August 23, 2006 marked a ground breaking day as three major industry players gathered around Denver International Airport's Gate B15 and witnessed the world's first completely automated dual-end jetbridge. After the success of the initial installation, Dewbridge Airport Systems and United Airlines completed the upgrade at four more DIA gates with the DoubleDocker system before the Thanksgiving holiday rush flooded the concourse. Passengers are now deplaning in a fraction of the time and United employees, who were once sidetracked by prepping the bridge, can now focus their undivided efforts on customer service.
The project took off as a result of an earlier installation in Canada for WestJet airlines. Dewbrige had developed an automated over-wing jetbridge at Calgary and Vancouver airports and the recently established Ted Airlines, United's low-cost carrier, was looking for an innovative selling point. According to Neil Hutton, vice president of Dewbridge Airport Systems, United came to Dewbridge initially interested solely in the over-the-wing system in December 2003. But as the discussions progressed, it became clear that Ted needed a completely automated gate system.
Since the inception of the fully automated over-wing bridge, Dewbridge had already begun working on automating the apron-drive front bridge. They put the proposal together for United and before they knew it, they were working on a completely automated gate system featuring three core components: the Docking Guidance System, Automated Apron-Drive Front Bridge and the Automated Over-the-Wing (OTW) Bridge.
"The philosophy is that, historically, it is always the front door, in some cases the second, which is used for getting passengers on and off. If you're sitting in the back seat, you have to wait for everybody ahead of you to get out and it can take quite a long time," says Hutton. "If we had a bridge that would go to the front door and the OTW door, than you can get people on and off in roughly half the time." In theory, the airline would then be able to turn the aircraft quicker and be able to schedule more flights per day for the aircraft. More utilization means more revenue from that aircraft.
The installation process was like any other related to ground breaking technology, there were problems with breaking into the ground. While the installation deadline was met, there were initial issues with underground utilities located in troubling positions. According to DMJM Project Manager Mark Pearcy with Denver International Airport, the first layout came in right on top of several water lines resulting in some design adjustments.
Dewbridge was able to come up with a spread footing for the bridges to enable a fully-functional system without requiring deep footings in the ground. Despite minor setbacks, the company was able to meet its installation deadline.
DIA also found that because the bridges don't load up the apron in a traditional manner, treaded tires will work better in a snow-likely environment. The standard, smooth tires that usually work with larger bridges don't cut through the snow.
Jetbridge was not a favored word in the Denver Airport vocabulary. When the airport opened less than ten years ago, the city had purchased 68 Stearns bridges that were installed during the original construction. Less than ten years later, many of them were in very bad shape—the average shelf life was seven years. The city had a seven to ten-year replacement plan in which six to ten bridges would be replaced with jetways every year. In 2002 the city approved a $1.75 million purchase as part of the replacement program. ThyssenKrupp Airport Systems aquired Stearns in 1998.
The city was a little wary of an entirely new product that had been relatively untested, but Ted Airlines saw that it was critical to quickly turn the aircraft and in order to get that done, they had to deplane faster. United decided to finance the project and the city supported the decision.
"That was the initial resistance, the airport was a little scared from their past history they had with the Stearns bridges," says Dewbridge Director of Airport Systems, Business Development Jackie Pothier.
"As an airport, we were skeptical of [Dewbridge] being able to meet its objectives," DMJM's Pearcy says. "We were protecting ourselves from a bad, new technology that doesn't deliver, but we did visit some other airports where the first generation of these bridges are and watched them in operation. We saw that [in Canada] Dewbridge was meeting its objectives. We have a wait and see attitude about [the DoubleDockers], we hope they deliver, but we're watching very carefully."
The DoubleDocker project was not specifically greenlit as a replacement project for the Stearns bridges. Three went into gates as replacements, but two went into gates that had already been replaced with FMC jetway bridges.
As far as the technology, Ted and DIA are putting a lot of faith in a fully automated system operating in close proximity with millions of dollars worth of hardware. "It scares the daylights out of people when they're initially exposed to it," Pearcy says. "I know I was concerned about it, especially the [OTW] bridge. That thing is over some expensive body work, but in general, the automation appears to be working."
The Guinea Pig
While the project was driven at Ted's request, Steve Snyder, assistant director of media relations at DIA, says the airport saw this as an opportunity to display how the youngest member of the air-transportation family was as, if not more, technologically advanced than any other operation. It didn't hurt that DIA was collaborating with United—its biggest carrier and business partner—creating a much more amicable working environment.
"We saw it as an opportunity for innovation and success for one of the carriers here at DIA," says Director of Engineering and Construction Dave Rhodes with DIA. "Who knows where it may lead, but we did everything we could to support United in the installation." Unlike any other carrier at the airport, United owns the five new DoubleDocker systems, but the DIA staff has been trained by Dewbridge and will perform the maintenance as needed.
Because the DoubleDocker system is a customized project, the expensive price tag varies on a site to site basis. Depending on how each business values each aspect in their business case, airlines will be able to see a return on their investment as early as two and up to five years.
"It is more expensive, but there is a compelling return on investment by getting better customer service and better aircraft utilization that more than offsets the additional cost," says Dewbridge's Hutton. "United has been doing customer surveys and they've been pleased by the number of people that said they would choose United Airlines over another airline [because of the DoubleDocker]. If they can get more passengers and better use of their aircraft, then it is compelling all around."
Denver International is already known as an airport that can move planes in an out as well as or better than any major airport in the country due to the amount of room they have designated for their operation. "If we can add an additional amenity like the [DoubleDocker] it just enhances the overall efficiencies we offer," says DIA's Snyder.
The Future is Now
As a result of the early success, Dewbridge has noticed quite a few new eyes focused on their product. The market is shifting and the company notices that it must evolve with the demand.
Dewbridge has since met with other airlines regarding potential future installations and is in active discussions with three other airports. "We have a special relationship with United Airlines, because they're the ones who got us to do it, but we expect that what will work for United, would work for all the other airlines too," Hutton says.
Initially, the airline has been executing quicker turn times. In the first week of operation, Ted was seeing a 320 aircraft completely unloaded and clean in 11 minutes, but the benefit for both DIA and Ted Airlines has been the passenger satisfactions. "These people are absolutely thrilled to not have to wait 15 minutes to get off from the rear-most seats," Pearcy says. "They're just tickled pink over that prospect."
"I've witnessed a lot of customers that are happy," says Dave Rhodes. "The question that I hear the most: ‘Why doesn't every airport have these?"
Docking Guidance System:
The Safegate system is used to guide the aircraft into the stopping position at the gate. The guidance system links to the airport's flight information system and recognizes the size of the aircraft approaching and communicates the appropriate positioning to the bridges so they may automatically dock to the aircraft.
Automated Apron-Drive Front Bridge:
A typical apron-drive bridge with a more advanced control system allowing the bridge to work in a completely automated fashion. Using a mission-critical operating system, the system recognizes the plane's location and directs itself up to the door using an array of sensors and machine vision.
Automated Over-the-Wing Bridge:
Essentially utilizes the same advanced control system to guide itself to the door. Both the apron-drive and over-wing bridges can be manually operated if necessary. Manual operation is the same as any other jetbridge.