Getting passengers in and out is a continual challenge at older East Coast airports, where congestion is often a standard element of the local landscape. Hardstands allow them to accommodate more aircraft and passengers than contact gates alone; but they also create the need to shuttle customers between the tarmac and terminal.
Reagan National Airport (DCA) in Washington, D.C., and US Airways, its dominant carrier, know the shuffle all too well. Each month, US Airways Express operates more than 3,000 flights from hardstand positions at DCA, mostly via CRJ 200, which seat about 50 people each. Recently, the airline invested in equipment and infrastructure changes that have already improved both traffic flow and passenger satisfaction.
Project: New Procedures & Vehicles for Transporting Regional Jet Passengers from Hardstands to Terminal
Location: Reagan National Airport
Airline Partner: US Airways
New Equipment: Cobus 2700S
Bus Capacity: 77 passengers, plus carry-on baggage
Vehicle Mfg: Cobus Industries
Fleet Size: 10
Approx. Cost: $525,000, including delivery & training
Passenger Loading Device: Keith Consolidated Industries
Other Changes: Extensions to 2 jet bridges & a new jet blast fence route buses around aircraft & ground support vehicles to which they previously had to yield
Key Benefits: Enhanced customer convenience; improved on-time departures due to more timely aircraft boarding
“In 2013, there were 20.4 million passengers using the airport — a record for us,” reports Airport Manager Paul Malandrino. “We have up to 850 flights a day, and approximately 110 of those are the regional jets operated by US Airways. So getting those planes to depart on time was very important to us.”
In December, Piedmont Airlines, a subsidiary of US Airways Express, purchased a fleet of buses to improve the efficiency of loading and unloading passengers from regional jets parked at hardstands. Bob Berg, director of stations for Piedmont, reflects on the precursors to the improvements: “We knew we had to change some things back in 2012, when US Airways took over many of the slots Delta Air Lines had at National. We increased our number of daily flights from 73 to 110 — roughly a 35 percent increase. This moved us more toward a hub status.”
For several years, the airline had 14 parking positions on the tarmac at DCA, and getting people to and from the regional jets was a problem. Previously, the carrier used 30-seat vehicles that resembled school buses. “Passengers had to go up three steps to even board,” Berg recalls. “And if we had more than 30 passengers, we had to use more than one bus. We had to maintain 20 buses in our old fleet.” Today, the airline uses 10 more modern buses.
It quickly became apparent that a better system was needed. Based on 2½ years of success using Cobus 3000 buses at Philadelphia International Airport, the carrier decided to buy a smaller version of the same unit, the Cobus 2700S, to use at DCA.
“The vehicle has a capacity of 77 passengers, and an open interior, with only 10 or 12 seats,” says Erwin Zimmermann, vice president for Cobus Industries. “It is designed much like the rail-mounted people-movers used at other airports, only with more flexibility.”
Cobus buses are not like typical city buses, Zimmermann emphasizes: “They are specifically designed for just this specific type of operation, keeping passenger accommodations, safety and maintainability in mind.” A separate compartment separates the driver from passengers to enhance safety.
Zimmermann highlights the bus’ low floors and single step of about 11 inches as key features. “At DCA, there is a curb, so the one step is even easier to climb,” he adds.
Since most of DCA’s regional jets seat about 50 passengers, an entire flight can fit onto one bus. This reduces driver and maintenance personnel requirements as well as insurance expenses, notes Zimmermann.
The Cobus 2700S uses an Allison transmission, driven by a small four-cylinder Mercedes Benz diesel engine that consumes slightly more than 4 gallons per hour. “Why put in a big engine when you will only be driving at 20 mph or less?” Zimmermann asks. The company also offers models that run on alternate fuels.
Per its contract, Cobus trained Piedmont’s trainers and maintenance staff. The airline’s trainers then trained the bus drivers.
Getting new buses was only part of the efforts made to improve regional jet operations at DCA, relates Berg. “The holding area at the departure gate for all regional jets was quite small and cramped,” he explains. “We added three more doors, so there are now five doors. Four are used for departing passengers, and one for arriving passengers. Now, the new space can accommodate up to 200 people, or about four flights, at one time.”
Another previous obstacle was that buses going to and from the regional jet parking ramp were subject to delays — sometimes as long as 15 minutes — while waiting for aircraft to depart from nearby gates. “To remedy this problem, we developed an alternate bus loop that allowed our buses to make a continuous loop to and from the remote ramp, unimpeded by aircraft movement,” Berg explains.
The new loop required the extension of one jet bridge to expand the bus parking area at the terminal, and the extension of another jet bridge so buses could pass under it as they approach and depart the terminal. Like the new buses, the infrastructure changes were funded by US Airways.
The airport, in turn, installed a secondary blast fence that runs parallel to its permanent blast fence to help prevent damage to the buses from debris kicked up by the jet engines taxiing to the runways.
“Now, the buses have a two-lane road between both fences, and do not have to stop,” notes Malandrino.
With aircraft parking 400 to 1,000 feet away from the North Pier, the bus ride to the terminal is about three to four minutes long. After a flight is announced, passengers stay protected from the weather by a large canopy that overhangs a curb that facilitates the bus loading process. Once they arrive at their plane, passengers exit the bus and climb the stairs to their aircraft.
The process, however, may be improved soon, notes Berg. “We are currently working with engineers and a manufacturer to develop a fixed but movable bridge for each of the 14 remote parking slots, perhaps even later this year,” he reports.
US Airways uses smaller vehicles to transport passengers with mobility handicaps to regional jets parked on the tarmac. Such customers are boarded using a Passenger Loading Device — a movable, adjustable ramp that bypasses the stairs and provides direct access to the aircraft door.
Three electronic signs on each bus display the flight number and destination of the plane passengers are about to board, and the driver uses a public address system to announce the destination of the flight. Passenger loading and unloading is expedited by two sets of doors on both sides of the buses.
At press time, the new Cobus vehicles had been in use at DCA for only a few weeks, but were said to be running smoothly. “We feel good about how things are going so far,” Berg reports. “Our passengers like the curb access, the extended canopy, and better on-time departures.”
Another initiative US Airways is taking to improve the passenger experience at DCA is shuttling passengers between terminals B and C to decrease wait times at TSA screening checkpoints. “If the security lines are much shorter in a given terminal, passengers can go through screening there, and use shuttle buses to move from one terminal to another,” Malandrino explains. “The buses are also used by passengers on connecting flights, eliminating the need to go through security screening to board their new flight in a different terminal.”
More expansion may be in the works as well, adds Malandrino. “Because of the merger with American Airlines, US Airways must sell 44 round-trip slots to other carriers,” he explains. “Projections indicate that we could end up with 2 million more passengers in the future. If this happens, we may have to expand. Enlarging Terminal A (the airport’s original terminal) might be one possibility. We will have to wait and see the impact of these changes.”
Such a jump in traffic would trigger changes throughout the airport, notes Malandrino. “This would affect our operations. There would be more demand on rest rooms, parking, custodial services, etc.,” he relates.
All DCA passengers, not just US Airways’ regional jet customers, are in for widespread concessions improvements later this year. “Nearly 85 percent of food and retail will be brand new to the airport,” Malandrino reports. “We are always striving to improve the overall experience for all our passengers, and the new procedures to transport people out to the regional jets are just part of that.”