Think Thoughts

The Bank is Empty…

I recently attended the EUROCONTROL Agency Research Teams (ARTs) Airport Capacity Worksop hosted by ISDEFE in Madrid in September. The workshop caught my eye for the variety technical topics to be presented. Bob Graham, Head of Airport Research at EUROCONTROL, opened the day by discussing current issues facing airport capacity and the solutions that are being investigated within SESAR 2020.  He concluded that beyond SESAR 2020 the airport research’s ‘bank’ of ideas and improvements is currently empty.

As the day progressed the presentations gave suggestions of research which could help “fill” the future airport “research bank”. This was done through looking at examples of research being conducted across the airport and air traffic management (ATM) industry and offering ideas as to the future challenges and opportunities for airport capacity.

For me, the most important theme was the growing importance of data both in research and in operations. Almost all presentations were data-focused: Some were more focused towards the use of data to solve specific current issues whilst others focussed on the use of data to identify emerging issues – the currently unknown ‘problems’.  This is a theme which is very familiar to me through some of our current work on runway performance for a major UK airport; where we are using data to identify and quantify the current constraints which can then be used to find the right solutions.

A key presentation for me was: ‘Big Data In Airport Operations’. This presentation focused on an interesting piece of work recently conducted by several partners including Heathrow Airport Ltd, University of Virginia and University College London. The work involved using data from Heathrow to forecast passenger flows through the airport. This was done using various modelling techniques and machine-learning algorithms.  Forecasting the flows of connecting passengers could be used to calculate the probability of the number of passengers likely to make their connecting flight, which could then be used to make a decision on whether to delay the flight or not. Other benefits from this include being able to use the information to better allocate resource at security and immigration.

The example from Heathrow demonstrated another key theme from the Airport Capacity workshop: the importance of passengers. Discussions on the day highlighted that including passengers in the wider air transport system would enable us to better predict and understand their impact on the airport and hence improve decision making by ATM stakeholders. This could be taken a step further by considering how to influence passenger decisions and potentially reduce their impact on the system. For example, if information was known about the passengers likely travel time to the airport, they could be sent a text message with a ‘Target Set-Off Time’ to reach the airport at an optimal time. This could allow flows through the airport to be better predicted and managed, reducing the time spent at check-in and security.

There is a need to move towards a more data-driven and collaborative method of working within the airport and ATM industry. Using the data to help influence key decisions to optimise the industry. However, I think it is also important to realise that current airport research is broadly focused on optimising the current system within the current method of operations.

The future bank of exploratory airport research needs to be topped up with ideas that focus on Big Data as a way of understanding the wider air transport system and how to optimise for the benefit of passengers. Research focused on a completely new operational concept which focuses on optimising and simplifying the whole passenger experience of air travel would be a real “game changer”.

About Rob Sawyer

Rob Sawyer is an ATM Consultant at Think Rob is a technically-minded consultant with a background in data analytics. Rob has a love for all things aviation having studied Aviation Technology with Pilot Studies at the University of Leeds, as well gaining his Private Pilots License during his time at university. Rob has skills in data analysis, programming, database management and fast time simulation View all posts by Rob Sawyer →