Docking Guidance Systems: Tools for Ramp Management

In the 1970s airports and airlines began using standard Visual Docking Guidance Systems (VDGS) to improve safety at the gate. A standard VDGS is designed for ramp positioning only and utilizes both human and mechanical elements to guide pilots nose-in and stop aircraft in precise positions to loading bridges and fuel pits. While the level of automation varies by manufacturer, standard docking guidance uses a passive technology and each docking is started manually with a ground agent selecting the proper aircraft type and initiating the docking.

The new generation of docking guidance equipment is a fully automated, active system that ICAO classifies as an Advanced Visual Docking Guidance System (A-VDGS). ICAO ANNEX 14, Volume 1, Paragraph 5.3.25 defines advanced visual docking guidance as those systems that provide pilots with active guidance information in at least three stages: acquisition of the aircraft by the system, the azimuth alignment of the aircraft and the stopping position information. In addition, an A-VDGS must provide accurate guidance to pilots in both seats.

The most commonly used A-VDGS uses three-dimensional laser scanning to identify an approaching aircraft and provide active azimuth and stop guidance via a multi-color LED display. Through its integration and interface capabilities, A-VDGS can identify the position of the passenger boarding bridge to verify that the bridge is safely stowed prior to commencing a docking process. The system also helps ensure the gate area is clear and that incompatible aircraft are prevented from parking at adjacent gates.

In recent years, there is increasing interest in the ramp management intelligence an A-VDGS can provide. While airports around the world have widely adopted the advanced system, originally for its safety benefits, the technology is now taking off in North America where airport and airline operators are recognizing the value of sharing information on the ramp. Through interfaces to airport and airline information systems, the A-VDGS can provide data-sharing capabilities that can be used to further improve ramp operations — including improvements in capacity, traffic flow, safety, irregular operations, fuel burn and environmental performance.

The ability to share data and a real-time overview of ramp activity helps airports and airlines create a safer and more efficient ramp operation that is predictable, repeatable and scalable for the future. While the features and capabilities of an A-VDGS will vary somewhat by manufacturer, the functionality and benefits described below are present in the most commonly used advanced systems.

Automation and Real-time Gate Information Improve Safety

According to the Flight Safety Foundation, airport ground accidents cost airlines more than $5 billion annually, and 82 percent of ramp accidents occur in the gate area with 48 percent of those occurring during arrival. An A-VDGS provides an automated and heads-up approach to docking that minimizes the opportunity for human error and has been proven to reduce the number of gate accidents significantly. After upgrading to A-VDGS, London’s Gatwick Airport reported an 80-percent drop in ramp incidents.

Aircraft collisions with passenger boarding bridges are one of the most prevalent, but preventable, accidents on the ramp. An advanced docking system can interface with any brand or model boarding bridge to communicate the appropriate positioning to the bridge and then verify compatibility with the approaching aircraft before docking can commence. The interface not only eliminates costly collisions with boarding bridges, it saves time when the aircraft door is in perfect alignment with the bridge for deplaning.

Before allowing an aircraft into the gate, the A-VDGS checks aircraft at adjacent gates for compatibility. A failure to match adjacent gate information against a predefined acceptable profile for the expected aircraft will result in an immediate STOP message to pilots, avoiding potential collisions with other aircraft.

Using Ramp Intelligence to Increase Capacity

Today’s airport operations are expected to do more with less, meet current demands, plan for the future and always remain flexible. Adding to the challenges faced by airport and airline operators, global traffic is predicted to increase by about 5 percent each year until 2025, according to the ICAO.

New construction can improve gate capacity, but it requires substantial capital investment and can take years to complete. The cost of lost opportunity while new gates are under construction, and the risk of under-utilized facilities, should traffic ever decline again in the future, are also significant.

Technology improvements can benefit operators by helping to “future-proof” existing facilities by increasing throughput and flexibility via a more efficient and scalable operation — without substantial capital investment and without the wait.

A-VDGS technology has the capability to link all gates via a local area network and integrate with all airport and airline information systems, providing the fastest time from touch-down to gate and real-time gate intelligence and shared flight data that can be used to make improvements to many aspects of airfield operations. The A-VDGS can also be used to capture and report actual in-and-out times and that information is automatically sent to operations for tracking/analyzing gate utilization and accurate billing. Turn times can be tracked by city pairs, gate, crew or time of day.

Real-time gate status allows operations staff to know at a glance which gates are occupied or available, making last-minute gate changes faster and making it possible to dock any aircraft, from any airline, at any gate. This common-use approach allows existing gates to be used more efficiently and create a safe and consistent ramp operation during regular or irregular conditions.

Some airline users have avoided a separate investment in a ramp information display system (RIDS) because integration allows the A-VDGS LED screens to double as RIDS, displaying flight information to ground crew whenever the systems are not actively docking aircraft.

Ramp Intelligence Impact on Passenger Service and IROPS

Each year, weather-related delays, diversions and canceled flights cost airlines and airports many millions of dollars, and have a negative impact on passenger service.

New regulation by the Department of Transportation has raised the stakes with the threat of hefty fines to airlines for tarmac delays of more than three hours. The new rules have airlines bringing more planes to the ramp during severe weather and shifting the challenge from tarmac delays to ramp congestion and delays. The increased demand for gate availability and access to the terminal has airports getting more involved in ramp operations, especially during irregular operations.

A-VDGS ramp intelligence gives airports and airlines better control of the ramp during IROPS by communicating real-time gate availability and ramp closures. To help manage delays, the system can start the clock by sending time alerts for aircraft landing or leaving the gate.

In addition to managing delays, an A-VDGS can help avoid them by keeping things moving. When the threat of lightning sends ground crew indoors, the automated system continues to identify available gates and allows pilots to self-park so that more aircraft are parked and more passengers are deplaned at the gate. Delays, diversions, cancellations and congestion are minimized and recovery is faster.

Even in favorable operating conditions, the A-VDGS allows the possibility to dock aircraft before ramp personnel can get in position, getting aircraft to the gate without delay, saving time and avoiding any inconvenience to passengers.

Fuel Consumption and the Environment

According to the Air Transportation Association, the single biggest advance in fuel conservation and emission reduction will come from updating decades-old technology and procedures. Operations that have updated manual docking procedures to an A-VDGS have seen significant reduction in fuel burn and emissions through the elimination of unmet flight delays.

The A-VDGS can also interface to ground power and/or preconditioned air units (ASE) to detect the on/off status and display the status to pilots and ground personnel. The system monitors and tracks usage of ASE by flight, providing critical data to aid in enforcement of ASE use and APU shut downs, as well as accurate emission reduction reporting.

The Future of Ramp Intelligence

Advanced visual docking guidance systems will become a standard for airports and airlines seeking new technology and solutions to increase capacity and improve performance in ground operations during regular and irregular operating conditions. New capabilities are sure to develop as more and more users start to unlock the somewhat hidden value of ramp intelligence technology.


About the author: Tammi Phippen joined Safegate Airport Systems Inc. in 2010 as marketing communications manager and has worked in the aviation industry for more than 20 years. Safegate Airport Systems Inc. is a subsidiary of the Safegate Group.