Five ways to proactively engage stakeholders with your airport project

Sky Harbor Construction Virtual Tour
Drones can facilitate real-time, interactive virtual project site walk-throughs. These tours not only reduce the need for site visits but can also save project owners time and money by allowing the project team and public stakeholders to log in from anywhere and interact with drone operators.

Communication is essential to finding success at home and in the workplace—whether you’re trying to determine who will pick up the kids from school or scheduling meetings with colleagues. And yet, in this time of COVID-19, it may feel like all you do is communicate. Between video calls, conference calls, emails, and calendar invites, if you’re working remotely you may be experiencing a bit of communication overload. As a result, effective, thoughtful, and concise communication has never been more important.

Project communication in aviation is no exception. Every airport project is unique, yet they all share a need for identifying stakeholders, being inclusive, and writing and messaging to reach the audience. A proactive engagement approach sets the stage for a successful airport project. Therefore, public involvement early and often in an airport project is vital.

Following are five ways you can create effective stakeholder engagement for your airport project.

1. Develop a public involvement plan

A public involvement plan (PIP) is used to document the goals and outcomes of the engagement efforts, audiences, and outreach techniques and tools proposed for your airport project. Whether this is a written document with steps and initiatives to follow or a discussion during the start of a project, having a plan promotes follow through and ensures the right stakeholders and public involvement processes are included for your project. This plan also serves as a reference moving forward, should the need arise to review any of the outreach efforts determined through the process.

Your PIP should include:

  • A list of stakeholders involved in the project, or who would benefit from understanding the purpose and impacts of the project.
  • The type of outreach efforts, both in person and visual, to be used throughout the project.
  • The frequency and timing of each type of effort and who is responsible for coordinating these efforts.

Larger projects, such as a master plan update or major runway reconstruction, may require a more extensive PIP to be shared with project stakeholders. Small projects—such as crack sealing a taxilane—may allow for the PIP to be discussed informally at a project scoping meeting and implemented through communication to stakeholders.
Ultimately, one of the first steps in developing a PIP is ensuring that the right stakeholders are getting the necessary information about each project.

2. Involve the right stakeholders

Airport sponsors and project champions want to ensure the right people are brought to the table for each project. That’s not to say everyone involved needs to agree with the project, but the pool of stakeholders should be considered before moving forward. Outreach should look beyond the boundaries of the project. Always take time to ask, “Who isn’t at the table that needs to be?” Following are some common stakeholder groups to consider.

Airport tenants and users

  • Pilots
  • Based aircraft owners
  • Hangar owners
  • Flying clubs
  • Airport businesses

Local government

  • Zoning board members
  • Airport board members
  • County and city employees
  • Maintenance staff
  • Township board members

Off-airport stakeholders

  • General public
  • Area businesses
  • Chambers of commerce
  • Economic development authority
  • Citizen committees
  • Adjacent landowners

State and federal agencies

  • MnDOT Office of Aeronautics
  • FAA Flight Procedure
  • Customs and border patrol
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • MN Department of Natural Resources
  • FAA Part 139 inspectors

More participation can mean more conflict—and that’s okay! Successful engagement can reveal a diversity of opinions. Sometimes differences of opinion are subtle; other times they are highly divergent. Either way, the process of whittling down and making choices can expose conflict. This is common and expected. The public involvement process helps participants re-converge toward consensus as they make trade-offs, develop a shared framework, and balance vision. Guiding principles or shared values can help guide stakeholders to agreement or, at a minimum, consent.

The recently completed Duluth Sky Harbor Airport runway relocation project, which involved rotating, then building, a completely new 2,600-ft. runway in order to protect 27 acres of vulnerable forest and wildlife, began as a highly controversial project. The Duluth Airport Authority adopted a robust and transparent PIP that designed a process to provide meaningful engagement and build trust among stakeholders. Public and environmental agencies were able to provide input in the planning and environmental process and ultimately supported the final project and multiple years of construction.

3. Involve stakeholders early

Stakeholders want consistency and transparency. Today, with a world of knowledge at our fingertips, we’re used to getting information instantly whenever and wherever we want it. Timely and accurate project updates communicated regularly not only make your communications more effective, but they also build trust.

Stakeholders feel empowered, and team collaboration is most effective, when stakeholders have a seat at the table. This can include committee involvement, personal visits with stakeholders, workshops, and other interactive tools for numerous stakeholders to participate. This ensures all stakeholder needs are met beyond the physical location of the meeting while also providing important project and technical insight.

There is nothing more discouraging during a project than when the data has been gathered and analyzed and the alternatives vetted, but it’s discovered that because the city council wasn’t involved until the end of the process, local funding won’t be available for two more years.

Each stakeholder’s expertise brings a different vision to the project. This involvement can shed new light on a situation and help prevent conflicts before they happen. Waiting until the end of the project to involve stakeholders can lead to redoing certain aspects of a project or, worse, needing to start over.

4. Produce user-friendly documents

Aviation is a specialized field. While many people within the community are impacted by the airport through local funding, decision making, proximity to the airport, business use at the airport, or pilots coming to town for a meal, the ins and outs of the funding responsibilities, airspace requirements, and design standards are often not well known in the community. That’s why it’s important that documents be understood by both pilot and pedestrian. Consider the use of colors, symbols, and pictures to demonstrate a construction phasing plan or to show the type of aircraft using the local airport. Make sure the technical aspects or ideas from the project are communicated for all audiences, including the city council and the public.

5. Explore different engagement tools

All project information can be brought together using multiple engagement tools. From meetings to publications, there are endless possibilities when it comes to communicating your airport information. Keep in mind the type of facilities and technology available to each audience; communication should be clear, concise, and effective.

Examples of engagement tools

  • User-friendly construction phasing plans or construction notices
  • Project committees and workgroups
  • Meeting people where they are: pop-up meetings and events
  • 1:1 meetings
  • Newsletters
  • Open houses
  • Project information station
  • Social media
  • Project information kits
  • Project website

Airports are hidden gems within our communities, providing a front door to new businesses, emergency medical access for all patients, agricultural assistance through crop spraying, and a place for the community to gather, among other things. Continue to find new ways to communicate with your community, tell the story of your airport, and build understanding, consensus, and support for this hidden gem!

—Melissa Underwood is a senior planner/project manager at SEH.


Sign up to receive the Briefings newsletter in your inbox

Current Issue

Read the current issue of Briefings