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Episode 107: “Managing Capital Projects at an International Airport”

In this episode we discuss managing capital projects at an International Airport with Jason Dardis, a Program Manager at Piers & Terminals at DAA, formerly known as Dublin Airport Authority.

Jason has many strings to his project management portfolio, including qualifications in architecture and law and now he’s managing the ongoing development of Dublin International Airport. As if that is not enough to keep him busy, Jason gives a lot of his personal time to support a number of charities around the world.


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Transcript from Episode 107: “Managing Capital Projects at an International Airport”

Managing Capital Projects

Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you moved from being an architectural technologist to managing multi-million euro projects at Dublin Airport?

I am currently a program manager for one of the major capital investment programs at Dublin Airport. My particular program is called Piers & Terminals, it deals with the buildings, the elements, as opposed to the civil and which will be more like a runway and road. As you said, I come from an architectural background and architectural technology. After I graduated, I worked in a small architectural firm in Dublin city for about three years before I moved to the DAA and to the Airport and that’s where I became an accidental project manager. Nobody really grows up wanting to be a project manager.

A bit of Frank Lloyd Wright meets Wilbur Wright?

(Laughs) The same story, actually, with most of my colleagues; we’re all from an architectural, engineering or trade background – It seems to be the norm these days. It is becoming the norm these days that the projects are becoming more PM led, as opposed to the more traditional engineer and architect. I think there are a lot more complexities in projects now, different contracts, risks management program, tracking, that frees up the designers to design effectively.

You mentioned there about Risk Management – what kind of things could go wrong in an Airport project, what do you have to look out, how do you identify and control those risks?

It’s a funny environment to work in the airport. It can be constrained. I suppose, in the airport, we are not perfect by any means. We do use a lot of clever risk management tools which I definitely can’t take credit for and they are all managed by our very good product control team. Then, we have some great systems in place there. And I suppose the most important thing to note about risk management is – the risk managers will manage the process but they can’t manage the risk. Everyone needs to buy-in to whatever process you decide to work with and the spreadsheet that the Risk Manager might hold is not a risk manager, it’s a tool that helps you out, and everyone needs to buy-in, from the project managers to the design team. And the process is running as good as you make them. Garbage in, garbage out, you know. It can be a very powerful tool. We used tools like QSRAs (Quantitative Schedule Risk Analysis), risk loaded programs effectively, to determine the most likely completion date and not the desired date or the target date. We use our QCRAs (Quantitative Cost Risk Analysis) to count costs and to determine the appropriate amount of contingency to carry on a project and we use a tool called Piate, where we take all of the risk loaded information and determine what’s the most likely outcome for this project or what’s the 80% likelihood of the cost and the program outcome. We actually use those tools, the outputs of the risk management strategy, to influence our borrowing strategy for the airport and to make sure we are not borrowing more money than we can actually spend.

Do you have to be very pragmatic and objective when managing risks, you have to be really quite precise and concise about what you estimate the outcomes would be because when you’re managing such large projects, in such a delicate area, you can’t afford for projects to overrun or risks to become issues?

Exactly. I mean, working at the airport, it’s so critical to managing the risk properly and Dublin Airport is single runway airport, it’s a fairly constrained airport with two terminals at the minute. And we are in the process of constructing a second runway and we have a crosswind runway, as well. Everything is very busy, we handled 31.5 million passengers last year – that’s an average of 86,500 per day. It’s comparable to managing an All-Ireland Final or an FA Cup Final (Annual events, both with an attendance of 82,000+) every day for 364 days of the year. And it’s become the norm where we have over 100,000 passengers a day during the summer and that’s comparable to a Super Bowl every day.

Fairly impressive figures there. For a single runway Airport you have just mentioned passenger planes; how many of the planes will be managed by the Control Tower, such as cargo planes or my own private jet?

We have general aviation facility for people like yourself for private jets. We have got quite a number of air cargo operations, as well, so we have an An Post (Ireland’s national mail carrier) cargo terminal there and there are a number of private operators run cargo terminals at the airport, as well.

With those numbers and the contingencies that you have to have in place, and you mentioned some of the constraints about the size of the operation as well, how can you remove those obstacles or how can you modify those constraints in order to deliver the projects?

We tend to work around as much as possible. We are in construction and we are inevitably going to impact the operation somewhere and the trick is to try and minimize it and let the operation flow as much as possible. So, project management in construction is difficult enough but when you have a complexity of working in a live environment like an airport, it becomes infinitely more complex.
Just to give you a flavor of some of the obstacles or constraints we workaround, it’s working in life passenger areas, working around live services, working in staff area that can’t be closed for operational reasons, it can be a stand out location area, control centre and then, when working outside, it’s working around live aircraft movements, parked aircrafts – the last thing you want to do is to damage one of those. And we do work in the 24-hour operation, where we can generally get restricted windows for work, particularly our civils team out on the runway.

They might get a 4-6 hour window on the resurfacing of the runaway. During that 4-6 hour window they have to remove the existing surface, wire all the new lighting, cut all the new manholes and resurface the runway for operation the following morning. That might take 100 metre sections of the runway and they have to do that over a series of, you could take to a year, a year and a half to resurface the whole runway.

Out of that 100 metres, how much of that can be done in a night?

In that 4-6 hour window whatever length of the runway they decide to take in a particular night, they have to take it back fully operational for 6am the next morning. They need to finish whatever they are doing, make it safe for the next morning.

You mentioned earlier the funding for the airport, as well. Can you tell us a little of where the money is raised for these capital projects?

It might surprise some people actually, DAA is a semi-state body, we are a PLC or a commercial semi-state and we operate as any other commercial company would. We don’t get any state funding, we don’t use any taxpayers’ money. It’s a fully commercial organization. In fact, the last number of years we have paid a dividend to the government every year and non-profits.
I think last year, we paid €40 millions to the government in a dividend. We generate all of our revenues from the aviation activity and passenger fees, commercial activities from our tenants, from our retail shops and we also have an international business, where we consult and operate airports around the world. There are quite a few different strands to the DAA group if you like and we have Cork Airport in that mix as well.

Tell us a little bit about the types of projects that you might have going on?

So, I work in a department called the AMD, which sits in the Dublin Airport business unit of DAA. We are currently split into two distinct programs. As I mentioned earlier about the airfield and civil program, who manage all of the roads, the runway, taxiways and then Piers and Terminals, which is ourselves. And depending on the scale of our regulatory determination over the next few months, which we are in the process of at the minute, we are most likely going to subdivide those two programs into five in the future.
To focus back on the Piers and Terminals one, we managed the building-related projects, as opposed to the civil engineering type. These could range from anything from small retail fit outs to terminal or pier extensions, multi-story car parks, like safety systems upgrades or security systems and security equipment installation; so the like of the X-Ray machines you walk through and you put your bags through when you go on a holiday – we manage all of those projects.

Airport Security is ever evolving, technology is improving and you can see that through the Airports. I travel quite a lot and Dublin Airport is extremely efficient. So, I can tell you that – a good job.

That’s a good feedback. We are certainly not perfect, but we do our best and I travel quite a bit and I have to say the staff, in particular, in Dublin Airport Security are brilliant in comparison to what I’ve seen elsewhere.

Show Notes

Find out more about DAA here

Connect with Jason on LinkedIn here

If you’d like to see how Cora PPM can be used to manage complex construction projects in one centralized system you may be interested in this Webinar.

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