TRB - Researching Airports

March 3, 2006
DFW International Airport executive VP Jim Crites examines the progress of the Airport Cooperative Research Program and puts out a call for industry to participate.

DFW AIRPORT — In January, the committee that is spearheading the Airport Cooperative Research Program, under the auspices of the Transportation Research Board, identified some $4.7 million in launch projects. For Jim Crites, executive vice president at DFW International Airport and an industry driver for the research initiative, the meeting was a moment of truth, of realization. Congress has now appropriated some $13 million for the program’s startup and the identification of intial projects, and another $10 million is appropriated for FY07. The program is now at a critical juncture, says Crites — the next 18 months will determine if Congress reauthorizes the program for FY08.

Several days after the TRB meeting in Washington, D.C., Crites sat with AIRPORT BUSINESS to discuss the program and its merits. His overriding message: This is an opportunity for industry to gain independent research and insights on problems it faces, and all stakeholders need be willing to get involved to ensure its success.

Following are edited excerpts of Crites’ comments ...

AIRPORT BUSINESS: What is your assessment of the TRB’s January meeting?

Crites: We went ahead and picked some projects. The next step is forming the panels for each one of these 24 projects. What the panels are going to consist of are experts in aviation – research, practitioners, etc. – who will come together for each project. People who have expertise in those areas. It’s all voluntary work, though their expenses will be paid.

None of these are research statements. They’re raw ideas for identifying a need out there. What has to come from this is, you have to reformat this into an experimental design. What is it that you’re really trying to accomplish? You have to polish these, is the way I put it, so that they can be developed into true problem statements. Send out a call for RFPs to aviation at large. Then the panel reviews the RFPs. The panel tracks the project until completion.

AB: Can you cite some examples of projects that were considered?

Crites: One is titled, ‘Airport Curbside Capacity Analysis and Operations Management.’ It states what the problem is; the objective; a description of the research and the estimated dollar value; and then how long it would take to research it.

What the panel does is, they go into this raw information [and determine] what it’s going to take to do it and fund it. The project in general concept has been approved at this point. Some of these will have to be refined before going out for an RFP. There are some that needs to be polished.

AB: Who can submit proposals?

Crites: Anybody can. In this example, the person submitting the proposal sees a need for general curbside capacity design standards. There doesn’t seem to be consistency in how one might approach and evaluate curbs.

Airports are unique, and we have so many parties competing for that curb, be it taxicabs, limos, employee buses, passenger vehicles, you name it. This person is saying we really ought to have an analytical approach to understand the dynamics that are going on and, from a general planning purpose, what are the various demands, like taxicabs? How does that match up with limos, or passenger pickup? There’s probably a need for a consistent approach.

Now, why would I find that of value? I have enough money to go out and hire anybody I need to do that. From my perspective, and the value of the Airport Cooperative Research Program, is that a large airport like DFW can fund a study like that; however, there are two questions of concern. Why wouldn’t we all want to know what some of the logical cause and effect are behind airport curbs that would help streamline and help us all have a better understanding of what’s going on curbside?

The other thing is, other airports have the same difficulty but do not have the in-depth staff resources or financial resources to do these kinds of studies. So, my hope would be that this comes away with providing us with very good guidelines.

Let’s say you’re a manager of some small or mid-sized airport. What you get is a document that has all of this contained in it. Here are some guidelines; ask the contractor to comply with these kinds of things. It’s a less risk analysis for somebody at a small airport.

Can you imagine the impact at the hundreds of airports out there? They’re faced with the whole myriad of problems of large airports — capacity; security; environment; customer service; passenger throughput rates; terminal layout design. This type of research is tailored to provide practitioners with ways to approach the myriad of problems and give them a head start on addressing the issues at their airport. I think this is going to benefit customers, airlines, the FAA, TSA, EPA.

It’s been proven out with the National Cooperative Highway Research Program and the Transit Cooperative Research Program. Common understanding; uncommon problems.

AB: What does the fact that it’s under the umbrella of the TRB mean to the program?

