New York Kennedy airport trial provides glimpse into the future of airport ground operations

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AIRPORTS

Two pairs of binoculars still sit on the window sill at the Japan Airlines flight operations office overlooking New York Kennedy airport Terminal 1. But Joseph Gutierrez, who began his career at JAL 22 years ago as a dispatcher and is now JAL's director of flight operations at Kennedy, does not need his binoculars any more.

In early May JAL became one of three carriers at the airport to begin testing Sensis Aerobahn, a real-time surface position tool made possible by recently installed multi-lateration technology. Aerobahn is now providing airline operational staff, terminal operators and US Federal Aviation Administration controllers computerised images of Kennedy's congested ramps, taxiways and runways that were previously viewed through binoculars or closed circuit television monitors.

"This completes the picture," Gutierrez says. "I grew up with the old style. This is the culmination of what we've been coming to the last 20 to 30 years in terms of the integration of the computer in airline operations."

The director of Sensis's airport automation business segment, Dan London, says that before multi-lateration "it was really binoculars and eyesight". He adds: "We're going from radios and binoculars to real-time surveillance."

Aerobahn or similar software could eventually become an important part of the FAA's next-generation solution for improving the efficiency of airport operations. Kennedy is seen as a perfect testbed for new ground surveillance technology as the airport is infamously plagued by ground delays, with take-off queues often exceeding 1h even in good weather.

Bill Huisman, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey's Aviation Development Council (ADC), says a task force established in 2007 to investigate a spike in delays at New York's airports first identified Aerobahn as a potential solution for Kennedy.

The ADC, a non-profit organisation funded by the port authority, concluded last year a contract with Sensis authorising it to provide airlines, terminal operators and the port authority with the Aerobahn service for two years. The FAA had already contracted Sensis to install at Kennedy Aerobahn and Airport Surface Detection Equipment (ASDE-X), a runway incursion prevention tool that now feeds Aerobahn information on aircraft and vehicles picked up from multi-lateral sensors placed alongside Kennedy's taxiways, runways and ramps.

"It gives everyone a nice way of seeing what's going on in the airport simultaneously," Huisman says. "This is a tremendous leap from the technology that was being used. It is head and shoulders above."

Gutierrez says that before Aerobahn "there was no way of precisely knowing the situation out there". Now he is able to see on his computer screen exactly how many aircraft are in sequence and estimate how long it will take for his aircraft to reach the head of the queue.

 sensis-aerobahn
Sensis Aerobahn provides a real-time picture of all aircraft and ground vehicles at New York Kennedy

Gutierrez says this helps his team makes fuel and crew management decisions as JAL's 747s often take off from Kennedy at their maximum weight with flightcrews in danger of exceeding their maximum duty times by the time they land in Tokyo.

"We've used it primarily to monitor taxiway situations - to monitor how long it takes aircraft to taxi to the runway," Gutierrez says. "It tells us if we're going to have a problem."

Robert Rosenbaum, JetBlue Airways station operations manager at Kennedy, adds: "For us it's about managing gates, taxi times in and out and keeping customer impact to a minimum."

JetBlue is using Aerobahn at its operations centre and operations tower at Terminal 5, which opened last year. Rosenbaum says before Aerobahn his ramp controllers had to rely on intuition rather than real-time information.

"This kind of backs up what we knew in gut and experience," he says. "There were a lot of things we 'saw' that we didn't see. This gives us the data, the back-up for what we thought."

Rosenbaum says knowing exactly how many aircraft are on the take-off queue helps his team of ramp controllers provide better information to pilots, who can then relay the information to passengers. He says Aerobahn is also helping JetBlue uphold its "passenger bill of rights", which the carrier introduced after the infamous Valentine's Day snowstorm of 2007 when several of its aircraft became stranded on the Kennedy tarmac for up to 10h.

To make sure that incident is not repeated and the "passenger bill of rights" is not violated, Rosenbaum has set his Aerobahn monitor to flash those flights which have not taken off within 45min after pushback. Rosenbaum can then start to monitor these aircraft and decide whether to bring a flight back to the gate.

He says with Aerobahn he can more accurately calculate how much longer it will be before take-off and, by monitoring taxiway congestion, determine how long it could take to get an aircraft back to the terminal if necessary.

"Before we were kind of at mercy of the tower," Rosenbaum says. "Now we have a clear picture of exactly where he is and what's in front of him."

He says Aerobahn is also helping JetBlue manage the repositioning of empty aircraft between the terminal and remote parking spots or maintenance hangars. Rosenbaum says Kennedy's ground controllers often reject requests to reposition aircraft, claiming there is too much congestion even during quite periods, but with Aerobahn JetBlue is now able to question the controllers.

"It's about transparency," Rosenbaum says. "Once the tower sees we're peaking over their shoulder - it's not like they are not doing a good job but maybe there's a little incentive to do the job better."

Sensis also has installed Aerobahn at JetBlue's headquarters in Queens, where all of the carrier's dispatchers are based. Rosenbaum says dispatchers are using Aerobahn to help decide if they should revise and re-file flight plans, especially during poor weather.

