The health of passengers and employees is a primary concern for airports, so evolving protocols and utilization of standards from other industries are important to understand. At a time when airports are not focused on adding capacity, it can be timely to look at improvement of operations and performance of existing facilities, and maximizing useful life. All of this can be accomplished under a practice called existing building commissioning.

By engaging a commissioning agent to test current building systems, repairing or replacing failed components, and optimizing the performance of building controls, facility owners, managers, operators and maintenance personnel are able to apply the results of this process to strategies that save energy and improve performance.

This, alongside facility condition assessments, brings new life to an existing building by updating assets and maintenance processes. Many airports have been able to allocate funds to retro-commissioning by recognizing that there often is an opportunity for significant return on investment in the form of energy savings.

Now, as airports begin to look to future operations and the return of passengers, some may consider utilizing a shifted retro-commissioning process to study solutions beyond energy efficiency, focusing more on health and passenger confidence.

Applying Models

While there are standards in place for the other industries, such as in hospitals, government facilities and other industrial clean rooms, definitive guidelines have yet to be established for systems in other public environments. Because of this, airport operators must continue to follow ongoing research to determine what protocols will be effective for an airport environment.

When performing commissioning for existing buildings, such research and guidelines may be useful in informing modifications to these concepts to work with airport infrastructure. The commissioning process begins with assessing an airport to look closely at what is already in place, then using that information to build a plan to provide solutions for updated airflow management.

Depending on the standards and guidelines that become available, certain solutions — such as putting outside air dampers at 100%, disabling demand control ventilation and adding better filters systems, like MERV-13 — may prove to be effective in mitigating certain risks.

Building on the Past

Airports already have sophisticated HVAC systems in place that are designed to provide code-required airflow in the most efficient way possible. For years, the focus of the existing building commissioning process has been to limit the amount of outside air being pumped into a facility, as conditioning large volumes of outside air costs money and lowers a building’s energy efficiency. Additionally, airport HVAC systems have often been altered to provide demand control over the system so that airflow can be shut down to certain areas during periods of low traffic.

Now, however, with airborne contaminants becoming a more prominent concern, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has recently indicated that “Ventilation and filtration provided by heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems can reduce the airborne concentration of SARS-CoV-2 and thus the risk of transmission through the air.” While this statement does not include guidance for how to effectively mitigate airborne pathogens, the organization goes on to say that effective mitigation of these risks depends on many factors, many of which are impractical in airports due to the layout and architecture of the space.

Thus, to make effective changes to the system and maintenance operations to decrease the concentration of contaminants requires an understanding of air movement and air pressures throughout a building, the existing systems and the movement of people.

Pivot to Today

Existing building commissioning considers many factors, starting with an assessment of the current systems and maintenance operations in place. Because of unavoidable aging infrastructure, airports may not be fully aware of the condition of their assets. This could result in pieces of equipment not functioning or spaces that do not have the necessary airflow.

Uncovering these current conditions is the first step to developing a comprehensive plan for updates. While a path forward has yet to be determined, having a condition assessment will allow an airport to effective implement solutions once proven, effective guidelines for airflow are in place.

This state of uncertainty can leave airport owners and operators unsure of how to proceed and how to allocate capital funding. Preparing today with a condition assessment can help airports be ready to perform a full retro-commissioning process to implement proven solutions that meet new standards.

The Future of Airport Operations

The process of performing commissioning for existing buildings will always be about looking closely at a facility to understand how it is used and maintained to make recommendations for improvements. This shift in commissioning procedures for airport terminal systems will require new processes and equipment, ultimately costing more to operate.

While guidelines and standards have yet to be determined, the upside for airports that begin this process today is preparedness. Airports that have assessed the conditions of their assets and outlined their systems stand ready to implement the proper solutions when airflow guidelines for the mitigation of airborne pathogens, in airports, become available. In this way, airports can start down the path of rebuilding confidence among passengers and tenant, airline and airport personnel.


The future operation of airports and other public facilities may require that many organizations reconsider their facilities’ maintenance and systems. Performing commissioning for existing buildings and facility condition assessments can help.

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David Meyers is director of commissioning for Burns & McDonnell. He manages 140 commissioning professionals in 23 cities, providing services to healthcare, higher education, government, manufacturing, aviation, commercial, retail and corporate clients.