Common Use Ramp Equipment: Supplier relates how technology is going to improve ramp safety, operations

June 8, 2004

Fueling/Line Ops/Safety

Common Use Ramp Equipment

Supplier relates how technology is going to improve ramp safety, operations

By Tom Duffy

June 2004

Airports,and even to some extent airlines, have begun embracing the conceptof common use terminal equipment (CUTE). The most importantadvantages touted by advocates for common use terminals are the flexibilitygained by the facility and the resulting lower investment to accommodate growing operations. It has taken some time, but airports have proven the case that CUTE makes sense for airports and carriers. So if CUTE makes sense in the terminal, why wouldn’t the same concept — CURE (common use ramp equipment) — make sense for the ramp?

According to various airport officials it can cost as much as $15 million to build a new gate at an airport. Maximizing the utilization of the existing gates will result in deferral of the need for costly gate expansions.

In the same way common use terminal equipment has given airports the flexibility to shift operations to meet peak demands and a changing marketplace, common use ramp equipment will extend that flexibility to the ramp. In a truly CURE environment all airlines will have the ability to use all gates. This provides maximum flexibility in planning for seasonal schedule changes and impending changes in aircraft mix, like the trend toward regional aircraft or the advent of the NLA.

When gates are equipped with shared equipment there is also the possibility of shared resources. There will be no need for every airline to have its own ground handlers. The concept of airlines pooling resources to hire third-party ground handlers can be expanded to cover an entire airport. In Europe it is common to see the airport provide ground handling services.

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.

Benefits of CURE
  • Increase capacity of existing gates
  • Preserve capital
  • Reduce operational costs
  • Improve operational flexibility
  • Improve ramp safety

Advanced visual docking guidance systems (A-VDGS) have been commonly used in other parts of the world for several years now, with over 2000 systems installed today. A-VDGS systems are being designed into most new terminal or gate expansion projects going on around the world. A-VDGS are used to track an aircraft as it pulls into the gate, providing graphical information to pilots, steering them to the centerline and stopping them at the correct stop bar.

A-VDGS systems differ 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, between aircraft.

A-VDGS provide additional safety redundancy and greater ramp efficiency. For example, one major U.S. airline plans to use Safegate’s Safedock system at a hub in a highly thunderstorm-prone climate. The A-VDGS will allow an aircraft to park at the gate even when the ramp must be cleared of personnel. Eliminating waits for ground handlers to marshal in aircraft and more precise aircraft parking are intended to improve turn times and thus on-time performance, while reducing operational costs at the same time.

Technology, such as laser range finders or photogrammetry-based tracking systems can be used to more accurately and safely dock boarding bridges to aircraft.

Another company that sees the value in automating aircraft docking is Indal Technologies. The Toronto-based company has developed an Automated Passenger Bridge (APB) system that, similar to the Safedock A-VDGS uses a photogrammetry-based aircraft tracking system to actually dock the aircraft to the bridge.

Using its own special reflective markings applied near the aircraft doors, the APB system can detect the exact location and distance to the door. The system then drives the bridge to its final docking position, usually faster than can be done manually and with an extra margin of safety. When the A-VDGS guides and verifies that the correct type of aircraft is parked with precision in the correct location at the gate, the APB can close the loop for an entirely automated docking process.

Electronic tracking of ground equipment and vehicles is another example of developing solutions to common ramp problems. Using transponders, GPS, or similar technologies 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 is being supplied by Sweden-based Safegate International.

As ground service equipment becomes more advanced it has become more practical and, in fact, more valuable to integrate the various ground systems into one central system. One example would be to tie together the passenger boarding bridge, pre-conditioned air, ground power system, and the advanced visual docking guidance system 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.

Accidents on the ramp amount to over $3 billion in 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 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 can greatly reduce the risk of collisions.

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 push back 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.

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 take time. It’s 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 with the significant savings that can be realized, these are issues that can be worked out.

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