NextGen, Airport Bottlenecks Hot Topics at AAAE GIS Conference - GIS news
NextGen, Airport Bottlenecks Hot Topics at AAAE GIS Conference

The American Association of Airport Executives GIS conferences are always interesting because they’re an excellent bellwether of GIS use and where GIS is heading. This year’s conference, well organized by Greg Mamary of AAAE and held in San Antonio, was no exception. It was well attended by airport GIS managers, FAA officials, and related vendors. Airports are heavy users of GIS because they are such compact but complex organizations. Airport managers have to deal with public works, security, fire fighting, utilities, project planning, traffic management, and even marketing and retail management. 



San Antonio Airport ortho view and oblique view. Courtesy: Pictometry International







 Last year, the hot topic was BIM models and how GIS and 3D CAD were merging in the much more robust 3D topological models that also permitted spatial searches of the linked databases. For a BIM overview, see my BIM column of 2008. This year, BIM was still a topic of discussion. but the key issue was NextGen, the FAA’s effort to completely modernize the airline industry. Most of the sessions addressed this key topic or issues related to it.


NextGen is the major effort of the FAA to meet the needs of the $61 billion aviation industry as it enters the 21st century, and GIS technology will play a big role in this modernization effort. The basic concept is to take advantage of technology to permit more aircraft to operate in tighter quarters with greater efficiency and greater safety. This is a tall order that will be heavily supported with GIS. There are plans to add more airports and more runways with some large airports adding runways that will parallel existing runways. GIS, GPS, and computer-controlled air systems will permit more aircraft to operate in the same space by trimming separation distances.

 NOTAMs Modernization

One part of the overall effort is NOTAMs modernization. NOTAMs, which stands for Notice to Airman, is a very cumbersome worldwide messaging system that sends out text-based messages to all pilots informing them of problems that affect air operations, such as communications or aids-to-navigation outages, or ground-based problems such as closures of specific runways for maintenance. Sam Console, GISP and the GIS manager of the Philadelphia International Airport, spoke of his use of 3D models to manage his complex airport. He also showed how they were working to modernize their NOTAM reporting with graphics and imagery.

If you wonder why pilots drag around those 10-inch thick flight bags, hundreds of printed NOTAMs concerning airport facilities along their flight path is one major reason. The text-based system worked well back in the '50s, but is severely overtaxed now. Several ground accidents have already been attributed to confusion over the information found in NOTAMs. The FAA is working to modernize the process using GIS maps, graphics, and annotated imagery to communicate problems faster and more effectively than text-based descriptions that are currently filled with inconsistent abbreviations. This effort is now underway as one aspect of NextGen with GIS playing a major role. A May 5 news clip seen in AVweb cites:

It's been a long slow process, but the FAA is starting to advance its notices-to-airmen system into the modern age. The Atlantic City (N.J.) International Airport is the first in the national airspace system to deliver digital Notams, the FAA said this week. The notices have long been posted in a difficult-to-read shorthand designed for delivery over teletype machines. The digital versions will be easier to read, more accurate, and will be disseminated quicker, according to the FAA. "Digital information management is key to meeting the air traffic system’s safety and efficiency goals," said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt. "This is yet another step the FAA is taking to modernize the national airspace system."

The new digital system also will make it easier for pilots to identify Notams that affect their particular flight. The next airports to bring the new system online will be Washington Dulles, Reagan National, Baltimore-Washington International, Richmond, Norfolk, Denver, O'Hare and Midway in Chicago, Memphis, Fairbanks, Alaska, and Fort Wayne, Ind.

Another aspect of NextGen is accurate and complete airport facility inventories with clean vertical obstruction environments on and near airports. Allan Ladouceur of MDA Canada explained how MDA was developing efficient tools to conduct obstruction surveys faster and more efficiently using ortho and oblique imagery to identify, measure, and map vertical airfield obstructions.


The Real Bottleneck

Despite all the talk about our overcrowded skies, the real bottleneck is becoming the airports themselves. Even if more aircraft could take off and land, many terminals just can’t handle the traffic without expansion or changes in their operation. It takes a certain amount of time to de-plane, clean the aircraft, and then board new passengers. The problem is worse now that many airlines are charging for luggage. 

Those of you who’ve been flying for a while know that passengers bring significantly more luggage aboard to save the checked baggage fees. As a result, it now takes more time to board with passengers stowing more luggage. Add to the delay the inevitable passengers whose bags won’t fit after the plane runs out of overhead space. Those passengers then have to “swim upstream” while fighting the crowd to check their bag at the front door. It’s a mess.

I spoke to many conference attendees who believe that the additional time spent with all the additional carry-on baggage nonsense is slowing the process enough to perhaps prevent an additional flight per day per gate at many large airports. Everyone is hoping that the airline “bean counters” will see the light and realize that the extra flight is worth more than the checked baggage fees.

At some large airports GIS is being used as a ground-traffic management system, not only for the aircraft taxiing to their gates but also to manage the ground transportation of passengers via transit systems. For years Atlanta’s Hartsfield airport has operated its own subway system that gets passengers from one terminal to another. Many other airports are doing the same as they spread out by necessity. 

The trams at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport are recent example of airports needing to move passengers on the ground faster as terminals grow in size. Two 35-ton elevated express trams glide silently on a cushion of air at the new Edward H. McNamara Terminal. The driverless, automated trams provide passengers rapid transportation the length of the mile long passenger terminal. Computer controls and electronic display maps show the position and arrival time of each tram with 58 elevators, 57 escalators, and 42 moving walkways completing the ground transportation system.

Detroit Metropolitan Airport Tram

Spatial Airport Asset Management System — SAAMS

With the overarching goal to move more people and more aircraft in a shorter period of time, GIS has to play an even greater role, but many small- to mid-sized airports need help.

Most major airports have had GIS operations for years but many small and mid-sized airports have not had the luxury of GIS support. Pat Osborne of the AAAE explained the features of SAAMS. He described it as a GIS web-based system that is being built by the AAAE to support its members. SAAMS will help airports manage their facilities and even more important, it will help them collect the data that is needed to implement NextGen. SAAMS is primarily aimed at medium to small airports, but will most likely benefit large airports also.

Here is what SAAMS is designed to do:

  • Airspace and NAVAID obstruction management
  • Document management
  • Environmental management
  • Lease management
  • Maintenance management
  • Noise management
  • Operations safety management
  • Pavement management
  • Utilities management

This was a good conference that turned out to be more interesting than I expected. BIM, digital NOTAMs, GIS, imagery, and web-based services such as SAAMS promise to make flying more efficient and enjoyable. But as a frequent flyer, I look forward to the airlines cleaning up the boarding process by cutting out the luggage fees. One can only hope.