Rosenbaum and Gutierrez say Aerobahn allows airlines to see if aircraft with certain departure fixes are being cleared quicker. Departures can sometimes be expedited by refiling a flight plan with a new fix. "Dispatchers and crew services really get a big bang for the buck," Rosenbaum says.

Gutierrez says JAL has used Aerobahn to determine whether to call the FAA tactical customer advocate at the command centre in Washington DC. He says the advocate can help expedite departures by alerting the Kennedy control tower of a flightcrew duty time issue and by talking to various control centres in the USA and Canada to help approve a revised flight plan. This helps JAL "avoid a turn back to the hotel".

In addition to JetBlue's Terminal 5 and the JAL operations office in Terminal 1, Aerobahn is being used by Delta Air Lines, which operates a hub at Terminals 2 and 3. It also is being used by the operating companies overseeing Terminals 1 and 4, where about 40 airlines are indirectly benefiting from the technology.

The deputy manager of operations at Terminal One Management, Neil Samaroo, says his ramp controllers are using the newly installed technology to alert ground crew and decide on possible gate changes. "Once the aircraft lands, we know immediately where he is," Samaroo says. "It helps us gauge decision making."

Samaroo and Rosenbaum point out that ramp controllers can now see exactly where an aircraft is as it taxis from the active runway to the terminal. This information helps the controllers determine if it makes sense to delay a pushback of a departing aircraft by a few minutes to get an arriving aircraft to the gate quicker. While ramp controllers have good views from their towers, they cannot see the entire airport and when there is heavy congestion it can be difficult to see past faraway aircraft.

WEALTH OF INFORMATION

"Aerobahn is a wealth of information for better customer service," Samaroo says. "This really helps you when you are in a situation."

Samaroo adds Terminal One Management is also using the archived data available through Aerobahn and the replay function to provide reports to its 14 foreign airline customers. He says for specific incidences it is able to now better explain long delays. It also calculates average taxi times for its airlines, which can help with fuel management and even prompt a carrier to reschedule certain flights.

Huisman says the port authority is using the data to determine when it should repave certain taxiways. London says Sensis has broken down Kennedy into 437 "regions of interest," including all the taxiways and hold points. For each region data can be collected on the total number of movements and hold times. "It's a data goldmine," he says.

Rosenbaum says it is too early in the programme for JetBlue to make specific recommendation for broader operational improvements, schedule changes or block time recalculations. But he believes "it has to change down the road".

Huisman says there will be semi-annual user meetings to discuss possible long-term improvements to operating procedures and possible expansion of the programme after the current trial ends in May 2011. While the ADC has only committed to a two-year trial, Huisman is confident Aerobahn will become part of the permanent solution for Kennedy and potentially other congested US airports.

"I don't see how this technology can't be used for an operational advantage," Huisman says. "There were some bugs at first but so far the feedback has been great. The first response was like kids opening up presents at Christmas. They couldn't get away from it. They were using it 24/7."

Huisman also expects American Airlines, which operates a hub at Terminal 8, and Terminal 7 users British Airways and United Airlines to soon join the trial. This will extend the programme to include all of Kennedy's eight terminals. "The largest challenge is getting approval for ASDE-X data from the FAA," Huisman says. "The FAA review process is quite arduous."

The ADC has not found it that difficult to persuade Kennedy's major carriers and terminal operators to join the trial given Aerobahn's potential operational benefits and the fact airlines are already funding the project through landing fees.

The cost of the trial has not been disclosed, but Huisman says "it's a lot less expensive with the FAA already investing in the infrastructure". The FAA paid for the installation of multi-lateration sensors throughout Kennedy, including in the gate areas, as part of its ASDE-X programme.

Costs were also kept low by opting to access Aerobahn via the web, using a VPN. While the FAA is providing the basic data, Delta and JetBlue have opted to augment the feed they receive by paying Sensis to also integrate their own proprietary data.

London calls the trial the "ultimate set-up" because the technology can be accessed by all of the airport's operators but customised for each user. Aerobahn has been operational for about five years but earlier versions are only being used by specific airlines at specific hubs or only by airports.

London believes the approach used by the ADC to acquire and sublicense Aerobahn to multiple users will ultimately be followed at other airports that have ASDE-X or any other multi-lateration surface surveillance systems.

"What I believe will happen is it will expand into other airports worldwide," London says. "At least from the technology perspective I'd like to think it puts us a step ahead of the competition."

London adds that Sensis continues to work on new "tools and capabilities" for Aerobahn, which now relies on transponder data but is also capable of tracking aircraft and vehicles outfitted with ADS-B.

Gutierrez, who was quick to sign JAL up to the trial although the carrier only operates 13 flights a week at Kennedy, believes Aerobahn could usher in a new era for airport operations. "This is the tool which will drag everyone into the future," he says. "This will drag us to the logical decision to link up ground control and terminal ramp co-ordinators in this airport and other major airports."