Airports Leverage Technology to Manage Irregular Operations

Jodi Richards
Published in: 

Even on an average day, traffic in the Chicago airspace can significantly affect surrounding airports. Throw in bad weather, which is not unusual for the area, or an oddball twist like the arson incident at the Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center (TRACON) last fall; and business as usual gets very complicated very quickly. 

General Mitchell International (MKE) in Milwaukee is one of the area airports that regularly feels the ripples. Typically, MKE receives up to eight extra Southwest Airlines flights if Chicago Midway International (MDW) is “having issues,” as well as additional diversions from American Airlines or United Airlines flights bound for O’Hare International (ORD), reports Lexie Farmer, MKE’s assistant operations manager.

But the Milwaukee facility was slammed with 20 diversions on Sept. 26, 2014, the day of the TRACON fire. “We had them all over the airport pretty much,” Farmer recalls. “PASSUR OPSnet was our lifeline for that.”

OPSnet is a collaborative decision-making software program by PASSUR Aerospace. Ron Dunsky, the company’s senior vice president and general manager of global airports and business aviation, describes the system as a “web dashboard” that provides a “one-stop location to collect and distribute information.”

Both automated and manual sources populate the system with information; and PASSUR works with more than 100 airports in the United States and Canada and about 125 airlines in North America and worldwide, notes Dunsky. The company’s Airport Information Network brings together key aviation stakeholders in real-time to exchange information and manage large events like irregular operations caused by weather and events like the Chicago TRACON fire.

PASSUR OPSnet is an aggregation of automated data, but also a way for airport personnel to stay connected and share data on a common operating platform, Dunsky continues. The basic Airport Information Network is available without charge to all authorized aviation users, while a paid subscription allows deeper access and expanded abilities. “As soon as they join, they’re on our platform and generating information that gets folded into our network of information, and that becomes part of the overall ecosystem of data updates and information exchange,” Dunsky explains.

Faster Than the Phone

Ever since MKE began using PASSUR OPSnet in 2005, it has become the airport’s de facto tool for keeping staff in multiple departments updated and in the loop “When we have something going on, PASSUR OPSnet and the chat bar is the way we communicate, notes MKE Assistant Operations Manager Jim Grava.

During an event like the TRACON fire, MKE also uses the software system to notify tenants about where to park aircraft if gates are unavailable or how long specific aircraft have been on the ground. It’s much more efficient than calling everyone on the phone, notes Farmer.

But the system is not only used during news-making events like the TRACON fire. Farmer recalls leveraging the system’s benefits late last year, when Chicago experienced thunderstorms and “dropped 17 aircraft” on MKE. “It’s a pretty significant impact to us for irregular ops, whether an (Air Traffic Control) outage, thunderstorm or snow,” she says.

Prior to implementing PASSUR OPSnet, numerous airline managers would crowd into or call the operations office during snow events. Now, MKE personnel post runway conditions, snow removal updates and other associated information to all airlines simultaneously.

“We got rid of answering phones and making calls,” Grava explains. “When we want to ask a question, we put it on there on the chat bar. When somebody wants to know what’s going on, they put it on the chat bar.”

Throughout the years, PASSUR OPSnet has evolved into a “major communication tool” that allows the airport to be more proactive rather than reactive, he reflects.

The front page of MKE’s PASSUR OPSnet portal also includes other important information, such as tornado and snow plans, construction notifications, field condition reports and Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) about runways and taxiways.

“It comes down to planning,” summarizes MKE Operations Manager Kathie David. “The more information that’s out there, the more it helps the airport and airlines for planning and making changes quickly.”

The PASSUR system has also affected procedures at Minneapolis-St. Paul International (MSP). Rather than sending 60 faxes per event or incident, airport personnel now send about 20, reports Kyle Scapple, technical operations manager, airside operations. With stakeholders able to pull relevant and timely information from the online system, the airport no longer faxes all information to all system users, he explains.

Scapple cites NOTAMs as an example: “This way, we’re putting up our near-term, future closure plans to help that flight that might be two hours out.”

While MSP doesn’t currently use the system-wide chat function to manage events, Scapple notes that the airport plans to launch a new version of the software that will allow the airport to create event-based chats for select participants. 

Industry-wide Collaboration

Just as the system’s real-time chat function facilitates communication between airport personnel and their stakeholders, its real-time data sharing enhances wider collaboration, notes Bill Murphy, International Air Transport Association (IATA) assistant director, FAA Command Center.

“When we can get the air navigation service provider, the operator and the airport all sharing the information in real-time, it removes any misunderstandings,” explains Murphy. “It allows everybody to share the same situational awareness, which in the end equates to efficiency.”

