Officials at Dallas/Forth Worth International Airport (DFW) have taken a proactive approach to combating delays for aircraft waiting to dock in inclement weather or when ramp staff is unavailable. In doing so, they are also reducing aircraft emissions, providing better customer service and saving the airport's largest carrier an estimated $14.5 million per year.
When an American Airlines aircraft lands at DFW, there is a good chance it will not require a ramp worker to marshal it into its gate position. In January, the airport began using an advanced visual docking guidance system called Safedock® at 92 of its 157 gates.
The equipment, from Safegate Airport System Inc., uses laser-based technology to allow pilots to self-park at the gate. In essence, says Safegate president Tom Duffy, the laser scans the ramp looking for the aircraft to come in and ensures that there is nothing blocking the path between the docking system and the aircraft.
The three-dimensional laser scans the profile of the aircraft and compares it to parameters built into the software for what that particular aircraft should look like. If a ramp worker inputs data indicating the system should be docking a 757, for instance, the software will make sure the approaching aircraft meets 757 specifications before confirming and giving the pilot a visual indication to proceed with docking. "Instead of [pilots] looking at a marshaler with a baton, they're looking at a display," Duffy says.
Evaluating the Purchase
American Airlines requested adding the technology at the airport's expense, explains Jim Crites, executive vice president of operations at DFW.
"We try to lean forward for our air carriers and FAA to make as safe and efficient operation as we can," Crites says, noting that the airport understands airlines are financially strapped.
The airport also sees that the air carriers "have high desire to achieve operational effectiveness in the eyes of their customers and employees." And, because DFW views itself as a partner to the airlines that serve it, the airport shares their goals. "We thought it was only appropriate for us if they are in a constrained position," Crites explains. "We certainly don't want that to be a constraint to doing the right thing for them and their customers."
Wes Friedman, senior airport planner with American Airlines, explains that the airline evaluated the system's use in Europe and Asia and saw an opportunity to apply it to its gates in the United States. "The [Safedock] system allows us to safely park aircraft without the use of ramp personnel, which in turn allows them to begin servicing the aircraft sooner," Friedman says. "With about 800 daily arrivals at our largest hub, and frequent summer thunderstorms, DFW was a prime candidate for this system."
American Airlines, says Crites, calculated that the self-docking system, used in normal weather conditions, would save roughly $3.5 million each year on an investment of some $6 million.
DFW took it a step further with what Crites calls "breakthrough thinking." He notes the airline had not considered that the technology could facilitate safe docking during lightning conditions, when aircraft are at risk of being stuck on the tarmac because it is not safe for ramp workers to be outside marshaling them in.
"That's a big impact here for us at DFW airport," says Crites.
With the Safedock system and slight modifications to American Airlines' jet bridges, aircraft can now dock during lightning conditions - a capability expected to yield an additional $11 million in savings for the airline, bringing the annual total to $14.5 million.
Although aircraft cannot be fully serviced until weather conditions improve, passengers can be unloaded. "The big thing they want to do is get off that airline, so this has been a big boost here at DFW airport to facilitate that process," notes Crites.
Fuel burn reduction was another factor considered when evaluating the change. "Saving fuel is paramount and one of our most important company goals," says Friedman. "Using [Safedock], aircraft are able to taxi and park at gates quicker and more efficiently. This has resulted in shorter taxi times and an overall fuel savings to American Airlines."
Getting aircraft parked at the gate sooner also leads to greater efficiency at the airport and reduced ramp congestion. Because aircraft are not on the ramp idling while waiting to be marshaled in, there are environmental benefits, Crites says.
Another benefit for both the airline and airport is Safedock's ability to interface with other information systems that both use. As a result, there is more accurate information about the status of an aircraft - what is docked at the gate, when it arrived and more. "[That] helps the airlines and the airport coordinate the services in a more effective way," explains Crites. "The airline, instead of waiting for someone to report, is getting [the data] almost real-time."
The DFW Safedock system is networked together by a gate operating system (GOS), says Duffy: "That GOS is the gateway interface with the airport and airlines system and is what they use to really manage the gates."
The GOS allows the airport and airline a real-time view of gate status and also allows them to make changes to the configuration, such as speed limits and stop locations, Duffy explains.
Making it Happen
So far, says Crites, the airport is "very delighted" with the installation and the technology has worked "flawlessly."
Both pilots and ramp workers underwent extensive training to become comfortable with and knowledgeable about how the system works, he says. "It is very intuitive," he notes. "Human factors have all been worked through on this and it's very simple."
About five days after substantial completion of the installation, the airport experienced irregular operation conditions. "That's when the system really came to life," says Perfecto Solis, vice president of airport development and engineering.
It also generated tremendous interest from other carriers at DFW. "Other airlines have really sat up and taken notice of this system and the benefits that it brings," says Solis. "So we're getting requests with respect to the balance of the gates."
The project came together quite quickly, according to Solis. Instead of using a design-bid-build process, it was a performance-based specification. "We had to sit down not only as a team, but with our customer stakeholders as well and jointly develop what that performance specification needed to be," he explains. "A performance-based specification rolls up into one contract both the design and the construction aspects. "
This approach was chosen, Solis explains, to save DFW time and money.
Trevino Mechanical was the prime contractor on the project. "Our role was the organization of the team of subcontractors that were responsible for the physical installation of the system," says James Carpenter, VP of business.
Trevino oversaw the entire project from an administrative perspective, supervised installation and ensured all specifications and requirements were being met. The company is also responsible for the maintenance of the new system under a six-month contract, which Carpenter says will be renewed every six months.