Working Through the Downturn

AUSTIN — At this year’s 18th annual Conference & Exhibition hosted here by Airports Council International-North America, many had anticipated that Congress would have passed a long-term FAA/system reauthorization bill, thereby offering industry some direction. It hadn’t; yet, ACI-NA president Greg Principato relates that he sees a better than 50/50 chance that a final bill will come out of Capitol Hill by year-end. Meanwhile, other top items on the ACI-NA agenda included the ongoing airport/airline relationship; emerging technologies for airport operations; and, a progress report on the implementation of the NextGen air traffic control system.

Host city mayor Lee Leffingwell welcomed this year’s attendees by relating a few of Austin’s recent recognitions: ranked Austin number one on its list of top cities for a fresh start earlier this year; listed Austin as one of the best cities for a recession recovery; and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently ranked Austin as the top U.S. city for job growth.

ACI World’s director general Angela Gittens followed Leffingwell’s remarks at the event’s opening session by giving recognition to Austin-Bergstrom Airport as the first airport in North America to receive the association’s Airport Service Quality (ASQ) Assured certificate. The ASQ Assured program benchmarks an airport’s service quality management system and the airport’s approach to industry best practice.

“Assessor’s found a new benchmark for excellence at Austin,” says Gittens. “In the 2008 ASQ survey of passenger satisfaction, Austin ranked in the top three in both the North American region and worldwide in their category of five to 15 million passenger airports.”

“There is no doubt that 2009 has been one of the most challenging times in aviation,” comments ACI-NA’s incoming chairman Hardy Acree, who is director of the Sacramento County Airport System.

“A number of services previously provided by airlines now fall to the airports. Gone are the good ol’ days when airports were just facilities.

“The need to ensure passenger safety and security is critical; and there is no compromising in neither of those areas.”

As airports struggle to provide passenger amenities and quality customer service while working through the economic crisis that has challenged many business models, Acree reminds that aviation is a source of civic and national pride bringing people and businesses together around the globe.

“Airports are critical to local communities as economic engines promoting business development, creating employment opportunities, generating local taxes, and promoting quality of life,” he remarks.

Yet, he also notes that the challenges airports face are many: the global recession has dampened the demand for air travel worldwide; international visitation to the U.S. and other markets has dropped dramatically; and it’s estimated that airlines worldwide will lose $9 billion for 2009.

“It is important to emphasize that throughout these difficult economic times, airports continue to maintain the highest level of passenger safety, security, and efficiency in operations,” says Acree.

“But in this current economy, we must prepare for the eventual return of traffic; and airports must take a long-term view by planning and maintaining capital programs to accommodate future growth.”

Airlines and airports:A tense dynamic
From an airline perspective, Continental chairman and CEO Larry Kellner says, “If you look at the economy today, we’re kind of bumping along the bottom. I’m worried that we could go deeper, but right now we seem to be seeing some stability.” Taking capacity out of the system has also helped work through the downturn, relates Kellner.

With regard to the financing markets, he comments, “We have seen a lot of healing there; in June the aircraft financing markets opened … what you find is that you can borrow a little less, so you get a lower loan to value rate, and the interest rate is a little higher.

“What we look at positively are credit markets that aren’t nearly as good as they were two years ago, but are dramatically better than they were six months ago.”

Kellner points out that airports in general tend to be very thoughtful and strategic planners, and take a long-term view. “From an airport’s side, the lower the cost per passenger, the more likely [airlines] are to grow there,” says Kellner. “Hubs are built around people, and capacity is built around cost.

“The tradeoff is, how do we have that long-term plan and stay consistent in our investment but at the same time always watching our cost per enplaned passenger?”

Regarding passenger facility charges (PFCs), Kellner says [the company] is opposed to an increase in PFCs, “Not because we don’t think airports need more money; we are just very worried about getting the business stabilized, because PFCs will tend to add costs.” He goes on to say he clearly believes in the need for long-term investment on the airport side, stating the challenge on PFCs is that right now there is a huge stress on the system. “Every time you increase the PFC, you are going to have the impact of either slightly reduced growth or eliminated capacity.”

Kellner asks, “Where would I be more supportive in the investment of airports?