As Murphy points out, speed counts: “Your ability to respond option-wise decreases as you get closer to your location. So with real-time communications, we’re able to give more timely information, allowing the operator and crew that manage that part of the system an opportunity to make different decisions.”

IATA is a key player in the PASSUR OPSnet platform because the association sends real-time information from its airline command center to airports via PASSUR’s Airport Information network. Between IATA’s Tactical Operations Portal and PASSUR’s Airport Information Network, airlines throughout the world receive real-time information about the status of North American airspace and airports, Dunsky explains. 

The established information links played an important role during the Chicago TRACON fire, as IATA, several affected airports and groups like Airports Council International-North American (ACI-NA) used PASSUR’s platform to help manage operations during the event. Because they were using real-time, automated traffic optimization tools, the various parties were working from a common set of operational metrics. As a result, notes Dunsky, they understood how many diversions were under way at any given time, the surface volume at nearby airports such as ORD, MDW and MKE, and the status of their airfields. “From that common picture, they are able to interact on our platform to better manage how events like this unfold,” he explains.

While phone calls work for one-on-one cases with a specific airline and flight, IATA’s Tactical Operations Portal allows it to send a specific message to an entire targeted user group through its alert function, notes Murphy. Once an alert is sent, IATA can activate a chat page to create real-time two-way communications with those involved. “It helps all the participants in the system,” he says. “It’s sort of a forum. The communication is multi-leveled and able to target the audience.”

During the Chicago TRACON event, IATA shared real-time information with operators from the Middle East to the Pacific Rim. “The Chicago Center (handles) some of the most critical air space to our transportation system. And in the end, we were actually able to manage around it,” Murphy reflects. “The disruption would have been much greater if we didn’t have the improved communications.”

Airports like MKE were able to ensure that airlines were aware of their capacities to handle diversions, including specific information such as fuel status, surface traffic management, and other critical details, Dunsky adds. Travelers were consequently not diverted to oversaturated airports, where they might have stayed on the ground much longer, he reasons.

Mother Necessity

The need for real-time information was also highlighted in October 2011, when facilities in Hartford, CT, were inundated with diverted planes as a surprise Nor’easter hit the New York area, Dunsky relates. Afterward, FAA held a series of meetings across the country designed to generate recommendations about preventing similar traffic situations in the future. One of the recommendations, he notes, was the need for a common industry platform that allows all key players to view the same real-time information, and then communicate and collaborate to prevent a single facility from being overwhelmed by too many diversions.

Incidents like the more recent Chicago TRACON fire show “how much better things can be managed when you have a common operating platform and a way to share information in real time,” Dunsky reflects.

Murphy agrees that recent weather events and the Chicago TRACON fire have only reinforced the need to improve communication channels. That requires the air navigation service provider, airports and airlines to come together and talk, he adds.

One challenge is trying to standardize the information exchange, notes Chris Oswald, vice president of safety and regulatory affairs for ACI-NA. “It’s been really helpful to us to work through our partners at IATA to engage in that kind of real-time information exchange through (its Tactical Operations Portal),” he says.

MSP’s Scapple notes that it would help for FAA to put all airports on the same platform; but at the same time, he appreciates benefits such as quick updates and product development that private sector companies such as PASSUR, Sensis, Exelis and others provide.

In lieu of a single standard, Scapple says that the best thing airports can do is keep all stakeholders informed. “If we let everyone know the plan ahead of time, they can plan accordingly,” he says. “They have little control over the event, but at least they know what we’re thinking; and we provide a bit of situational awareness.”

Some airports, such as MSP and Dallas/Fort Worth International, have created their own irregular operations management programs  - and are vocal advocates of them, Oswald notes. He encourages other airports to take a leadership role within their regions to “coordinate information flow and try to engage their smaller, supporting airports in the region when events affect them.”

From simple measures like having the right phone numbers on hand to high-tech software systems, all communication is critical, Oswald emphasizes. “Where we end up getting into trouble is where we work within location or geographical silos, or just our own airport - not looking outside or within our industry silos - when we’re not communicating,” he explains.

“The biggest issues have arisen where there isn’t that clear line of communication between those three legs of air traffic management: FAA, airlines and airports,” Oswald elaborates. “Systems that allow freer and near-real-time or real-time information exchange are an essential part of that.”

Scapple brings the issue back to bottom-line implications: “To the airlines, time is money. Every time an aircraft is delayed, they’re losing money. What the airport can do is get them key information as timely as possible in order to benefit their operation.”



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