How shared terminal infrastructure can optimise the passenger experience and revenue

There are a number of ways airports have organised their terminal infrastructure around the world but is one system preferable to another? We look at how airports arrange their terminals and whether they could optimise their processes – such as their baggage handling operations – by sharing terminal infrastructure.

By Uffe Edslev and David Delaney


The different approaches to terminal infrastructure

There are a couple of approaches to how terminals and their baggage handling systems (BHS) are built and utilised and different infrastructural strategies have been adopted in different areas of the world. These generally fall into two categories:

  • Airline-owned terminals
  • Common-use and shared-use terminals

Airline-owned terminals

The airline-owned (or leased) terminal infrastructure is commonly seen in the US, following a history of airlines building their own terminals and BHS rather than the terminals being a matter of public investment. Airlines own the buildings and BHS, which is staffed with airline personnel and furnished with the airline’s designs and furniture.

Common-use and shared-use terminals

The common-use terminal system, generally found in the rest of the world, enables airlines to share the same space and equipment owned by the airport, without the need to install multiple terminals owned by each airline.

In a common-use airport terminal, the airport provides operational space to airlines. Based on the lease agreements, the airport may provide certain levels of system infrastructure such as the BHS, IT systems, check-in kiosks and boarding bridges.

A variation of the common-use terminal is the shared-use concept. In the shared-use environment, the airport provides a high level of infrastructure which allows airlines to share infrastructure. For example, an airline can use a particular check-in and gates for a morning flight, and a different airline can take over the same systems for an afternoon flight.

San Francisco International Airport’s new Harvey Milk Terminal 1 is a shared-use facility.

It adopts the common-use concept but airlines share the terminal and the BHS according to scheduled times of the day in which certain sections of the building at check-in and make-up are allocated to different airlines. Large displays indicate the specific airline’s brand to guide passengers where to go, showing clearly the airline colours and profiles. The displays can switch to the next airline profile when their flights are scheduled.

There are clear benefits and drawbacks to each of these ways of organising terminals and the BHS within an airport. For the airport looking at building a new terminal or developing an existing one, which approach offers greater opportunities for optimising baggage handling processes and reducing costs?

The airline-owned terminal: Raising the airline profile vs expense?

An airline-owned terminal gives the airline full control over their operations and resources to ensure the passenger flow is optimised. They can offer gate areas to their passengers and can reduce ground time with their own ground services, leading to faster turnaround times.

But while this approach may raise an airline’s profile in the eyes of the passenger, it involves an inherent risk. It is a huge capital investment that must be maximised at all times to be cost effective, which is difficult when terminals are empty and the BHS is not required for substantial portions of the day.

Moreover, this system can’t offer the optimal passenger experience for transferring passengers who must collect bags and check them in again between flights.

Common-use terminals: Airline-provided infrastructure

In many common-use airports, airlines need to lease space and often need to build their own infrastructure, including the baggage handling system as a tenant. This creates a high upfront cost for airlines to offer new routes.

In numerous cases, airlines have entered into new airports, built infrastructure to support their operation, then either left the airport or been relocated to a different part of the terminal.

This leaves behind airline infrastructure that may or may not be able to be reused by the next airline tenant. In addition, airports can have situations where multiple baggage handling systems exist within the same terminal. These baggage handlings systems are different technologies that need to be operated and maintained, often by separate contracts. Furthermore, the security agency (TSA) needs to staff multiple screening systems.

Common-use terminals: Airport-provided infrastructure

Airports can take control of the baggage handling systems by building and maintaining these systems as part of the common-use building infrastructure. The common-use approach offers advantages all-round: to the passenger, the airlines and the airport.

The common-use terminal system also helps airlines to reduce the OPEX cost of their operations. Airlines no longer need to install and maintain their own terminals and are able to access the same resources and services from a common terminal.

The advantages of the ‘one-terminal’ approach

For those airports where space is an issue, the shared BHS and shared security screening of the ‘one-terminal’ approach can save significant footprint. If the airport uses close-looped ICS technology, further space can be saved given its ability to handle both inbound and outbound sortation.

A common-use terminal enables an integrated BHS operation from high-level controls. It means the airport gains a better overview and visibility into the BHS operations, with greater chances for system optimisation, load-sharing and increased capacity. An interconnected, agile system is impossible to achieve in separately-owned terminals.

Moreover, a common-use terminal can cater for more airlines, driving competition to the benefit of the passenger, airlines and the airport.

For older airports struggling to find extra space to expand their operations and have airlines that wish to retain their individual profiles, the shared-use baggage handling system can be a successful solution.

The case of San Francisco Airport

This was the position San Francisco Airport found itself in when redeveloping its Harvey Milk Terminal 1. It was constrained in space, so decided to move to a consolidated, shared-use BHS that uses ICS technology. The shared system allows redundant routes to balance the load between x-ray machines, saving space while achieving the same level of functionality. The BHS also reduced the number of screening machines from the 15 machines that had previously served independently airline-owned and operated baggage systems to just seven, optimising the valuable footprint of the airport.

The bigger the system being designed for common-use, the greater the opportunities to build in synergies which will save space, investment and operational costs. Instead of four airlines with four individual systems having to build and operate their own system, a shared system designed for all four airlines will achieve synergies in assets and operation.

The most obvious advantage is synergies in the security systems that typically are staffed by third-party providers, such as the TSA in the US. Centralised security systems will allow for the choice of more advanced technologies resulting in higher efficiency and better operational management of staff.

The case of Denver International Airport

Denver International Airport has recently adopted a partial form of shared use. Denver provides check-in, security screening and sortation to make-up carousels as part of it’s common infrastructure for airlines to use.  However, in reality, Denver has 6 individual outbound baggage handling systems for outbound screening and sortation. The Denver C-CBRA project combines the 6 CBRA systems into one allowing for increased TSA efficiency.

Denver airport’s implementation of cart-based ICS technology saves TSA staff from having to  lift bags and allows the mixing of clear and alarmed bags due to the 100 percent baggage tracking. Denver is a good case study for how an airport can connect multiple independent baggagte systems in order to improve operations.

Irrespective of the version employed, the benefits of sharing a terminal and the BHS are clear:

  • For the airport: A shared terminal helps it streamline the entire baggage handling process to ensure that luggage is quickly and securely routed to its correct destination.
  • For the airlines: Airlines can make both CAPEX and OPEX savings and enhance the passenger experience.
  • For passengers: These systems provide a more efficient and seamless process as they can check-in and board their flights without having to worry about having to transfer their baggage between multiple terminals.
  • For the TSA: Sharing terminals can save on footprint, inspection stations and personnel.


For airports looking to avoid running into lack of capacity or space, adopting the common-use terminal approach will be the key to being able to cope with future passenger volumes. Sharing this critical infrastructure and resources can only lead to reductions in both CAPEX and OPEX costs and maintain seamless passenger experiences. And even for those airports where airline profile remains a priority, the shared-use terminal system successfully implemented at San Francisco’s Terminal 1 proves a viable ‘middle’ approach to infrastructure organisation at an airport.

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