“We need to be growing because that’s also what drives the need for new facilities; at times when we are not growing, I am going to resist anything that’s going to drop our employment levels further.”

Speaking for airports, executive director of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Airports Commission Jeff Hamiel says he looks at the relationship between the airlines and airports as being a public-private partnership. He says airports find themselves as hybrid organizations.

“Thus it is a requirement for us to be tough negotiators because we have to make certain that we can negotiate revenues coming into the airport to support our continued obligation,” says Hamiel.

“I believe that the tension that exists between airlines and airports is not only important, but it’s healthy and appropriate. If there was not this tension, we probably would not be doing our jobs.”

Though battle is not necessary relates Hamiel; the airlines have a different focus and purpose in their existence than the airport management team does. For example, he says, airlines focus on profitability and shareholder equity; it’s a profit driven organization.

“Airports are not. Airports are public organizations that try, I believe, to provide high quality service to their communities as to generate economic vitality for the region,” remarks Hamiel.

NextGen is all about delay reduction, says ACI-NA’s vice president of safety and technical operations Chris Oswald.

“Certainly it’s about safety as well, and it’s about access to the system; but to justify the significance of the investment that’s required by airports and by the airlines and the GA community…we really need to see some type of monetary benefit,” relates Oswald.

“That really starts with delay reduction, and associated fuel burn reductions that go along with that.”

Many of the busiest airports are located in urban environments with limited ability to expand, explains Oswald. Therefore, enhancing the efficiency of current airport ‘footprints’ is essential. Airports need to look at ways to use technology to expand; that’s really what NextGen is about, he comments; the ultimate airport goal: to accommodate current and future aviation activity safely, efficiently, and conveniently in a cost-effective and environmentally responsible way.

“Airports need NextGen solutions tailored to their unique operational environments,” says Oswald. “NextGen is not one-size fits all.”

It is however, an evolutionary program. According to Oswald, with NextGen, we will see a gradual introduction of technologies. And in terms of capacity enhancement and operational reliability, while increasing capacity in good weather is great — reducing capacity ‘losses’ in poor weather may be even better, he says.

Oswald relates three central NextGen technological drivers: RNAV/RNP, which provides procedural guidance to aircraft; ADS-B, a technology that enables better aircraft and vehicle surveillance; and data communications, comments Oswald, “Bringing what we know of the Internet to the air traffic system so that everyone has immediate access to the same consistent operational data throughout the system.”

What NextGen can do, says Oswald, is lower approach minimums via improved navigational precision (separation of aircraft from obstacles and other aircraft); navigate to visual conditions via new types of procedures enabled by NextGen technologies; improved in-trail separation standards due to higher precision navigation and improved avionics; and enhanced merging and spacing within the terminal environment.

Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport executive VP of operations James Crites offers what he calls some subtleties on NextGen from an airport operator’s perspective: “We have non-integrated ground-based air traffic systems; we have a lot of disparate systems that are going to have to talk with one another.

“There are a lot of platforms and a lot of vendors involved, and the complexity of NextGen is now becoming a reality,” says Crites. “How do we integrate all of this and what’s the role we play in that?”

What we are looking for is a stream of data that is consistent across all data systems, says Crites.

He relates that technology is playing a role with regard to the runway status light system (RWSL) and the final approach runway occupancy signal (FAROS). “But I think the key to all of those systems for an airport operator is real-time and comprehensive situational awareness,” comments Crites.

“What we see with the newer systems is that IT systems have advanced to a point where we can start capturing a lot of data, and now we are getting into information overload, and the systems don’t talk to one another.”

Now that airports have the ability to diffuse data across disparate suppliers of systems, he says, they are now starting to capture what Crites calls ‘intelligence.’ Key, says Crites, concerns GIS (geographic information systems) integration; with a consistent, accurate, and shared database, all parties involved can benefit from systemwide analysis.

FedEx’s senior manager for air traffic operations Steve Vail echoes Crites’ call for integrated data systems.

“Everyone does not yet have a complete set of information; everybody has their information, and their actions are predicated on the information that they have, not from a system viewpoint, but from an individual operator viewpoint,” says Vail.

“Cooperative partnerships among all entities at the airport are needed for system management. Department readiness is key — we the operators, or the airport; whoever is controlling a particular aircraft must broadcast intent to really have a proactive integrated system. We just can’t keep surprising each other.”

