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.
“We’ve got entire floor plans and all of the spaces within the terminal in our GIS system; and we operate about 5 million square feet of assets. But that wasn’t just a lofty exercise. For janitorial contracting, for example, we can issue much better RFPs since we can track exactly what needs to be cleaned and when. We also cataloged all facility assets valued over $1,000. That started in GIS, but migrated into the maintenance management system. However, GIS provides the link to that data.
“We used to only have an aggregated total of our lease data. With GIS, our lease data is depicted down to the level of individual rooms. That enables us to be more responsive to market conditions for leases, and more adept at projection modeling for lease revenue. We’ve eliminated the smokestacks of data and have it all in a flat, enterprise environment where we can share the data. But at its most basic level, accurate, reliable, usable data is why we use GIS and why we will continue to use it.”
Every GIS system is only as good as its data. But I’ll get to that momentarily. First, I would like to point out two more benefits of GIS.
Once a novel concept, then a fad, and now an established standard, operating “green” has become crucial to airports. GIS provides exceptional opportunities for greening an airport. A GIS can help airport staff determine what areas of an airport are being used (or not) during any time of day or night. With that real-time data in hand they can conserve a lot of energy, particularly by manipulating HVAC systems and lighting.
Another significant benefit of GIS concerns utilities. Airports change, and when they change they often have to dig. When they dig, utilities are a major concern. With accurate GIS data, every airport utility is known and mapped. That real-time information can easily be put into the hands of the people doing the digging, avoiding potentially dangerous accidents and costly delays.
Without question, GIS helps save time and money, making operations and revenue generation more efficient. But to produce those results, GIS must be implemented well, and there is an art to its implementation.
Items to consider
Airports planning GIS implementation or expansion should keep in mind several things about GIS ...
• Looking Up Your New Address
When implementing GIS, start by establishing a common addressing system for the entire facility. Many airports have one series of numbers stamped on doors, a different array of column numbers stamped on beams, and often a grid system that engineers use on the airfield — divergent numbering systems abound. From a GIS standpoint, you need a reliable, consistent, unitary system that will tell you exactly what is what. Establish a common addressing system for the entire facility.
• A System of One’s Own
Operational ownership of a GIS system is as important as the system itself. But is it an IT function? A physical plant function? An engineering project? At many airports over the past decade, a particular department championed GIS; it was their baby. But once it grew into an enterprise system, the GIS actually became a source of organizational strife concerning who should own and manage it. Avoid that confusion. GIS has become an IT function, and the IT department should be the system custodian.
• Minding the Storage
Another critical element is data storage. All data should be stored in a format that is vendor-neutral. There are several well-known vendors providing excellent GIS products. But will those vendors still be there tomorrow? Five years from now? Ten? Store all data in an open-source manner that can be transferred to any brand of vendor hardware and integrated with any other airport system.
• Don’t Wait Until It Is Too Late
Airports often consider GIS when pondering capital improvement programs. All too often, though, GIS isn’t addressed until the tail end of the process. GIS needs precise, current information as soon as it’s available. By inputting data on a capital improvement program as it unfolds, GIS helps advance the program while obtaining data that has integrity.
• Systems that Communicate
An airport may have ten different contractors working at any one time. One firm is rehabilitating a runway, another has a fencing project, and yet another is putting a concourse on the terminal. Get standards in place, and then require those firms to submit their deliverable data in a standardized form that can be easily entered into your GIS system.
• Backing to Go Forward
Because airport GIS are enterprise systems, they must have the full backing of airport management. By definition, GIS must mesh with virtually every airport discipline. To guarantee buy-in from all quarters, executive management must make it clear that GIS is a priority.
• It’s More than Data
Finally, when working with GIS it’s easy to obsess about the data and lose focus as to its practical value. To sidestep that trap, consider some examples of what GIS can do:
From dispatching to security to revenue generation to operational efficiencies to precise space/location data, enterprise GIS has a unique operational value that no other database can match.
FAA Advisory Circular 150/5300-18B defines a standard for storing GIS data for airports. FAA is moving toward a requirement that submissions be made electronically, and in the GIS-based format defined in the advisory. The FAA’s Notice to Airmen program has also recently begun using GIS data formats for better situational awareness among air crews.
* * *
Kevin Carlson is an associate vice president and director of Airport Management Systems with AECOM Transportation, formerly DMJM Aviation.