With 140,000 extra travellers expected to be passing through its gates during the Olympics, Heathrow Airport turns to technology to give its increasingly overburdened infrastructure a sporting chance.
Will July 2012 become known as the summer of the go slow in London? Olympic athletes may be breaking world speed records, but visitors to the Games could be travelling at a far slower pace. Increased crowds and high security alerts at London's airports means the time taken to get to the taxi rank threatens to be the slowest on record.
Heathrow airport is due to be the hardest hit by the increased passenger numbers. Around 140,000 people are expected to be passing through each day around the opening and closing ceremonies – 45 per cent up on normal figures. It will be the busiest period in the airport's history. But Heathrow hopes the new technologies they're using during the Olympics will ensure visitors aren't waiting for their suitcase when they should be watching Usain Bolt.
With the world's spotlight shining on it, Britain's biggest airport is determined not to win a reputation for hold ups and let downs. It's launching Airport Collaborative Decision Making (A-CDM), a new system designed to improve efficiency, reduce delays and improve flight punctuality.
It's one of the first European airports to implement this initiative. A-CDM enables all the contributing cogs to the great Heathrow machine – including airlines, ground handlers, air traffic control and airport staff – to share the latest and most accurate information about the status of inbound and outbound flights. It provides active airfield management, a single airfield management system and a single airport operations centre. This enables better-informed, more consistent decision-making.
"Key challenges for Heathrow are managing and coping with the impact of disruption, controlling knock-on effects of delays and effective collaboration between stakeholders from different organisations within the airport," said Philip Langsdale, chief information officer, Information Technology at Heathrow Airport, speaking at a recent E&T event.
With A-CDM, the lifecycle of each flight is divided into 16 stages, showing the progress of each plane as it comes in to land, throughout its turnaround and subsequent departure. As a result, operational staff can calculate more realistic timings for each flight, reducing the duration of taxi times and potentially reducing delays. Alerts are generated automatically if an aircraft looks likely to miss its slot, so airport staff can react swiftly.
Tim Hardy, BAA director airside, says: "With more than 1,300 flights every day, it's crucial that we continue to look for ways to improve operational efficiency and thereby enhance passenger experience. A-CDM is about more than technology, it's about behaviour change. It relies on every area of the airport's operations working collaboratively to share information in pursuit of this common goal."
John Proudlove, Advanced Transport System general manager for Heathrow, sees the system having benefit reaching far beyond the hectic summer months. "With CDM, air traffic controllers are able to deliver a more efficient operation based upon accurate, comprehensive airfield information. This technology not only allows us to optimise our interface with other service providers at Heathrow, but also supports greater harmonisation with the en route and European ATC networks," he says.
Keeping safety on the radar
A-CDM isn't the only trick Heathrow has brought in. The airport's air traffic control tower deals with a landing or take-off every 45 seconds using state-of-the-art guidance systems. Their equipment relies on clear runways so the signal that guides aircraft isn't affected.
To ensure this, the QinetiQ foreign object debris (FOD) radar system has been introduced. This £2.5m piece of kit scans the runways every 68 seconds, alerting airside operations to any rogue or suspicious item by scanning the asphalt and comparing the scan to stored images of safe objects. The system alerts staff to potential risks an average 30 times a day. If the images don't match is an alarm triggered. A high-density infrared camera is then used to zoom in on the suspect area for confirmation.
This system has other benefits. "FOD radar covers stuff that shouldn't be there that could be ingested into an aircraft engine with serious consequences," says Simon Newbold, airside operations manager at Heathrow. The Air France Concorde that crashed in Paris after striking a strip of metal would be one such example. "Radar is an exact science, so it could just be picking up a bird scratching its backside before flying off again. I've had knickers, pliers, a pair of reading glasses and a fuel cap," says Newbold. Runways will also be kept freer by ensuring charter flights and private jets use other airports, such as Stansted.
