Is CURE Really The Cure?

Oct. 1, 2004
With the benefits of switching to a CURE facility, it's no wonder airports are changing the way they look at gates

With the benefits of switching to a CURE facility, it's no wonder airports are changing the way they look at gates

October 2004

Everywhere we look we see airlines searching for new innovative ways to do business. Changes focused on cutting costs are without a doubt the most prevalent and the most urgent for many airlines' survival. Ideas that were off limits just a few years ago are now considered necessities. For example, just five years ago few would have predicted that airlines could begin charging for on-board meals or add surcharges for using travel agents or even their own reservations center. No stone is being left unturned; no idea being dismissed in the effort to quickly shed costs. The rapid-fire changes in how airlines are doing business are very evident to those that travel with any frequency whatsoever.

As airlines change their business models, so must airports. Airports need to recognize that serving the needs of the traveling public and the evolving needs of the airline tenants can be one in the same. In recent years U.S. airports have made a push to create common use environments in the terminal. While the motivation for this has been primarily to improve flexibility and maximize the use of this high-priced real estate, the same concept implemented on the ramp could be a solution that meets the vital needs of carriers and at the same time improve service to the traveling public.

In the past, domestic carriers have placed a high premium on gaining and maintaining control of the gates at U.S. airports. There are several sound reasons for this. Branding and consistency in operations are two key benefits when airlines have control of the gates, but the real driver has been competition. Control of the gates gives airlines some ability to lock competitors out of their important markets. However, the priorities are changing. For most market share is still king, but there is a greater emphasis on profitable operations. Airlines have been more willing to give up some control over gates in favor of reducing their capital costs. Allowing the airport to build and equip gates preserves precious capital and improves cash flow for airlines. In some cases airlines are even selling gates back to the airport.

CURE Defined
Common Use Ramp Equipment (CURE) refers to standardized equipment used on the ramp to park, service and enplane/deplane aircraft. The ground equipment is versatile and not proprietary to any airline or aircraft type. As in all common use systems, the backbone of the CURE ramp is the centralized communications. A CURE operation facilitates the ability for any airline to use any compatible gate at the airport. Gates can be reassigned as required to adjust for seasonal shifts, market shifts or even to address daily operational conditions. With this flexibility the airport can accommodate an increased number of operations on the same number of gates postponing costly gate expansions, which according to various airport officials can cost as much as $15 million per gate. Deferring this investment makes sense for the airport and certainly will be appreciated by airlines.

The use of Common Use Ramp Equipment provides the same facility flexibility benefits provided by CUTE (Common Use Terminal Equipment), but perhaps has even greater positive impact on sharing costs. When gates are equipped with shared equipment there is the possibility of shared resources. There will be no need for every airline to invest in its own equipment or have its own ground handlers. The concept of multiple airlines pooling resources to hire third-party ground handlers at their smaller stations can be expanded to cover an entire airport. In Europe, for example, it is already common to see the airport provide ground handling services. One also can see the difference it makes in equipment inventory. In the U.S. we see countless tugs, carts and other GSE sitting idle waiting for that next bank of flights. European ramps by contrast allocate very little space for parking excess ground equipment.

NewTools Both Facilitate and Take Advantage of CURE Operations
Progressive companies that see the trend to CURE as inevitable and imminent are developing tools that will enable airlines and airports to gain maximum benefit from this major change to traditional operating methods. Tools aimed at tackling the very expensive, yet very important process of docking aircraft have already begun to be put to use in North America. Advanced visual docking guidance systems (A-VDGS) have been commonly used in other parts of the world for several years now, with more than 2,000 systems installed today. A-VDGS systems, such as Safegate International's Safedock, systems which represents over 80 percent of the market, are being designed into most new terminal or gate expansion projects going on around the world.

The A-VDGS is used to track an aircraft as it pulls into the gate providing graphical information to the pilots that steers them to the center line and stops them at the correct stop bar. A-VDGS differs from passive types of aircraft parking aids in that they use technology, for example laser range finders, to precisely measure the position of the aircraft and in many cases accurately verify that the aircraft type pulling into the gate is the correct type. This prevents collisions between aircraft and bridges, or worse aircraft and other aircraft. Other features of A-VDGS provide additional safety redundancy and greater ramp efficiency.

Today's A-VDGS are flexible enough to accommodate many different aircraft types at the same gate using different stop positions and even multiple center lines. The use of this technology allows any airline to use any equipped gate and rely on the same consistent docking accuracy and safety. A-VDGS are ideal for facilities that anticipate the need for maximum flexibility on a daily and seasonal basis.

