How constrained airports can still expand capacity

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Nick Stevens, principal consultant, NATS Customer Solutions, examines how constrained airports can still grow without extending or building new runways or terminals…

What airports has NATS worked with to expand their capacity without building new runways or terminals?

Throughout NATS and London Heathrow Airport’s strategic partnership there has been a number of announcements about how we have helped the airport increase resilience and efficiency. One example of this is Intelligent Approach (iA), which is the implementation of a time-based spacing tool that has delivered significant benefit to the airport by enhancing the resilience of the ATM operation delivery, leading to a more sustained runway capacity across challenging wind and weather conditions.

Time-based separation dynamically adjusts the separation between arrivals, maintaining the time separation between aircraft at a constant equivalent to the distance separation required in a headwind of 5-7kts and, in doing so, safely reducing approach separation to recover most of the capacity otherwise lost during strong headwind conditions.

In 2010, Mumbai (Chatrapati Shivaji International Airport) was perceived to be at capacity with no physical room to grow. NATS was requested to provide an independent performance and capacity review to benchmark the airfield capacity and to determine the changes necessary to enhance the airport operation. By 2015 runway capacity was increased by 29% (increasing the number of daily movements from 700 to 900), headroom for further growth was established, and at the same time punctuality was improved.

Mumbai airport is now the busiest single-runway operation in the world (by total number of movements over a 24-hour daily operation). GVK cited an increase in annual revenues of US$100m as a result of the capacity enhancement program.

Similar airport capacity enhancement (ACE) studies have been conducted at many other busy airports, including New Delhi, Hyderabad and Bangalore, India; Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, Australia; Ataturk, Turkey; Singapore; Hong Kong, China; Jakarta, Indonesia; Doha, Qatar; and Lisbon, Portugal to name a few. A similar study has just started for Barcelona Airport in Spain.

Experts often talk about the need for airports to ‘digitize their concrete’ – do you agree?

The introduction of data-driven decision making and increased automation has been a key contributor to increasing airport capacity in the UK until new runways can be built. The availability of new technologies such as big data analytics, beacons, tracking and automated recognition has enabled NATS to introduce systems such as A-CDM (Airport Collaborative Decision Making) and AMAN (Arrival Manager), as well as develop new operational tools, such as iA and ACM (Airport Capacity Management).

This has ensured that the operational stakeholders that are responsible for both the strategic planning and the tactical delivery have the right data to allow them to make the best-informed decisions.

But don’t some physical, real constraints always remain?

Physical real-life constraints will always remain; the key is to know what is possible, what is the benchmark for all the interconnected pieces of the operation, which are the important ones and how close to, or far away from, those benchmarks any airport operation actually is. NATS has significant experience of undertaking ACE studies at airports where this benchmarking of the operation is always the first step.

As well as immigration and baggage processing there are some key assets on the airfield too; for example, the positioning of runway exits can have a huge effect on optimal ATM operation as their location affects the time that an arriving aircraft occupies the runway.

Until recently our industry has tended to consider these factors independently, but of course changes in one airport function may have implications elsewhere – just imagine the simple case of changing which terminal an A380 operates from – that could be 600 or more passengers needing to be processed in a completely different place.

In recognition of these connections we’ve been working with our partners to develop new solutions to optimize these kinds of decisions across the entire airport airside and landside operation.

What one thing in particular would you advise a constrained airport to focus on or invest in when aiming to boost capacity?

I don’t think there is any one single tangible asset that I would advise an airport to invest in – each airport has unique challenges and while there are many similar problems and solutions one size does not fit all. What I would say is that every airport should have as a priority the right performance improvement activities in place.

From my experience, having undertaken ACE assessments across the globe, much ‘latent capacity’ can be released by each stakeholder knowing what level of performance is needed and everyone focusing on the right things.

How do you measure how well an airport is doing and how it can expand further?

