Terminal 2E at Charles de Gaulle Airport

John Conway, Jean-Claude Futterman-Baylon, Chris Guttierez, Radhya Mohamed


Terminal 2E at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, France (See Figure 1) collapsed on May 23, 2004. The $900 million airport, known as one of the largest in the world was facing problems less than a year after its opening. A large piece of the roof fell, killing four and injuring three. Its concrete roof shell was to blame for the failure. Cyclical loads caused toomuch stretch to the roof, eventually leading to its collapse.

Paris' Charles De Gaulle Airport is known as the largest airport in Paris and the second busiest airport in Europe.
Terminal 2E was designed to be "the most powerful hub in Europe, ahead of Frankfurt and London". Located 23 kilometers northeast from Paris, the airport has shuttles that can bring passengers all around Paris and nearby areas.
Figure 1: Rendered picture of Terminal2E at Charles de Gaulle Airport before collapse
The shuttles transport an average of 200,000 passengers daily. Combined with the buses, taxi, and limousine services, transportation is never a problem. With Paris only forty five minutes away, Disney World ten minutes away, and Brussels a hour away, this airport has quickly become a major hub for the city of Paris and its surrounding area. (http://www.paris-cdg.com/)

At 6:57 A.M. GMT a section of the vaulted roof measuring 20 meters by 30 meters fell, killing four and injuring three. The terminal hailed for its futuristic appearance and praised as the crown jewel of the airport had collapsed only eleven months after its opening. The scene was described as "cataclysmic, just like an earthquake". Questions began to come up as to why a glass and steel structure applauded for its advances in engineering could have collapsed so soon after opening. (Lichfield)

The Berthier report questions if all procedures were followed during the construction of the structure, since ADP was the architect, project manager and owner. There were debates on what to do with a new structure. Choices ranged from raising the structure to a higher height or to take the existing one and improve on the same design. A judicial inquiry was faced with the choice of charging ADP, Vinci, or even Paul Andreu would be charged with involuntary homicide charges. (Downey)
The terminal was reopened on March 30th, 2008 after a complete demolition of what was left after the collapse. Concrete was replaced with all steel and metal to ensure that the same problems would not arise again. The construction of the new terminal took place between 2006 and 2008 and cost €100m. (Airport Technology)

Key Words

Terminal 2E, Charles de Gaulle Airport, Concrete beams/roof, Metal support structure, Departure Lounge, Paul Andreu, Shell structure, Aeroports de Paris, Vaulted roof, Curving structure, Thermal Expansion, Tension and Compression, and Elliptical structure.

Before the Collapse

Minutes before the collapse, several passengers had heard cracking sounds and noticed a collection of concrete dust coming from the roof. There were many safety concerns that were involved with the construction of the structure. The construction process itself was rushed, and there were many concerns about the safety of workers during the construction. The terminal failed to receive a safety certificate on it's first attempt when a chandelier fell during inspection of the terminal. The opening was delayed by a week because of this. It was clear that there were issues with support since the beginning and had it not been a holiday weekend and a Sunday, the results could have been much more drastic and numbers would have been much higher.

Causes of​ the Failure

Before the roof of Terminal 2E collapsed, passengers started to hear cracking sounds and started to notice dust falling from the ceiling in the departure lounge located in Terminal 2E. During the time of the collapse, a little before 7 am, the departure lounge was very empty. The departure lounge contained some stores such as duty free shops and cafes. The walls of the building symbolized and represented a giant, bent airliner. The curved, futuristic looking, elliptical structure fell onto cars and trucks belonging to the airport that were parked underneath the lounges' floor (Lichfield).
Figure 2: Detailed Diagram of Structure Layers

Terminal 2Es' departure lounge roof and structure as a whole consisted of three main structural layers: An outer layer made up of plate glass, a middle layer that was composed of a metal support structure, and an inner layer part of the shell that consisted of concrete blocks that supported the metal structure (See Figure 2). Both the middle metal support structure and inner layer were the main reason that the departure lunge collapsed (Net Sources International). First of all, the metal support structure of the shell was found to be too deeply embedded into the concrete blocks, which is the inner layer. This meant that the metal support structure pierced through the concrete blocks. This poor attention to structural design most likely caused cracking in the concrete layer/blocks, which led to the weakening of the roof, which then decreased the stability of the structure. It also put even more tension on the outer layer considering that the structures' forces were pushing out in both the right and left direction of the elliptical structure (Downey).