Crites: They know how to guide; and, it’s independent under the Transportation Research Board. Science is their business; independent analysis is their business. So, it’s quality research and something you can hang your hat on. They’re going to bring together good people to formulate solid program statements for research, and analyze that research to ensure that it undergoes peer review. The value of this is that you get the scholarly academic review of your work, and criticism of it.

AB: As someone who has been with this effort from the beginning, what are your thoughts on the progress to date?

Crites: I’m very optimistic at this point. This has been such a rapidly evolving industry – business models of air carriers changing; various roles that FAA and airports play – it’s hard to get a clear focus on what needs to be done and who really contributes to addressing issues. So, we are going to go out and actually independently assess this. There have been legitimate concerns [in launching the program]: Will we all have a voice at the table? Will it be of value over the long term? Things are changing so quickly.

It got people to focus on what the critical issues are; what their impacts are to all stakeholders, whether it be the airlines, the regulators, the airports.

AB: Are there specific parameters for submitting proposals?

Crites: How serious is the issue? What’s the likelihood that you’re going to be able to come up with something that will be able to address the issue now? Have you properly accommodated all the stakeholders’ needs?

What happened over the past two days is, you saw people coming into that meeting getting ready to pick projects. What came out of this dialog was that all the stakeholders were able to express their interests in each of the projects. From that came a great sense of comfort that all of us on this committee were really interested in each other. We all realized that aviation is rocket science; it takes everyone working together to make airplanes fly safely and efficiently.

The other light bulb that went off was there was a deeper understanding by all the stakeholders as to the needs of each other, and why those needs had to be satisfied. This was cooperative.

AB: We’ve heard you express your frustrations before about getting this off the ground.

Crites: There was a lot of anxiety by a lot of people as to what this program could do to them. So, coming out of this meeting, people felt positive that we were onto something good.

AB: What are some of the next challenges facing the program?

Crites: We had more than $4.7 million to play with to start up this program, and we’re going to be coming back together in six months to start considering the next round of projects.

Now, let’s do a little bit of math; 24 research statements; let’s say you have five people on each board – that’s 120 folks. We need 24 research teams to go out and do this research. So we need 120 people to come together just to set up what the real problem statements are and shepherd these programs.

So, this is a program for all the stakeholders in aviation. My appeal is that all the stakeholders get engaged in this, because it is for them and it’s going to be done by them. It’s going to help all.

AB: Is there any type of project that is not eligible?

Crites: We rejected a couple of problem statements that were directed at very high tech theoretical research that is more conducive to a NASA lab environment or an aircraft manufacturer’s environment. One example was some weather-related studies that basically needed FAA scientists cooperating with NASA scientists and the like to refine weather systems. That’s not what the intent of this program is.

This program is designed with the practitioners in mind; with solving the relational process and interface issues that go on at an airport.

AB: If I was a Signature Flight Support located at DFW, and I had some serious questions about, say, taxiway and ramp coordination, and I saw similar problems at my other locations, would this be a proposal that would be considered? Do tenant operations have a role here?

Crites: Absolutely. To that point, let’s say the issue is trying to address airfield layouts. And Signature Flight Support sees inefficiencies that exist at a number of their airports. Others in that stakeholder group may say that they’ve observed that as well, and we think that we should bring together the body of researchers – FAA, airports, and airlines – and assess that situation and see if we can’t identify a better layout, a better process. That’s fair game.

It’s trying to take a rigorous look at the systemic issues facing aviation entities.

AB: Do the approved projects fall into a particular category, or are they across the board?

Crites: We wanted to pick projects that could be addressed in very short order and that we thought would have a high return on investment for all airports in the near term. We want to show this program in its best light and what its capability is. It’s going to come up for reauthorization in FY08.

It makes sense to me that operations should be at the high point of all of this. Operations folks are dealing with all the different stakeholders. That’s where you have all those interface points.

AB: So, do you see the next 18 months as critical to future success?

Crites: This program is going to have to deliver. We picked programs that are highly likely to yield the benefits of the program and help reinforce its value.

Now that we really have funding and have selected projects, the research community and others will begin to take notice and have the confidence that we’ll be able to craft solid research to address their concerns.

Also, this program is not going to survive without the active involvement of the aviation community. My hope is people will now want to participate in conducting this research.