According to Airbus, 7.3 billion people a year will be travelling through airports by 2034 – that’s more than double today’s figure. It’s also expected that the current fleet of aircraft will also need to double to cope with this demand, meaning that the future-proofing of our airports for busier times ahead has to be a major consideration for airport operators. Technology has an important role to play in this preparation.

As developments continue to shift from static to ‘intelligent’ systems that respond to the capacity needs of the individual airport, the key question is: How should airport operators best adopt these new technologies in order to plan most effectively for the future?

Intelligent technology from approach to departure

Some of the newest and increasingly popular technology combines the use of intelligent airfield lighting and advanced movement guidance systems.

By using GPS and triangulating the position of an aircraft on approach, real-time traffic surveillance data can be connected to the airfield lighting in order to provide dynamic route and guidance of aircraft movements – a procedure commonly called ‘follow the greens’. By successively lighting the green centreline lights in front of an aircraft, pilots are guided along the entire cleared route between the runway exit and stand (or vice versa). The lights are then switched off behind the aircraft to support simultaneous routes on the same taxiway. This not only increases capacity, but also ensures smooth ground movements throughout the airport.

We are also seeing an upward trend in the notion of ‘clean’ aprons. The thinking behind this concept is to minimise the amount of equipment located on the apron to avoid dangerous situations.  In parallel, clean aprons also help minimise noise and exhaust emissions with the aim of optimising and improving working conditions for staff.

When combined with further technological advancements both on the runway and on approach to an airport, such as intelligent airfield/runway surveillance & foreign object and debris (FOD) detection systems, ground-based augmentation systems (GBAS), IP based networks and LED lighting, and provided these functionalities are chosen for the right reasons, they can significantly enable air traffic capacity improvements. This has benefits from both a safety and efficiency perspective.

Future-proofing your airside systems | NACO
Image: ICT Enabled Airport Solution

Is this technology right for my airport?

One of the main challenges airport operators face with these new technologies is the breadth of different options available. The most advanced technologies are often the most expensive, and many simply don’t have the budget available to justify the spend.

And whilst it’s often the case that upfront capital expense can reduce operational expense further down the line, there is currently not enough evidence to prove the case on key aspects of technologies such as intelligent lighting systems.

Assessing your requirements

The key point for airport operators to understand is that not every new technology is right for every airport. The most advanced – although the most expensive and perhaps extensive – is not necessarily always the best option. So what considerations need to be made when taking into account the long-term view?

The first and most obvious is to think about your existing space requirements. Airports are always limited by elements such as the position of runway exits and taxiway congestion, as well as the number of parking bays. All of these factors ultimately determine how quickly planes get from the air to the ground, and how fast your turnaround times can be as a result. If it’s not possible to change these as part of a bigger masterplan, then the correct selection of technology can optimise the process – but only to a certain point.

Also key, is the examination of the efficiency of your operations on the ground. If there is room for improvement, technology can often be used to further improve efficiency.

As hinted at earlier in this article, one of the biggest pitfalls the industry can face is investing in technology too early or too quickly. We have seen projects where technology is applied incorrectly and in isolation. A good example of this is the upgrading of AGL systems without considering the condition of the runway pavement.  If extensive repair work is then required in the mid-term (i.e. within 2 years) any investment made in upgrading the system is essentially wasted.

Planning for future growth

Masterplans can contribute much to future-proofing airports in the long term. So, it’s important that operators view new technologies in conjunction with other planned investments and not as standalone projects.

I’ve often said to clients in the past that the implementation of new technologies can sometimes appear like a pancake being made on a supply-chain; I come to sell you eggs, someone else sells you the flour and another supplier sells you milk. The important thing is to see the big picture (or end product), and get the right advice so that any planned new technology integrates well with other aspects of the airport to determine future operations.

Our job in any project is to ensure that airport operators have full use of what they’ve got – and that includes planning for growth so that their investments will support them most effectively through the years to come.

In our next blog, we will take a closer look at these technological advancements, and see how airports across the globe are already putting them into practice.