Airport Capacity Management (ACM) encapsulates the essence of what we have developed as our ACE methodology. Taking data from sources including radar, schedule and ATM systems and fusing that in a way to build a comprehensive picture of the current operation allows us to then derive a clear view of operational performance.

Runway occupancy time is one example: based on the infrastructure available and the ATC operations that are required at the airport (the pilot performance, the weather conditions), how does the runway occupancy time impact overall airport performance? That question needs to be considered in relation to approach and departure performance, turnaround times, ground movement operations, taxiing performance, runway crossing and terminal processing times.

MOS is another tool NATS has developed that provides airlines with enhanced situational awareness, post flight analytics and competitor benchmarking insight to help them maximize flight efficiency.

How can simulation help pinpoint inefficiencies?

NATS has one of the largest and most experienced fast-time simulation analytics teams working in the ATM domain. Simulation can be an effective tool to support the identification and quantification of inefficiencies, and forms an integral part of developing a new idea through concept and into operation.

Probably the best example of which is the one we apply most often for our airport customers; the benchmarking data we collect at the start of our ACE studies is the same data needed to produce a validated baseline model of an airport’s operation (fast-time simulation).

As part of the ACE study we would outline a capacity enhancement roadmap that aligns the airport growth aspirations with operational, technology and infrastructure changes needed to deliver additional capacity.

Simulations form a vital part of that process and are used to test which parts of the operation are most capacity constraining (hence need to be prioritized first). Not only do simulations provide data driven evidence as to where inefficiencies in the operation lie, but they are also a great platform to ensure stakeholders are brought into those change programs.

How can airports avoid choosing and investing in technology that quickly becomes outdated?

There is a difference between what most business people will say is a necessity of modern life – a smartphone – and the desire to have the latest gadget. I think the same is true for airports; for capacity-challenged busy airports there are a number of technologies that are considered mandatory. The focus has to be on the benefit that the technology delivers and choosing a solution that is reliable and works with other technology.

What about passenger terminals – how do you see these changing to become more efficient?

There is much focus today, including within NATS Product and Research & Innovation teams, on passenger experience – looking less at heavy process-orientated operation and more at the journey people take from door to destination.

It may take some time to get there, but a future vision for me includes biometrics, beacon and scanning technology and passenger and bag tracking, which should enable a much more seamless journey coupled with better data integration. Predictive analytics should allow terminals to enhance that experience.

Where could terminals do better?

There are always areas that could be improved in order to enhance the passenger experience. From the passenger perspective, the airport (terminal) is more often than not just the means to the end; most people want the time in the terminal to be minimized and few relish the extended time available to shop and dine.

As well as airside ACE studies, NATS has undertaken a number of studies on how efficient terminal operations are. Terminal efficiency around the world varies considerably; something as simple as having the right signage so passengers know where they need to obtain arrival visas can make a massive difference. Each airport is different and different cultures and business models demand different levels of service.

What are the key challenges that remain with regard to improving airport capacity?

These vary depending on the commercial maturity of the operation and the level of collaboration between all stakeholders (and of course many other factors). The overall capacity of the airport is highly dependent upon each of the processes that are required; terminal operations such as passport, baggage and security; airside operations such as ATC and pilot performance and turnaround efficiency; and external factors such as weather and outstation punctuality.

One of the key challenges is to balance all of the components and optimize each to attain the maximum capacity that the airfield can deliver. Using data to drive decisions and having people with the appropriate accountability to affect change is crucial to delivering a successful capacity improvement program.

View the full version of the article in the March edition of Passenger Terminal World magazine by clicking here.

By Anthony James

February 7, 2018

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With over 20 years experience in editorial management and content creation for multiple, market-leading titles at UKi Media & Events (publisher of Passenger Terminal World), one of the UK's fastest growing publishing companies, Anthony has written articles and news covering everything from aircraft, airports and cars, to cruise ships, trains, trucks and even tires!

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