Three University of Arkansas at Little Rock students say they have figured out a way to harness airport information systems in a way that will cut the time airline passengers have to wait in line for tickets, security and baggage.
With the Federal Aviation Administration forecasting record air travel delays this summer, their timing could be fortuitous.
As part of a class project, the students developed a program that synthesizes the information airports collect or can collect in a way that will allow airports to better manage space and the airlines that use that space. As a result, they say, passengers would spend less time waiting in lines and airports would make more money.
Rodney Arnold, Tara Lancaster and Daniel Rucker, seniors in the university's Donaghey College of Information Science and Systems Engineering, worked on the project after discussing the concept last fall with officials at Little Rock National Airport, Adams Field, as a way to gain experience outside the classroom.
As systems engineering majors, they study ways to join elements of several engineering disciplines to develop and manage complex structures such as computer or wireless networks, thermal power plants, aircraft and spacecraft, and manufacturing lines and robots.
"They came out here looking for an idea for real-world experience so when they go out in the marketplace, it [wouldn't be] an alien process to them," said Ron Matthieu, deputy executive director at Little Rock National. "The things they've done is not busywork. They've done some meaningful work." The idea eventually was used as a basis for a business plan developed by three business students that won third place in the this year's Donald W. Reynolds Governor's Competition for Entrepreneurial Development. The business, Dynamic Airport Systems, LLC, was developed by David E. Hunt, Andrew Herden and Lindsay Cowling while working on their master of business administration degrees at UALR. The concept the engineering students developed could be adapted to the airport's current terminal, which opened in 1972, or a new terminal that airport officials are deciding whether to pursue, Matthieu said.
"We are in the information age," Matthieu said. "When we need information, we need it now. It makes us more competitive. That's the name of the game." For instance, now the airport receives manually prepared reports from the airlines on the weight of their flights. The fees airlines pay Little Rock National and other airports are based on weights, and so the airport is considering purchasing an electronic system to track flight weights.
A separate flight information display system is used to tell passengers the status of flights in real time, but the system has no memory to store the history of flights.
Nor does the airport have a way now to optimize the use of ticket counter space and gates. Airlines are assigned ticket counters and gates and rent them based on their square footage.
Little Rock National and other airports want to go to a system of assigning ticket counter space and gates based on which airlines need the space at specific times. Most of the time, for instance, Southwest Airlines or Delta might only need two ticket counters and two gates but at peak times they might need more.
Baggage claim also is a system that confounds many arriving passengers.
"We don't have a system in place to figure all that out," Matthieu said.
But the students "have done all of the processing and mapping behind the scenes and the database design to make it all happen. It's a fascinating concept," he said.
The systems engineering students recently made their final presentation before an audience of airport executives and faculty members that included Deborah Schwartz, executive director the airport.