering and technology play in our airports.

Location, location, location

In most cities, airports are nestled out in the distant suburbs, 20-50 km of the CBD (though, Paris-Vatry Airport is more than 200 km from the French capital!). This is partly because airports have to accommodate runways and taxiways, alongside lots of other infrastructure. Most of these systems can’t simply be stacked on top of one another, like we’d do in the CBD. Runways need to be level and clear of obstructions, and the busier an airport is, the more of these wide, flat surfaces it needs. Wellington is a rather hilly city, so the airport is on one of its very few flat, low-lying areas – the Rongotai isthmus, just 8 km from the capital.

Building a runway is a huge engineering challenge – though it might look like a road, its far more complex. A runway’s foundations must be deep and strong enough to support massive passenger aircraft – a fully loaded A380 can weigh 560,000 kg. In the area where an aircraft lands, this means 2m-thick concrete foundations supported by layers of compressed gravel. The surface material too is important – it must offer enough grip to help aircraft to slow down, while also stopping the buildup of water in wet weather. Most airports (including Wellington) use grooved bitumen to achieve both of these aims. (CONTINUED…)

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