Vail stresses the need for dynamic runway balancing and predictive tools to make NextGen all that it could be.

“There are many challenges yet to be faced…surface traffic management is an art,” says Vail. “It is not simply a display telling you to do this — you have to be familiar with the movement of the aircraft; and everybody has to be involved.”

Exhibitor Technology Spotlight

ACI-NA’s annual conference and exhibition consisted of more than 80,000 square feet of exhibit space for the 117 exhibiting companies, reports the association. Following are a few of this year’s technology highlights.

  • Era Systems Corporation, provider of next-generation air traffic management tools, announces the launch of its new Web-based surface management solution, Symphony. The program assists airports in proactively managing operations, reducing delays, and improving performance during irregular operations (IROPS) by providing historic, real-time, and predictive situational awareness of the airspace and the airport surface, according to the company. Users will benefit from two- and three-dimensional displays of all aircraft and vehicles. Symphony also features integrated status message and alert capabilities, statistical reporting, and future prediction of infrastructure demand.
  • Metron Aviation, a company that focuses on air traffic flow management solutions, offers its surface management system as a stand-alone solution or as part of the Metron Harmony suite of management tools. Metron Surface provides airport stakeholders with surface operations management that maximizes surface utilization and increases safety, while minimizing delays and fuel burn, says the company. A predictive modeling capability uses current and forecasted airport surface demand to estimate congestion at resources such as runways, taxiways, ramp areas, and gates.
  • Flightview looks to advance airport websites with its real-time accurate and actionable flight information display. Flightview says its latest product enhancement gives daily travelers and greeters flight information at a single portal that includes accurate flight status, a high-resolution map with live weather radar overlays, and a customized user interface.
  • Motorola manufactures the XR450 RFID Fixed Reader, an industrial-class RFID reader that provides a rich feature set to support RFID applications. Motorola reports it has deployed RFID-based baggage tracking applications at some of the world’s major airports resulting in a more than 20 percent improvement in increased throughput compared to bar-code based systems.


Bergen: “Somebody Is Going To Get Through”

ACI-NA’s keynote address featured Peter Bergen, CNN national security analyst and author, who spoke on the movement of Al Qaeda and the threat the Islamist group poses to Americans.

The good news, he explains, is that he thinks Al Qaeda’s ability to perform a 9/11 attack on the U.S. right now is close to zero. His reasons include the fact that the American Muslim community has generally rejected Al Qaeda’s ideology almost entirely; it’s very hard for a jihadist terrorist to get into the country; there hasn’t been much evidence of Al Qaeda sleeper cells; and Al Qaeda itself has definitely weakened from the point it was before September 11.

However, says Bergen, there are a number of cases in the last year he thinks raise a number of serious issues about the potential of a terrorist threat in the U.S.

He asks, “What would the next successful attack in the U.S. look like?”

“Because obviously there will be an attack; there are many things that the government has done to make us safer, but somebody is going to get through eventually.”

“Commercial aviation is now the hardest target in the world; but they keep coming back to it.”

Bergen offers examples of attacks on aviation since 9/11: “The so-called shoebomber who would have killed up to 200 people on the American Airlines flight between Paris and Miami; the LAX attack in 2002; the foiled JFK plot; and the Glasgow Airport case of 2007.

“A very worrisome example is the attempt to bring down an Israeli passenger jet with a surface to air missile in Kenya in 2002,” remarks Bergen. “The reason I say it is worrying is because it almost succeeded, and I think it’s plausible in the next five years that an Al Qaeda group or affiliate will be able to bring down a commercial jet with a surface to air missile.”

Bergen says as soon as it can be demonstrated that it’s possible, that type of attack would have a very transformational affect on the global aviation business. “When you talk about threats ... it’s about capability and intent,” relates Bergen. “We have already seen that Al Qaeda has intent to do this; they also have a capability in people with some degree of expertise in the use of surface to air missiles.

“This idea is out there, and I think it’s well within their capabilities.”

In addition, Bergen says Al Qaeda will continue hitting Western brand names because they believe they can bankrupt the United States by attacking the economy; such as attacks on Western-owned hotels.