What Goes Into Designing an Airport

What Goes Into Designing an Airport

Airport planning and design is a complex subject; it involves numerous agencies and must take into consideration a variety of factors ranging from environmental impact to how much noise it will create for the neighboring community.

As airplanes and flight have evolved over the decades, the basic concepts of planning and designing airports have changed as well.

What’s in an Airport Master Plan

Every stage of development is laid out in an airport master plan. Everything from site evaluation to the eventual security of the airport must be considered. Having land surveyors and engineers, such as the team from Anderson Engineering, create a dedicated site plan will save time and money on a project as big as airport development. Anderson outlines the benefits of proper site planning HERE, with highlights as follows:

  • Fewer surprises along the way
  • Better team coordination
  • Regulatory compliance
  • Insurance approval prior to breaking ground
  • Reduced construction costs

Besides picking a site and evaluating it for use as an airport, what else is in the airport master plan?

  • Financial arrangements – Capital costs, operational costs, etc…
  • Runway and taxiways – Dimension, strength, capacity, etc…
  • Aprons – Parking, service and hanger aprons, etc…
  • Air and ground navigational and traffic control aids – Visual aids, radio navigation, demarcation zones, etc…
  • Passenger building – Airport traffic, the scale of services, capacity, etc…
  • Cargo facilities – Siting, building function and type, inspection, etc…
  • Ground transport and internal airport vehicle circulation and parking – Private and public transport modes, internal roadway circulation curbside, vehicle parking, etc…
  • Airport operation and support – Administration, medical center, fuel stations, etc…
  • Security – Air side security, road fencing, isolated parking positions, security parking area, etc…

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the master plan for any given airport “is the cornerstone of the continuing, comprehensive, and cooperative planning process. The master plan reflects the complexity and size of the airport… [and is] aimed at solving a specific problem…”. Planning as much as possible ahead of time reduces the resources wasted on gathering unnecessary data that won’t move the project forward on time.

How the Master Plan is Followed

Forecasting Airport Traffic

Before an airport can be built, it needs to be determined as financially feasible. Is there enough demand for the airport? How will it affect the current traffic in the area? What improvements need to be made to support increased traffic in the future? Data should be collected and analyzed to determine if any of the following will impact the success of the proposed airport:

  • Community demographics
  • Geographic factors that support or hinder air travel
  • Existing airports nearby that may be competition
  • Existing routes in the vicinity

Site Determinations and Considerations

Everything within a ten-mile radius needs to be considered when planning where to put the airport. How will the community be affected by the operation of an airport in the vicinity? Additionally, the engineers must answer the following questions:

  • Where can an airport safely land in all wind conditions at the site?
  • What obstacles need to be removed from the flight path, if any?
  • What houses, buildings, or recreation sites will be subjected to aircraft noise?

Did you know that runways aren’t permitted to be positioned over bird habitats? Whether a landfill, marsh, or another area that’s ideal for birds, for safety reasons a runway cannot direct planes to take off or land near birds.

Land use restrictions for a three-mile area around the airport may also apply, as it’s important to avoid existing community structures to create safe flight paths for aircraft. Long gone are the days when a plane could take off from the coast of North Carolina and be considered anything but a marvel!

Airside Layout and Design

“Airside” refers to the portion of the airport that is beyond passport and customs control. Once a passenger or employee is past security, they’re in what’s considered airside space. When designing the airport, the airside layout must take into consideration the size and performance of the craft that will utilize the airport.

Aircraft are designated into categories according to their wingspan. The groups are:

  • Group I – Up to 49 feet
  • Group II – 49 feet up to 79 feet
  • Group III – 79 feet up to 118 feet
  • Group IV – 118 feet up to 171 feet
  • Group V – 171 feet up to 214 feet
  • Group VI – 214 feet up to 262 feet

The aircraft that frequent the airport will influence:

  • Runway length, width, and gradients
  • Taxiway width

Other airside design considerations include:

  • Drainage
  • Lighting
  • Signage
  • Runway pavement design

While many businesses go to great lengths to improve the landscape around their new development, it would not be in an airport’s best interest to artfully design airside areas. This would encourage animals to set up homes in potentially dangerous areas, such as the airfield. Airports need to ensure that their outdoor spaces intended for aircraft are safe for the planes, passengers, employees, and local wildlife. Creating habitable spaces for birds, moles, or other wildlife is not part of the master plan.


Port of Portland published airport landscaping standards to help define landscaping practices for their airports. 

  • Existing landscaping must be considered
  • Zones for wildlife management
  • Vegetation must not include fruit or seeds that attract wildlife
  • Wildlife corridors can be implemented if deemed beneficial
  • Grass should be the primary ground cover in undeveloped areas

As you can imagine, maintaining the landscaping is crucial not just for visual appeal, but for safety. For example, having grass in the airfield allows pilots to see contrast between paved taxiways and runways, keeping them in designated areas at a glance.

While the airfield needs to be clear of obstructions, the front facade and interior of the airport need to be inviting to encourage travel. Zones deemed appropriate for ornamental vegetation might include both outdoor and indoor areas of the airport. Managing the landscape of an airport is a task that should be handled by professionals who know which native species will thrive, how to plant water-wise vegetation, and how to keep everything pruned and cared for to complement the design.

Airport Layout

Besides the airside design, a master plan must also include terminal areas and noise compatibility plans. Often, the master plan includes not just the current design plans, but it builds in the possibility of adding expansions in the future.

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