The concrete supports/blocks, in many reports, was also considered to be insufficiently reinforced during pre-fabrication or the reinforcements could have been badly positioned during construction. Missing was the repeated way in which the metal structure and concrete were all placed together and this inconsistency might have led to the stress that caused the collapse was carried out to the weakest points of the elliptical structure. "The horizontal concrete beams on which the shell rested were weakened by the passage of ventilation ducts"(Downey). Finally, one of the biggest factors that led to the collapse of the "crown jewel" was the fact that rapid thermal expansion happened upon the outer metal structure, made the metal support structure to contract and expand the concrete. The temperature during the week before the collapse was around 25 degrees celcius. The day/morning of the collapse, the temperature was around 4 degrees celcius, a dramatic drop in temperature, which could also have been due to the fact that the structure collapsed during the early morning, when the temperature tends to be colder (Downey).

Conflicting Accounts

After much research of the failure/collapse of the departure lounge located in Terminal 2E at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, France there have not been any news sources sources or government reports that differentiate in what the general conclusion has been about how the departure lounge part of the structure collapsed on MaY 23, 2004.

Preventing the Collapse

The collapse of Terminal 2E should not have been much of a shock. There were many signs that showed that the construction of the terminal was not in a good shape and could have been prevented. One of the major signs that indicated the dangers of building the terminal was choice of material and the way it was handled. Having the choice of material be concrete, steal arches, and metal structure could have been understandable though due to the fact they were some of the sturdiest materials for the type of form is was making and being molded into. But even then, there could have been a better detailed look at how the metal support structure was structurally placed along with the concrete block.

However, by puncturing the steal arches and the framework so deeply into the concrete (See Figure 3), it should have raised a red flag to the managers of the project to maybe use
Figure 3: Diagram showing the way Terminal 2E's structure collapsed.
a a larger piece of concrete to make it more stable or just different type of material to hold the structure together and prevent it from crashing. Since the exterior was a metal support structure and did not resist temperature change, it would have been better for the exterior layer of the shell to have been of maybe a different type of material, a material that would not have contracted or expanded in which ever weather condition was present at any point in time at Charles de Gaulle Airport.

Learning from the Collapse

The collapse itself can mainly be blamed on the use of concrete as a structure (Miller). The similar terminal, Terminal 2F, was made with the same design as the Terminal 2E, and used 5,400 tons of steelwork arches. Thus the steel arches made erecting Terminal 2F's roof a lot more difficult and expensive. To keep cost down and to ease construction, the design was reverted back to using concrete for the structure instead of the steelwork arches (Reina 3). Although it is reported that the concrete had passed France's nation standards, it was still one of the major factors of the collapse (Miller). Nevertheless, Terminal 2E's sister Terminal, Terminal 2F, is still standing which only proves the point that settling for ease and economy is an unacceptable practice, especially for a structure within a major Airport.
Still an isolated incident like this is not enough to create or reinforce too much new regulation. We can only hope that the industry becomes more conscious about their choices and does not always choose economy over stability. It is one thing that designers and constructors should always keep in mind.

Lessons not yet learned

We have learned many lessons such as paying more attention to detail when constructing and putting together different parts of structure, such as the pre-fabrication of the concrete blocks. The concrete tube that was the main failure of the terminal was replaced in the reconstruction with steel and glass structure, the steel serving as the sturdier new material. But there is a high possibility that this type of collapse could happen again due to the fact that architects and engineers might not highly consider external factors such as temperature change with more focus and research. Also inspectors need to stop coming under the pressure of a big company and jsut do what is right and make a company rebuild or redesign something if the inspectors believe that the structure is not up to code. This undoubtedly might happen again for the simple facts that big companies hold major control over smaller groups/ organizations if those organizations don't just do their job and tell comapnies to change something and stick to the codes that they should apply to everyone.