More Efficient Use of Personnel
The most recent operator to add A-VDGS technology is looking to solve a very specific and very costly problem. Miami sees thunderstorms almost daily during the summer. These electrical storms disproportionately disrupt operations when the ramp must be cleared of personnel. A 15 minute storm can back up operations for many times that long as the airport works to clear clogged alleys and taxi lanes. However, the A-VDGS allows the pilot to bring the aircraft into the gate even when no personnel are available. The Miami operator expects to see dramatic savings in operating costs, but equally important a tremendous improvement in performance and customer satisfaction.

Automating the docking guidance function reduces carriers' dependency on ground handlers. This frees up costly personnel resources to attend to other duties such as getting the baggage loaded and an on-time pushback at the adjacent gate. At the same time arriving flights won't be held up waiting for ground handlers to marshal in the aircraft. At first glance this may not appear to offer significant savings, but the minutes that can be saved when multiplied by the number of operations and then again by the cost of fuel burn, engine wear and crew time, has a dramatic effect on annual operating costs.

Integrated Ramp Systems in a CURE Environment
As ground service equipment becomes more technologically advanced it has become more practical and, in fact, more valuable to integrate the various ground systems into one central system. One example of this would be to tie together the passenger boarding bridge, pre-conditioned air, ground power system and the advanced visual docking guidance system (A-VDGS) with a gate management or flight information system. Such a network would, to a large degree, automate many of the systems and provide valuable tools for managing resources and gates.

Visualize this: The flight information system informs the A-VDGS that the scheduled flight is on approach and is scheduled for gate G-5. The A-VDGS starts automatically, capturing the aircraft as it turns into the gate and verifies the type of aircraft coming in. Based on the confirmation of the aircraft type, the PBB pre-positions itself; once the aircraft is parked the ground power and pre-conditioned air systems are connected. While all of this has been happening the central operating system has been tracking performance; specifically the time from touchdown to the gate, to park the aircraft, to connect auxiliary systems and to dock the PBB. This information can be used to measure performance of the crew and the utilization of gates and systems. Precise and verifiable "on gate" times can be reported to automated accounting systems. Further integration to ramp surveillance systems can provide a visual record of time stamped events to aid in investigation of anomalies.

Integrated ground systems will be a powerful outcome of common use ramps and will facilitate the ultimate in ramp automation, gate planning and gate utilization. The Port of Seattle has taken a key first step in realizing this concept by installing four Safedock systems at the new terminal A in a trial. The gates' user, Delta Air Lines, is cooperating in a study to measure the accuracy of the information provided utilizing the A-VDGS as compared to using the traditional means of measuring performance criteria such as on-time arrivals and departures.

Improve ramp safety and reduce ground delays
Accidents on the ramp amount to more than $3 billion of losses each year. Ground delays add another $3.4 billion in direct costs associated with fuel burn, crew time, engine time and airframe time. These massive controllable costs can be reduced significantly through a CURE system. Accidents can be prevented and delays avoided when ramp systems talk to each other. Docking systems linked to the passenger boarding bridges will greatly reduce the risk of collisions. Additionally, ground handlers only need to be trained and proficient on one type of system regardless of the aircraft or airline. There is less chance that user error will result in damage to equipment or aircraft. And the fact that fewer people are needed in the docking process means fewer exposures to potential injuries.

Shared resources and automated systems, such as A-VDGS and automated bridges, can eliminate expensive waits for personnel on the ramp to park or pushback aircraft. By using a central control system to track ramp activity in real time, ground personnel can be assigned to the location where they are needed and when they are needed.

Electronic tracking of ground equipment and vehicles is another example of developing solutions to common ramp problems. Using transponders, GPS or similar technologies to track moveable equipment on the ramp will give operations centers real-time information on the location of ground equipment. This is not only an excellent way to manage resources, but can add an important dimension to increased safety (e.g. runway incursion prevention) and security. The airport in Doha, Qatar, will be one of the first in the world to employ such a system on a large scale. The vehicle tracking system, supplied by Sweden-based Safegate International, uses mobile transponders and ground stations to track vehicle movement in an effort to prevent runway incursions.

Efficient use of personnel, increasing the number of flights that can be handled on the existing gates,
eliminating critical safety problems, improving turn times and creating a totally flexible ramp all add up to improved performance, better customer service and reduced operational costs. With all of these benefits one might wonder why the trend towards CURE is not moving faster. But changes in thinking like this take time. It is natural that airlines would have some concerns. For example, will the loss of control inherent in a CURE operation lower the barriers of entry for new competitors; And when manpower is shared how can airlines ensure that their operational standards will be met. There may also be some concern about the ability to implement company-wide procedures if airports all do their own thing. These are all very real issues, but I would contend that with the significant savings that can be realized, these are issues that can be, and will be worked out.

Tom Duffy is president of Safegate Airport Systems Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of Safegate International AB based in Malm, Sweden. He previously worked 13 years in business development at Smarte Carte Inc. and is an active member of the Airport Consultants Council. He can be reached at 763-535-9299 or [email protected]