By Doug Lenz, PE, ENV SP, Janelle Burd, PE, and Casey Sanborn, PE
Many metropolitan airports are facing the challenges of increased air traffic, diverse aircraft fleets and real estate constraints, making expansion difficult or impossible. With the approximate $25 million to $40 million-per-gate expansion price tag, airports are looking for new ways to provide improved passenger experiences, safer work environments and more sustainable operations to meet these growing demands.
Managing higher passenger capacities through faster turnaround times creates better passenger experiences and more revenue for airlines and airports. Faster turnaround is achieved by reducing the time it takes for an aircraft to dock, unload its passengers and baggage, board new passengers and load baggage, restock its supplies, and push away from the gate. But doing so is logistically and technologically challenging. New trends in ramp service technologies are providing solutions worth considering.
Recently, updating gate systems with programmable logic controller (PLC) equipment provides real-time operational feedback to system operators and helps monitor equipment performance, showing early notifications of faults and alarms. This trend toward more integrated and automated systems is utilizing these PLC equipment interfaces to provide additional gate efficiency improvements.
Flexibility and Integration
Recent pushes for diverse aircraft fleets are making gate flexibility a necessity. Preparing each gate to accept a variety of aircraft types allows airports to bring planes of any size into any gate but requires flexibility in preconditioned air, boarding bridges and docking systems. Communication between ramp information systems (visual docking guidance, ramp services management systems, ramp information display systems, etc.) allows for integrated monitoring and reporting between each moving part.
System integration and automation are key to improving the flexibility and efficiency of ramp services. These systems monitor the location of each flight and the status of gate equipment, determining the shortest path for the quickest turnaround. When combined with improved ramp equipment such as towbarless tugs, these systems can speed turnaround times significantly by improving the usage of an airport’s existing gates. Initial capital costs can be high, but the gains in efficiency and long-term cost savings will pay for themselves.
Preparing for Capacity
Federal Aviation Administration airport capacity assessments predicted an airport capacity increase of 25 percent in the next five years, some with little to no room for additional gates or terminals. Integrating the flexibility offered by advanced ramp service systems is one way airports can achieve better utilization of their existing gates, allowing airlines to move aircraft more efficiently than ever.