BBC News (May 23, 2004) "Paris airport roof collapse kills five" BBC News <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3739715.stm> The news article discusses the collapse of the roof and events that took place that day. It also discusses problems found before the collapse that should have been taken into account and solved before any incident had occurred.

Crumbley, Bruce (May 30, 2004). "Why did the Charles de Gaulle Take a Fall?" Time Magazine. <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,644131,00.html>
This article writes about the fact that the 2E Terminal at Charles de Gaulle was supposed to be Airport of Paris' (ADP) "crown jewel," now it only brings into question ADP's organizational and structural skills, and their whole architecture/engineering branch of their company for building airports. ADP will also suffer financial consequences and it might have cost them contract with many different international airports across the world.

Downey, Claire (February 22, 2005). "Investigation into Charles de Gaulle Terminal Collapse Is Highly Critical" Architectural Record. <http://archrecord.construction.com/news/daily/archives/050222terminal.asp>
The article speaks about the actual reason why structurally the departure lounge in Terminal 2E collapsed and the factors that led to the collapse. It also talks about the repercussions of the structure collapsing and the chargers that ADP and the main architects on the project might face in the future.

Horn, Christian (April 2005). "Paris Air Terminal Collapse Report." Architecture Week <http://www.architectureweek.com/2005/0427/news_1-1.html>
The article describes the collapse and several theories about what may have led to the failure. An insight is given into the layout and structure of the building and provides basic background information.

Janberg, Nicholas (February 15, 2005). "Charles de Gaulle Airport, Terminal 2E" Structurae. <http://en.structurae.de/structures/data/index.cfm?id=s0009234 >
This a posting that shows specific dates and timelines that show the progression of the event that happened before and after the collapse. it also gives specifics as too who was specifically was designed and assigned to build specific parts of Terminal 2E and the newest reconstructions that took its place.

Knight, Will (May 24, 2004). "Innovative airport terminal collapses in Paris." New Scientist <http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn5027-innovative-airport-terminal-collapses-in-paris.html>
This article gives a basic news report to what happened and gives information about the foundation and dimensions of the actual terminal. It also references the architect and gives responses from officials.

Lichfield, John (May 24, 2004). "Four die as roof section collapses at Charles de Gaulle airport." The Independent. <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/four-die-as-roof-section-collapses-at-charles-de-gaulle-airport-564518.html>
Gives us the exact time when the terminal collapsed and gave us a description of how unoccupied the terminal was at the time. It talks about the Terminal 2E being built around what new types of Airbus needed to be maintained and also that even before it opened, it had already started to have some problems.

Miller, Peta (12 Jul 2004). "Terminal collapse at Paris airport blamed on concrete. " Business Insurance < //http://ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/login?url=http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=665452621&Fmt=3&clientId=9874&RQT=309&VName=PQD// >
This article talks about the losses that the airport suffered both financial losses and the people that were either killed or injured by the collapse.

Net Resources International (2010) "Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG/LFPG), France." Airport-Technology <http://www.airport-technology.com/projects/degaulle/>
This article gives background information about the airport. Discusses terminals and engineering associated with it. Statistics also included such as passengers and major airlines.

Reina, Peter (Jul 2004) "Investigation into collapse of Terminal 2E concourse continues" Architectural Record <http://archrecord.construction.com/features/digital/archives/0407dignews-1.asp>
This article goes indepth into the investigation of the collapse of Terminal 2E. It has many graphics and explains how temperature changes and the actual choice of materials affected the structure of the Terminal causing it to collapse.

Schofield, Hugh (May 23, 2004) "France's showcase airport under spotlight." BBC News <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3740567.stm>
This article give in statistics of the terminal including cost, capacity, and structural materials. It also gives insight to the long list of architectural failures plaguing France.

Smith, Craig S. and Ariane Bernard (7 Jul 2004) "Weakened Concrete Is Cited in Collapse at Paris Airport. " New York Times <http://ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/login?url=http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=659476241&Fmt=3&clientId=9874&RQT=309&VName=PQD>
This article talks about the material used to build the terminal and the elements that caused it to collapse, such as the temperature inside and outside the terminal.