Runway efficiency under challenging conditions

While the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to cut flight volumes at airports across the world, the gradual reopening of countries and borders means that demand is starting to return. With airports operating with fewer staff and under the challenging conditions of enacting viral prevention and containment measures, optimising runway efficiency is more important than ever.

As was the case before the pandemic, airports can’t simply keep extended existing runways and building new ones, as the indefinite expansion of available tarmac is not a viable solution economically or environmentally. Instead, airports are looking to get creative with the assets they already have, while also turning to emerging technological solutions to boost efficiency without compromising on safety.

Expanding surveillance – While maintaining broad visibility over all runways, aprons, etc, is essential, leading airports are going further in the surveillance to provide more effective safety nets for all operations. By taking a data-driven approach where advanced systems that feature automation and increasingly sophisticated AI, it is possible to achieve higher throughput rates of flights while also providing early warning to pilots, aircrews and ground crew. They automated early warnings can take the form of visual warning icons on pilots’ display as well as audio alerts. This ensures that runways are being used to their fullest extent without making costly mistakes that can risk lives and delay flight departures.

Mitigating bad weather – Bad weather invariably leads to poor visibility, necessitating additional checks and slowing down the runway’s throughput rate. While rain, mist, fog and other inclement weather conditions will restrict the visibility of human operators and may interfere with camera-based surveillance, enhanced flight vision systems (EFVS) utilise synthetic, database-driven terrain mapping and enhanced thermal, low-light images to ensure that pilots and tower crew have a clear idea of the position of the aircraft and surrounding conditions. By letting flights access the airport safely under all but the most extreme weather conditions, this cuts down on delays and diversions.

Predictability enhances efficiency – Once again, data-driven solutions can further improve the efficiency of runways by aiding tower operators to optimise traffic flow. For large international airports with multiple runways, successfully juggling flights under increasingly complex conditions requires a level of flexibility and on-the-fly readjustments that only an algorithmic-based solution can hope to make without incurring safety or logistical issues. Having complete data oversight of the airport’s operations allows such systems to quickly predict emerging conditions of all flights entering and leaving its airspace, subsequently enabling their most efficient sequencing and positioning.

Making the best use of existing physical assets

Each of these three critical approaches are complementary and have real opportunities for synergy when the most appropriate technological solutions are introduced. While current global conditions are causing all airports to look more towards surviving the crisis than making long-term investments, pre-COVID levels of investment are pertinent reminders of the general direction that the industry wants to go. While building new runways may be prudent for many of the world’s busiest airports, this is an approach that frequently gets pushback due to environmental and local concerns.

Accordingly, fully optimising and utilising existing runways through technological innovation is the route that most leading airports are pursuing. Looking at London Gatwick for example, its £1.1 billion 2019 investment plan outlined that the airport would not be pursuing the development of a new runway, but instead would invest heavily in airspace modernisation and Single European Sky (SESAR) Pilot Common Projects. Various tech-led initiatives at Gatwick include the integration of advanced SESAR traffic management solutions into a single operating platform that provides greater operational precision and enables reduced separation buffers.

This article was created in association with Airport Show taking place in Dubai on 26-28 October 2020. 

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