Efficient taxying – Exeter Airport and Flybe show how it’s done

Exeter Airport.jpg

Fact is, the aviation world doesn’t have much in the way of ideas for becoming greener anytime soon. The only serious programme on the horizon is improved air traffic management – worth perhaps a valuable 12% in emissions but reliant on national authorities. Don’t hold your breath.

But I think there is something that is not getting adequate attention. It’s taxying (or taxiiing – as you wish.) Even at the same time as we’re getting better at putting aircraft  in the right place at the right time in the sky, we’re just awful at moving them from the terminal to the runway. In some places really awful. I was set thinking about this on a recent, enjoyable, trip.

Based in London I don’t often use the regional airline/airport system, but for complicated reasons I ended up flying from Exeter (see pic above) in the gorgeous southwest of England to Brussels in, well, Belgium. Exeter is not like Heathrow. Park the car, immediately jump in a minibus, arrive at the terminal 5min later. Kiosk check-in with Flybe, through security and buying coffee after another 10min.

Having behaved like a paranoid Londoner I’m ridiculously early of course, but Exeter, God bless, has a proper outdoor viewing terrace overlooking the pan and then the rest of the airport. A couple of Flybe Dash 8s on the apron with a First Choice A320. Off in the distance a couple of unwanted ex-SAS Q400s sulking behind the trees like disgraced puppies, and a sprinkling of BAe 146s and RJs passing through Flybe maintenance’s experienced hands, plus a Channel Express 737 of uncertain status.

The first Q400 (G-JECM since you ask) begins a tractor-assisted pushback, I check my watch and it’s 15:56. The first engine is started as the aircraft is reversing, and by the time it’s been turned through 90 degrees a hundred yards or so later the second is also running. A pause for checks and it sets off for the threshold of 08. A Twotter (G-BIHO) lands from the Scilly Isles, and by 16:02 the Q400 is rolling.

The second Q400 repeats the performance and Flybe has got two aircraft from being power-off at the gate into the sky in 13min.

(For completeness, at 16:10 the A320 – G-OOPP – pushes back, a Twin Diamond performs an overshoot, a piston single of some sort lands, and the A320 is rolling onto 08 before it’s left the runway. The Airbus rotates at 16:20.)

OK, I realise that sort of performance is not realistic at Heathrow, or Chicago, or wherever. But the opposite extreme, which is frequently the case, just seems unforgivable to me. From memory the worst I’ve personally witnessed was 14 aircraft queueing for take-off at Chicago O’Hare. I don’t know if it ever gets worse, but it’s certainly almost as bad at any number of airports.

And it matters – not only is this behaviour grimly ungreen, it’s particularly dire for local air quality near airports. I don’t think the industry can defend it.

Single-engine taxying helps, and of course shutting down for a while. But you’ll see from those links that industry practice differs. What’s really needed is vastly better “flow control”. Leave your comments if you have thoughts on all this. I plan to return to the subject.

My Brussels trip was great. I saw my first actual crashed widebody, was well looked after by Flybe out and back, and on the return flew into Exeter on a Devon evening of near perfection looking precisely like this pic by EN830.

Flybe Q400.jpg

And then I opened the door on my rental car into my face and split my eyebrow open and now I’m scarred for life – no really. I’d forgotten how dangerous air travel can be.

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8 Responses to Efficient taxying – Exeter Airport and Flybe show how it’s done

  1. Nicolas June 17, 2008 at 2:43 am #

    Sounds like a very logical suggestion. Like, an intermediate between Branson’s plan to tow the planes up to and from the runway, and today’s starting the engines sooo long before take-off. Let’s say a plane, full and ready to go, could be moved away, so the next arriving one could take the gate, but, instead of queuing for so long, every pilot would wait for his moment to go.

    I really wonder how much fuel it could save. I saw in an Airliner’s net thread, a few weeks ago, a comment about very long taxis at JFK, for instance, where planes would do a tour of the whole terminals complex, and, honestly, it sounded, well, wasteful, even if it had its utility.

  2. Kieran Daly June 17, 2008 at 10:37 am #

    Gate management is a big deal for airlines and, along with slot management, is I suspect the biggest driver of the lines for take-off that we see. Not much point in swapping take-off queues for post-landing queues of course.

    But I still suspect it could be much better managed.

  3. John S. June 17, 2008 at 5:47 pm #

    The long term answer is to provide aircraft with powered undercarriage. This will require only the APU to be running right up until takeoff.


  4. Andrew June 18, 2008 at 1:45 am #

    Maybe the answer could be an intermediate park, where planes are towed or pushed, to free up the gate.
    They sit there on APU until told to start engines, and an uninterupted taxi to take off.

    The ground control with todays computer skills ought to be a manageable operation, and it would for sure cut down on fuel consumption and emissions.

    Most airports could find spots for the intermediate parking.

  5. Kieran Daly June 19, 2008 at 9:41 am #

    Variations on the intermediate parking idea are probably in the mix somewhere. Not so sure about powered landing-gear – you rarely get something for nothing in aircraft design and I don’t think is going to be an exception.

  6. Adam Spink June 19, 2008 at 7:32 pm #

    Intermediate parking area…I’d argue that there isn’t room, certainly at any UK airport. Definitely not at Heathrow. Virgin tried towing an a/c out to the holding point. Once. Then quietly dropped it. A/c towing around the airfield are a lot slower than taxying a/c, so add to congestion. Also there’s nowhere convenient for an a/c to remain stationary for five minutes while it starts up near the holding point, and it’s a loooong way back to stand if there’s a technical problem with the engines.

  7. car rental brisbane airport January 14, 2009 at 2:14 am #

    Sometimes , can be more usefull to rent a car than buy one . It’s a good offert !

  8. Kieran Daly January 14, 2009 at 9:32 am #

    Citroen Xsara. Sort-of quasi-people-mover. Door bigger than my Mondeo. Some sort of minor human-factors safety lesson in there. Hurt like hell at the time!

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