Stepping into the new Terminal 1 at Toronto's Pearson International Airport can be disorienting. Much of what travelers have come to expect from a busy airport is absent: There are no endless check-in lines; no throngs of stressed-out passengers out-maneuvering one another; no surly ticketing agents scolding those out of line. Even the security guards don't appear particularly overwhelmed. In fact, Terminal 1 looks so empty and new that you might think it was not yet open for business.
The reality, however, is that Toronto's Terminal 1 is operational; it's just so massive that it's hard to tell. Terminal 1 handles passengers from up to 800 daily flights from 57 airlinesthat's ten million passengers a year who all but vanish down its long, modern corridors. And they are long, tooleading to some of the longest hikes you'll ever take from gate to curb.
The terminal's floor plan covers 4.2 million square feet, its superstructure contains enough steel to build three and a half Eiffel Towers, and it has Canada's largest indoor parking garage (12,600 spaces). Renovation of the entire airportthree terminals in allis scheduled for completion in 2008, and, by the time it's finished, the project will have taken more than 10 years, will encompass 4,464 acres, and will have cost $4.4 billion Canadian ($3.2 billion U.S.).
But it is not just the vastness of the airport, or of Terminal 1, that contributes to the uncrowded halls. Toronto Pearson International is also one of the first "common-use" airport facilities in North America, which means that it features a shared networking system that speeds up turnover of aircraft at the gates, thus increasing the flow of foot traffic inside the new terminal, while also opening up new opportunities for Toronto's airport authority. It's an approach that's having ripple effects throughout the beleaguered airline industry, and it's analogous to the shared-services organizations that IT consultants often recommend for their clients at large, multidivisional companies.
At the center of the common-use revolution in North America is an unlikely pioneer: Jim Burke. British-born Burke, soft- spoken and unassuming, is vice president of information technology and telecommunications, or IT&T, at the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA), the not-for-profit organization that owns and operates Toronto Pearson. Before coming to Toronto, Burke spent 12 years politely turning the British airline system on its head by switching London's Heathrow Airport to common use. He then advised San Francisco International Airport on how to do the same, before starting, in 2000, to shake things up in Toronto.
What's so radical about common-use airports? At most North American airports, individual airlines lease gates for as long as 30 years at a stretch, install their own networks, run their own telephone systems, set up proprietary terminals and generally mark their territory. Dominant carriers, especially in hub airports, have been known to sew up entire terminals, squatting on their gates and squeezing out upstarts. Under this system, whenever a dominant carrier is not using one of its gates, no other airline can, either. Instead, the gate sits idle while competitors' planes are stuck on the tarmac, or are forced to dock at gates leased from a smaller, less convenient airport nearby. It's capitalism at its worst.
When the GTAA decided, back in 1994, to rebuild Toronto Pearson's Terminal 1, it also decided to put an end to this inefficiency by stealing a page from Burke's playbook. A few years later, the GTAA stole Burke himself, and placed him in charge of a budget of several hundred million with a clear mandate to make Pearson common use.
The idea behind common-use airports is that the airportnot the airlinesmanages the network, telecommunications, video feeds, check-in counters, gates, security and baggage systems. The hardware and software is standardized throughout the airport, the check-in counters and gates can be switched around seamlessly, and passengers and planes move more fluidly in and around the facility. For instance, if an international flight is running late, it can be parked at a gate adjoining a less- frequent connecting flight so that passengers won't miss it.
When done right, the common-use model saves money for both the airlines and the airport. Airlines save the costs and hassles of managing their own networks in every city they serve, while the airport becomes a full-service IT outsourcer, creating for itself an entirely new source of revenue. It's hard to argue with that logic, but some still do.