Every part of the process has the latest technologies to enable the fastest and most efficient throughput of planes. Planes are parked using Safedock, an advanced visual docking guidance system, instead of the old-style marshallers waving table tennis bat-like aids. Safedock allows aircraft to park up to an accuracy of 10cm using invisible infrared lasers to measure the aircraft's position and type.
It's not only passengers who then need to disembark. Their luggage has to be processed just as speedily. During the Games, 60,000 more bags will be handled every day – a 35 per cent increase on usual daily amounts. And athletes don't travel light; on average, they carry double the amount of luggage of regular passengers. Then there's the oversized and unconventional items such as canoes, pole vaults and bikes they'll be bringing with them. And the security for some sports is tight. Around 1,100 firearms will come through Heathrow to be used in the shooting events.
Heathrow hopes not to have passengers waiting too long at the baggage carousel. Its baggage and screening network is among the most advanced in the world, relying on computers and conveyors, not manual labour through a destination coded vehicle (DCV) system. A 1.1km-long tunnel has been opened, using repelling magnets to propel baggage carts between terminals at up to 30mph – several miles faster than Usain Bolt. This £250m luggage lane will carry 2.4 million bags every year. The airport also has the world's only conveyor-fed head-of-stand system – meaning luggage can be loaded and off-loaded from planes without vehicles.
In addition to these measures, the temporary Games Terminal, which took just five months to build, will process 10,100 athletes, with seven security lanes, 31 check-in desks and 94 airlines over just three days of use (13-15 August). Check-in will be offered at the Olympic and Paralympic Village for athletes leaving the Games, with their bags collected a day ahead of departure.
But Heathrow remains very guarded about making solid predictions or giving figures on how passenger experience might quicken and improve, all too aware of the critical press they've received so far this year. The Daily Mail's 'Millions could face airport delays this summer' was a typical headline, reflecting on the huge queues at passport control. The Evening Standard reported that hundreds of Olympic athletes had been forced to make alternative plans to leave London because Heathrow couldn't cope with the mass exodus at the end of the Games. Major teams, including Australia, China and Canada, were said to be booking private charter flights from Stansted.
High-tech, low take-up
There are plenty of skeptics about the airport's ability to meet the increased demand, and the cost of doing so. Recent research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed that the technology introduced to help speed up passport control is so under-used that it has cost nearly £2 per arrival. The IRIS recognition immigration system, which scans the unique patterns of travellers' irises at passport control to confirm their identities, was introduced nearly six years ago. But the system has been used just 4.7 million times. (Heathrow processes 70 million passengers a year.) The technology cost just over £9m.
Earlier this year the government announced the hugely costly system was being scrapped after revealing the software used is already out of date. "This system has simply reached its end point," says Lucy Moreton of the Immigration Service Union. "If the government is going to invest in more technology they need to make sure it is robust and is going to work." The Home Affairs Select Committee said: "[IRIS's] sole value appears to have been that it provided data for the e-gates. This money could have been better spent on border staff – at least 60 immigration officers could have been employed with the money spent on IRIS."
Langsdale is still very positive about technologies providing the solution to Olympic hold ups. "We are already beginning to see the benefits of these new strategies and initiatives including better journeys, lower stack, taxi and queue times, improved resilience and punctuality, and reduced operating costs and carbon footprint," he says.
However successful Heathrow's attempts to win us over to their Olympic plans, it's unlikely anyone will be giving them a medal. For the previous summer Olympics, Beijing Capital International Airport constructed a new terminal bigger than Heathrow's five terminals combined and laid the asphalt for a third runway. Heathrow has failed to get the go ahead for an additional runway, and building it has become a subject of political debate mired in sectional interests. Beijing employed a workforce of 500,000; Heathrow has a workforce of 76,500. One thousand volunteers have been taken on to help people find their way around the terminals. A total of only £20m has been spent across the whole airport. Heathrow may be going for gold, but it remains to be seen whether their plans will get all passengers there in time for the starter's gun.
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