Opinion: Satellite aircraft gates at YVR Airport will add another layer of frustration for travellers

Jul 9 2018, 11:05 am

Have you ever wondered how many buses full of passengers are needed to pack a large jet plane to capacity? It certainly takes a caravan, and this will increasingly be key for Vancouver International Airport’s airside logistics moving forward.

In a race against time to significantly increase its capacity to meet rapidly growing demand and avoid flight delays, Vancouver International Airport is further expanding its capacity to accommodate parked aircraft by building many remote stands.

What are remote stand operations?

These remote stands are essentially satellite gate-less aircraft parking spots, and they are far enough from the terminal building to require a small fleet of special “luxury” electric buses to shuttle passengers between the terminal building and the remote stand.

Special airport buses for the purpose of transporting passengers between the terminal building and an aircraft parked at a remote stand. (Shutterstock)

At the aircraft, passengers board or disembark from a plane by walking onto a large, movable covered ramp that docks with the plane’s door. For passengers catching a flight, after going through security they are still required to proceed to a designated departure gate.

Vancouver International Airport YVR Remote Stand

Passengers disembarking from an Air Portugal flight at a remote stand and walking towards a bus at Lisbon Airport. (Kenneth Chan / Daily Hive)

In YVR’s case, gates D59 in the international wing and E85 are specifically designed for bus loadings to remote stands.

At the moment, remote stand operations requiring a bus ride are relatively limited; starting this summer, only about four flights are using remote stands on a regular basis.

But the use will become much more frequent very soon as YVR will be depending on remote stands as their capacity solution, at least over the interim.

The airport has near-term plans to replace a large portion of the Jet Set parking lot east of the Fairmont Vancouver Airport Hotel with a new remote stand cluster that provides parking space for 10 jets.

Vancouver International Airport

10 new remote stands will be built on the expanded East Apron on the existing site of the Jet Set parking lot at Vancouver International Airport. (Vancouver International Airport)

Additional capacity required quickly

The satellite gates, unlike contact jet bridges attached to the terminal building, can be built far cheaper and quicker to meet YVR’s forecasted passenger growth. It will cost $12 million to build each remote stand whereas a contact jet bridge costs approximately $50 million each.

There is no question this is a sound strategy when you consider the surge in passenger numbers, which have soared far more quickly than YVR’s forecasts. In 2014, YVR made public its goal of transforming the airport into a major hub, especially for Trans-Pacific flights, and reaching 25 million passengers by 2020 through that hub intensification growth.

Vancouver International Airport crowding

Crowding at Vancouver International Airport on July 2, 2018. (Chris Wren / Twitter)

However, given the real rate of growth experienced to date, annual passenger numbers are now expected to reach 29 million passengers by 2020 and 31 million passengers by 2022 – a drastic increase from the 24.3 million passengers recorded in 2017 and 17.6 million passengers in 2012.

Without a major capacity boost, these flows will certainly strain the existing terminal building, which has a design capacity for 25 million passengers.

Diagram of Vancouver International Airport’s planned ‘central’ expansion. (Vancouver Airport Authority)

This does not mean YVR is not actively working to expand the terminal, it is just that it cannot do it quickly enough. As part of the $9.1-billion, 20-year expansion plan, the terminal building will be significant expanded with new wings containing dozens of additional contact jet bridges, passenger amenity areas, and logistical support areas.

The Pier D project, the first of the multi-phased terminal building expansion, at the international terminal will accommodate eight new gates, including four contact jet bridge gates and four bussing gates to support the new remote stand cluster on the eastern end of the terminal.

YVR is already adding more automatic border control kiosks in the customs hall to process passengers faster.

Vancouver International Airport crowding

Crowding at Vancouver International Airport on July 2, 2018. (Chris Wren / Twitter)

Not an ideal situation

So just how desirable are remote stands and the whole bus shuttle process for passengers and airport operators?

For passengers, it adds another layer of inconvenience when boarding or disembarking from the plane, especially the latter situation. This process generally takes more time than a contact jet bridge, and it can be particularly stressful if passengers have a tight window to make a connection. Checked baggage is also at a higher risk of being left at the airport.

Other major airports around the world like Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, Changi Airport in Singapore, Frankfurt Airport, and Schipol Airport in Amsterdam all have extensive remote stand operations, and their stands are usually placed far away at the edge of the airport tarmac.

When I was at Charles de Gaulle Airport earlier in the year, the bus ride between the plane and the terminal building took 20 minutes.

Vancouver International Airport YVR Remote Stand

The remote stand operations area at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. (Kenneth Chan / Daily Hive)

Fortunately, the bus ride on the YVR tarmac is unlikely to be anywhere as long, given that the airport is not nearly as large as its international counterparts, although the buses will likely be just as crowded to efficiently and quickly move as many passengers as possible.

Another aspect that could affect the comfort of passengers is weather. Passengers could be exposed to the cold, rain, and snow in the brief moment when walking between the remote stand’s walkway and the bus. However, this could be an enjoyable, novel experience if the weather cooperates, like a warm sunny day.

Airport operators generally do not prefer shuttling their passengers to remote stands, and the logistical operations of newly-constructed airports usually do not excessively centre around remote stands. It is an option of last resort.

But there are some exceptions: the much-delayed and maligned Berlin Brandenburg Airport, the new replacement international airport for Germany’s capital, has 85 remote stands and just 25 contact jet bridge gates.

For most airports, every effort is usually made to assign as many flights as possible to contact jet bridge gates to increase the satisfaction of passengers and gain more revenue from airlines.

Planes that use remote stands usually pay lower fees to the airport, and there are higher operational costs for the airport from operating the shuttle buses.

All things considered, remote stands are far better than the alternative situation YVR is seemingly doing everything in its power to avoid: lengthy delays simply because there is no available gate or parking space for an aircraft, with arriving passengers sitting and waiting in their plane on the tarmac until a space frees up.

Such situations are now quite common at Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ), which has also exploded in passenger growth from 33.4 million in 2011 to 47.1 million in 2017.

YYZ already has 11 remote aircraft stands east of Terminal 1 in an apron area known as the East Hold, but they are usually only active during the peak summer travel season (using these during the winter would be cruel).

Neighbouring Sea-Tac International Airport’s growth trend is just as staggering, rising from 32.2 million in 2012 to 46.9 million in 2017. Seattle’s airport is adding eight additional remote stands in a satellite area by 2020, and there are long-term plans to continue expanding by adding a new remote stand terminal.

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