Philadelphia Int'l Tests Web-Based System for Managing Airfield Ops

Robert Nordstrom
Published in: 

As the 9th busiest U.S. airport by takeoff and landing volume, Philadelphia International (PHL) faces tough challenges managing aircraft traffic on its airfield and ramp areas. Space is limited, and parts of the airport's design date back to the 1940s.

So PHL management jumped at the opportunity to become a beta test site for a new flight tracking and situational awareness system.

Although the airport had a "perch" in the ramp control tower where personnel could survey the entire airfield, operations staff didn't know specifically which carrier's aircraft was where and how long each had been there.

"At night, when it's raining or snowing, all you see is a sea of blinking lights," describes Keith Brune, PHL's deputy director of aviation operations and facilities. "With the three-hour onboard delay rule for the airlines and now for the airports, we need to take advantage of new technologies that give us a heads up so we can plan ahead to prevent problems before they occur. We don't want to wait for an airline to call and say, 'We've got a flight out there for 2 1/2 hours. What can you do to help us?' We need to be aware of the potential problems early on so we can start making contingency plans."

The Symphony(r)Ops Vue(tm) system from ITT Exelis does just that, reports airport management.


Project: Installation of Web-based flight tracking & situational awareness system

Location: Philadelphia Int'l Airport

Product: Symphony Ops Vue

Vendor: ITT Exelis

License Cost: Undisclosed

Key Benefits: Increased ability to track aircraft in the air & on the ground; real-time situational awareness and data visualization; operational monitoring, alerting and performance measurement; diversion management; replay and historical analysis.

NextGen Data

Because the system uses satellite-based technology to track aircraft and incorporates surveillance data from the FAA's Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), it offers airport staff full awareness of a flight's status - both in the air and on the ground. As such, the system helps PHL personnel monitor irregular operations as well as standard arrivals, departures, pushbacks and deicing operations.

Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) serves as the cornerstone of the NextGen system. In 2007, Exelis won the FAA contract to design, build and operate a nationwide system of ADS-B ground stations, telecommunications networks, information technology and software to deliver real-time surveillance data to the FAA's automation systems. Its goal was to modernize the current ground-based system of air traffic control into a satellite-based system.

Ted Carniol, general manager of commercial aviation solutions for Exelis, considers the contract a unique opportunity. "Exelis is able to provide complete coverage for all aircraft flying in U.S. airspace or on the surface of a U.S. airport," relates Carniol. "In addition to the ADS-B data, we have direct access to flight plans and all FAA radar and multilateration surveillance systems. The data come into our network, we fuse it together, and then we process it out as one unique track for each aircraft, from ground to air to ground."

The Symphony Ops Vue system, Carniol explains, is a cloud-based application that enables airports and airlines to manage operations and airport environments more efficiently, effectively and safely. PHL, for instance, has access to flight tracking data throughout the United States and is able to leverage NextGen surveillance technology to identify and visualize aircraft moving on the surface of its airfield, stresses Carniol.

"Using flight data tags and color codes, they can see how long an aircraft has been taxiing and determine if it is longer than their user-set threshold," he explains. "In addition, automatic e-mail and text messages are sent to pre-identified users to alert them about delays on the surface of the airport."

All aircraft flying in U.S. airspace are mandated to have ADS-B transponders by 2020. When fully implemented, NextGen and ADS-B could provide more than $29 billion a year to the U.S. economy via net benefits from fuel, carbon emission and delay savings, notes a Deloitte LLP report released last May. The study also predicts that the transformation of the global air transportation system to satellite-based technology could result in $135 billion annual savings globally, which translates into 3 billion gallons of fuel, 29 million metric tons of carbon emissions and 4 million fewer hours of delays.

Preventing Chaos

Flight delays and diversions were particular areas of concern for PHL officials. Brune describes the diversion issue as a "two-headed monster" - a heavy volume of diversions from airports in Newark, New York and, to a lesser extent, the Washington, D.C., area that ride out winter storms at PHL as one head and flights coming into PHL that are diverted elsewhere en route as the other head.

"As the weather clears, the flights that have been diverted here want to take off, and the flights scheduled for Philadelphia need to be recovered," explains Brune. "We need to know who's on the ground and who is diverting into our airport. (We need to know) where they are relative to their takeoff slot so we can coordinate with air traffic control."

The Symphony Ops Vue system helps PHL manage what might otherwise become a chaotic situation, says Brune. Preset triggers automatically notify operations staff of diversions and potential long onboard problems. At 60 minutes on the ground, a flight tag changes color, alerting airport staff to begin monitoring the situation more closely. At 90 minutes, operations personnel notify the air carrier to make sure it is aware of the situation. And, if needed, aircraft are repositioned to a common-use gate.

"As we start taking diversions," Brune elaborates, "airlines will either handle them at their own gates or request remote parking positions. We can track our surface situation by glancing at the screen. We know where aircraft are and where they are projected to go. With a stubby pencil, that's pretty hard to keep track of. But if you can see it graphically on a screen, that's great. We can start our planning early."

Although airlines such as US Airways have their own systems for tracking aircraft activity, airlines with smaller operations at PHL don't necessarily have similar resources, explains Brune. "(Smaller operations) may not know they are getting a diversion until they are informed by us," he relates.

Time is Money

PHL implemented the Symphony Ops Vue system on a trial basis in April 2011, and purchased three licenses for it the following January. Two of the licenses are for operations staff; the other is for Servisair, the airport's deicing service provider. Each license allows one person to access the system at a time.

Because the system is Web-based, PHL didn't need to invest in new infrastructure or equipment. With a user name and password, airport personnel had immediate access to the hosted service.

"The ability to access the FAA's radar, which effectively is what we are doing, and display it on our PC system without having to invest in servers and so forth is a great benefit to us," Brune notes enthusiastically.

Users can also access the system remotely. "Although my wife may disagree," he jokes, "being able to monitor operations offsite is a good thing. In the old days, you would get a telephone call, race to the terminal, run up to the jet bridge and call the communications center to see what's going on. Now, we can pull the information up while we're watching TV or sitting in a restaurant."

Exelis provides initial onsite training and ongoing Web-based training for new system users. According to Brune, users at PHL had a "good feel" for the system and its capabilities after about four hours of training.

All of the airport's operations tower coordinators and its deicing contractor currently have access to the system. Most days, only a few people log onto the system, but volume increases during bad weather and irregular operations.

Feedback on the system has been very positive so far, reports PHL Aviation Operations Manager Eric Silverman.

"It saves time for our duty officers," he explains. "We are able to make decisions without spending the first half-hour or so trying to find an aircraft on the field. Time is money. On the airlines side, they love knowing that we're in their corner and that they can count on us for assistance when they need it."

Although the airport cannot yet quantify the costs it expects to save by using the new system, Brune anticipates it will, in fact, help prevent fines for onboard violations and facilitate more efficient uses of manpower and time.

"There's nothing worse than sitting out on the airfield fat, dumb and happy and getting a call from air traffic saying, 'We've got three wide-bodies diverted in from Kennedy. Where do you want them?'" relates Brune. "Just the ability to get a heads up on the situation and keep the lines of communications open -that's invaluable to us."


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