Harnessing GIS Data

Michael T. McNerney, assistant manager for FAA’s airport engineering division, joined the agency last October primarily to run the airports GIS (geographic information systems) program.

Comments McNerny, “We’d like airports to do an airport layout plan every five years. The purpose of the layout plan is two-fold: the FAA can’t protect the airspace or existing and future runways unless we have a plan that shows where they are going to be; once we approve that plan we can improve the airspace and the areas around it, and prevent towers from being built at the ends of future runways, for example.”

That requires a lot of coordination among different offices, he adds. A typical ALP (airport layout plan) approval takes some three months of coordination among a variety of offices and lines of business within the agency.

“We are now going digital, both in our data collection and with geospatial information, meaning it has a GIS capability, where we can measure spacial differences,” says McNerney.

Traditionally this is done with planning grants; an airport’s GIS program is going to be the central authoritative source database for both pilot information and airport information, he explains.


“We think that by going digital, we are going to save billions of dollars over the life of the program,” says McNerney. “What’s happening now is, airports are doing these surveys multiple times but the data isn’t saved from one survey to another. Now it’s saved with an authoritative source — the data is verified and approved, and it’s in a location that is easily accessible via the Internet.”

The cost is the hangup for some airports, he says. “We are collecting a lot of data on larger airports and that’s where the emphasis is right now.

“When we get to the smaller airports, we may be able to ‘rightsize’ the data collection, so we don’t have to collect as much and it won’t cost as much.”

Advisory circulars

There are currently three FAA advisory circulars (ACs) that describe the system and outline standards for collecting aeronautical and survey data using GIS:

5300-16: Requires the geodetic survey — If an airport is not installing new primary or secondary control points on the airport (survey points that tie into the national reference system), then it doesn’t have to put this plan in place.

5300-17: Relates to guidance on how to conduct aerial photography, and what the limits are.

5300-18: Provides specifications for the collection of airport data through field and office methodologies in support of FAA.

All three of the ACs are currently in revision, relates McNerney, who says the agency plans to have at least two of them out this fiscal year.

“Obviously we think that airports will benefit, as well as FAA,” he says. “Instead of taking three months to approve an ALP, approval will become much easier because everyone will be looking at the same digital data at the same time.”

And there is a NextGen component to this, says McNerney. “Someone here coined the phrase, ‘The airport’s GIS is the unsung NextGen enabler.’

“We maintain, if someone has to collect this data on the airports, it’s better the airports do it rather than the air traffic people.”

According to McNerney, FAA has been giving training to consultants, who have to submit all their data to FAA via the Internet, and more than 1,500 people have signed up for the training so far.

More information on FAA’s airports GIS website and IDLE (Integrated Distance Learning Environment) platform can be found at https://aiports-gis.faa.gov/aiprortsgis. FAA also maintains a 24-hour help desk for consultants.


Greg Mamary, special projects manager for the American Association of Airport Executives, runs the association’s annual airports GIS conference. He became involved with AAAE’s SAAMS (Spatial Airport Asset Management System) platform due to his connection with the conference. “Airports are using SAAMS in a ton of different ways, but some of the most common uses are related to asset management, which is how SAAMS got its name,” explains Mamary.

“Some airports use GIS to manage leases, and for locating and identifying utilities. When you select certain data points on a digital GIS map, there is metadata [data about the data] attached to certain points.” With this, airports have access to critical information about individual assets on the airport setting, he adds.

FAA’s recent ACs regarding airport GIS drove the development of SAAMS, relates Mamary. “SAAMS isn’t so much teaching people how to use GIS, but what it does is gives them a platform with GIS data to play with,” he says. Airports simply have to send the same GIS data they are required to send FAA to the SAAMS platform.

SAAMS has nothing to do with data collection or verification, but it’s a platform to put information into, and airports can get different information out of it, says Mamary. “We are just rolling this out; so far it’s been the small airports that are most interested in the platform.”

More information on SAAMS can be found on the Web at: saams.aaae.org/index.cfm.