"Southwest used to turn planes around in 10 minutes and the turnaround time in recent years [pre-Sept. 11] averaged 15 minutes," points out Jim Malone, Services Buyer at Southwest Airlines. "I don't think that any technology, current or long-term, can improve upon that time. Our planes are completely handled on the ground before the last passenger takes his or her seat."
Malone believes that it will be many years before technology is available to replace the human elements involved in turning an aircraft.
"With the risk of damaging an aircraft, I doubt that technology will ever be trusted in the form of robotics being used to actually load bellies," he says.
FULLY AUTOMATED — REAL OR IMAGINED?
Maguin also questions the reality of a fully automated ground operation.
"An airport has to stay extremely flexible and automation is usually linked to more rigid processes. Nevertheless, I also believe that airports themselves, in their fixed installation, will become more automated. The architects of future airports will have to consider how to reduce all distances between the aircraft location and the point where baggage, cargo, food, electricity, and so on are transferred between a piece of GSE and the airport installation."
Interestingly, Maguin tells the story of a recent visit to UPS' new hub in Louisville, Kentucky where TLD is the exclusive supplier of loaders. During his visit, he noticed that containers and pallets were being moved manually by student employees.
"It is a brand new, non-automated organization," comments Maguin.
On the other side of the world, Norman Hogwood, Ramp Safety Investigator for Air New Zealand at Auckland International Airport, applauds the reduction in manual handling thanks to the development of aircraft in-hold systems. His one caveat is that the industry has seen improvements based on initiatives from equipment suppliers rather than airframe manufacturers, pointing out that the latter will say that they only build the aircraft to customer specifications.
"The operators find themselves between a rock and a hard place," argues Hogwood. "Anything extra fitted to the airframe to enhance loading equals weight, and that equals increased operating cost."
Hogwood believes that the introduction of the Sliding Carpet System from Telair has had a positive impact as far as personnel safety is concerned, and has in this instance justified a reduction in staff numbers. Air New Zealand is in the process of installing the Sliding Carpet in most of its B-737-300s.
"I do believe, however, that differences in accounting philosophies between operators has been the cause of some fitting it and others rejecting it," explains Hogwood. "I know of at least one operator which says it cannot justify the installation on certain long-range ETOPS routes because of costs, while its head-to-head competitor operating the same aircraft has installed it."
NO VEHICLES ON THE RAMP?
Back on the ramp itself, there has been much talk about the concept of a vehicle-less ramp. This thinking has been examined at Stockholm Arlanda, but many feel that the costs involved in such an operation are still too high to compete effectively with traditional handling processes. Certainly, such an automated concept fails to cater for ad hoc requirements such as last minute baggage pick-up.
If the complete removal, or scaling down, of operators seems premature, perhaps it is the training of the operators that needs to be reinvented rather than the technology itself.
"Human intervention to coordinate all handling activities and supervise automated processes will still be necessary for a longer period of time," says Thierry Nossent. But safety trainers like Hogwood lament how training is still seen as a cost in some circles.
"Training philosophies differ, too, with on-the-job training being very popular, while classroom training is almost looked upon as an unnecessary luxury. I firmly believe there is a need for classroom activity and, providing care is taken with the selection of training staff and materials, the benefits will be apparent." According to Hogwood, refresher training is one area in need of particular attention.
"Training technique is an area crying out for creativity and I would like to see more use made of simulator facilities and equipment."
Cover Story Five Years and Counting By Richard Rowe March 2001 Now that Airbus has announced a 2006 service entry date for its new A380 aircraft, the ground support world has a definite...