The ancient Delphic oracle cautioned, “Know thyself.” Good advice for airport operators awash in a glut of information. But in reflecting on the peculiarities of information, historian William Pollard noted, “Unless it is organized, processed, and available to the right people in a format for decisionmaking, it is a burden, not a benefit.” Enterprise geographic information systems (GIS) are the best way for airports to gather, organize, and use the complex information that defines airport facilities and operations — as long as one keeps Pollard’s precautionary wisdom in mind.
Consider a major airport’s mission. Rivaling small cities in terms of scale, scope, and diversity of assets, airports are large, complex facilities that must be operated, maintained, and upgraded regularly. Airports also manage lots of land, and must plan and execute large construction programs. To make things even trickier, they almost never close.
But that is only the operational perspective.
Airports also host diverse tenants — from airlines to retailers to service providers. And airports have substantial responsibilities as part of the National Airspace System (NAS). As NAS gatekeepers, airports must operate or support systems that track flight times and gate usage, manage revenue from tenant billing and facility-use charges, control security and airfield access, provide critical infrastructure to airlines for passenger and baggage processing, manage traffic and parking, and enable the Federal Aviation Administration to control aircraft movement and provide landing guidance.
As well, airports are subject to aviation-specific rules and regulations on tracking and logging facility conditions; managing and reporting incidents; applying for and using federal funding; and minimizing construction impacts on aircraft movement and safety. That all adds up to one inescapable conclusion: airports need, use, and generate a massive amount of critical geographic-based data that must be adroitly managed.
“It is imperative that we have excellent reference information,” explains GIS program manager Sam Console, of the Planning & Environmental Stewardship unit, Division of Aviation at Philadelphia International Airport (PHL). “I look at GIS as an integral decision-support tool. For years it was paper maps. But GIS gives us a flexible, digital, and integrative way to create maps on the fly and use that information immediately.
“For example, PHL must remain open during severe weather events, like snowstorms. We melt snow because we have no place to pile it. So we mapped out the underground drainage system on our GIS. Snow, ice, or debris could cover any of those drains, but we can locate and clear them quickly using GIS. We actually won an award in 2003 for using GIS to develop a snow-removal tracking application.”
GIS systems provide concise, usable information for every aspect of an airport. An outstanding decision-making support tool, GIS is a central, interactive, comprehensive repository. It also allows airport managers to obtain data instantly (via an internal website), around the clock, from their desktop, laptop, or PDA.
Asset, workload management
“GIS is all about making sense of the airport in terms of data, about connecting everything through information. In that respect, two factors drove our GIS implementation: better asset management and better work management,” explains Jerry Schwinghammer, manager of technology planning for the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority.
“For example, we incorporated county land-use data into GIS. We overlaid our noise-contour data. All of our data — including property information and our history and acquisition data — is integrated with GIS. And we can plan and coordinate better with surrounding municipalities because we have all of their GIS data sets in-house.