Saturday 14 December 2019

Improving Collaborative Decision Making at Busiest Hub Airports Appears to Be The Last Resort To Minimise The Impact Of Growing Disruptions. Can Bridging The Gap Between Theory And Practice Speed Up This Process?

My interview with Sergio Martins, Director Air Traffic Management - Latin America, Saab Group

Major hub airports are running out of capacity needed to meet the growing demand for air travel, and many others are facing the same problem at their busiest times. And still, traffic growth at capacity constrained airports continues, accelerating the risks of disruptions with far reaching consequences on airlines, passengers, environment, and on the safety of air travel. In these circumstances, easing this problem means either limiting the volume of traffic to manageable levels (doesn’t seem feasible in the foreseeable future), waiting for strategic adjustments to take place, or freeing up some airport capacities by improving efficiency in decision making on the day of operations.

With the latest option in mind, I came across articles written by Sergio Martins, Director Air Traffic Management - Latin America, Saab Group, pointing to the opportunities for improvement on airports´ airside. What makes these articles stand out is that they provoke rethinking and refinement of current practices encompassing relationships between airports, airlines, ATC and ground handlers. And all that being expressed with passion and eagerness to contribute to so much needed improvement in efficiency of decision making in one of the most complex areas of airport and airline operations. His views are supported by his firsthand experience in multiple areas of air transport industry, including air traffic control, flight operations, air/ground communications and airport management systems, enabling him to see problems and solutions associated with airports’ airsides from the wider perspective.  

Sergio kindly accepted my invitation for an interview and felt enthusiastic about sharing his insightful knowledge related to overcoming existing obstacles that cross organisational and geographical boundaries. We will be covering the airside issues in general, as well as those faced by airports in Europe, US, and Latin America to show the diversity in approaches to improvement in efficiency and service quality of airport and airline operations.

So, here we are. I hope you are ready to embark on a journey of discovery of an area not so simple to grasp, but well worth understanding not only by operations specialists but by airline and airport leaders and strategists and also policy makers across the industry. 

JR: To start with, could you explain what are the main obstacles to improvement in airport operational efficiencies?

SM: Historically, private airport concessionaires have focused in optimising processes and procedures within passenger terminals, while failing to touch a critical, complex and high impact component of their business – the airport apron, commonly referred to as “airside”. The problem is that most resources currently involved in airside procedures are managed by numerous players (airlines, ground handlers, airport operator, air traffic controllers) performing a wide range of complexly interrelated tasks. Although all such those theoretically pursue a common objective - optimum on-time performance, clear leadership and ownership of airside operations are still to be established, under the framework of a commonly agreed modus operandi, which should account for local/regional aspects while sticking to a clear set of general principles.   

JR: This lack of coordination and collaboration has certainly contributed to growing airport and system inefficiencies which triggered actions for setting the standards and guidelines for collaborative decision making at industry level. The resulting concept - A-CDM (Airport Collaborative Decision Making) was initiated in Europe in 2004 and first deployed at Brussels Airport (2010) and Munich (2017). FAA has its own similar concept S-CDM (Surface Collaborative Decision Making), and ICAO adopted the concept and broaden it.

Let’s start with Eurocontol´s A-CDM born as a result of a joint venture between ACI Europe, Eurocontrol, International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation (CANSO). It is said that A-CDM basically aims to connect the airspace management optimization carried out by Air Traffic Flow and Capacity Management Centres (ATFCM) with ground-based services. Initial results have confirmed that when enhanced by combination of airspace and airport processes it can result in reduced delays, better predictability and optimum use of both airspace and airport resources, potentially increasing the capacity of participating airports. This all sounds very promising.  How well are these initiatives embraced by airports and airlines? 

SM: Over the last few years the whole air transport industry simply fell in love with the collaborative spirit promoted by A-CDM ‘culture’. It has become a buzz word. There is no single meeting, conference, seminar or trade show addressing the air transport industry where A-CDM is not glamorously welcomed as something being successfully implemented everywhere by everyone. However, few people actually understand the major cultural/behaviour paradigm shift demanded by actual implementation of A-CDM operating mode, way beyond sharing information and promoting enhanced global situational awareness.

What needs to be understood, sooner rather than later, is that fully transparent information sharing and optimum level of common situation awareness across the whole airport community are actually the foundation upon which a wholly new way of operating an airport must be introduced – the A-CDM Operating Mode. It is fair to say it makes little sense for an airport to start planning A-CDM introduction prior to engaging a major effort towards deployment of a robust information sharing platform which, in my personal view, must include surface surveillance technologies. I truly believe that the most important airside related information to be shared amongst all stakeholders, to enable all the beauty of A-CDM, is the real time visual monitoring of aircraft and vehicles over the airside. The whole set of collaborative applications developed by the industry to promote enhanced situation awareness at airports is drastically improved when industry standard surface surveillance technologies are implemented.

JR: Your approach to A-CDM obviously adds a practical value to the original theoretical model.

SM: Well, my proposed approach is not so much innovative bearing in mind that Eurocontrol clearly states in its A-CDM Implementation Manual the following:

“Information Sharing is the first Concept Element, which creates the foundation for all other functions, while being beneficial in its own right. Therefore, it is essential to implement this element, before other Airport CDM Concept Elements and functions, in order to achieve a smooth implementation of the succeeding Concept Elements.”

What it clearly suggests is that before any long term commitment with the enforcement of the so called “Best Planned, Best Served” paradigm, proposed by A-CDM Operating Mode, via TOBTs (Target off-Block Times) and TSATs (Target Start-up Approval Times), airports stakeholders do have a homework to do – to deploy solid information sharing/situation awareness foundation, which then, may or may not lead to full A-CDM implementation, which requires a complex and time-consuming cultural and behaviour change. That´s all about sacrificing individual flexibility on behalf of global availability, balancing on-time performance with predictability concerns.

In short, what I am particularly convinced is that some type of surface surveillance technology is a must whenever efficient airside management is to be pursued, no matter who is in charge of managing aircraft and vehicle movements within the airside, be it ATC or Apron Control Centre. Surface surveillance has widely demonstrated its ability to save hours of aircraft taxi time, reduce fuel consumption and cut CO2 emissions, not to manage improving passenger experience by drastically raising the level of airport and airlines´ predictability. 

All those benefits might be achieved with a combination of:

·       Common-use Database - known as ACISP (Airport CDM Common Information Sharing Platform)
·       Cooperative surface surveillance, continuously feeding ACISP with critical real time information on aircraft and vehicles´ movement within the airside

All the above may (and should) be done prior to enforcing TOBT/TSAT policy to airlines, as that´s most critical aspect of A-CDM implementation – the reduction of airline´s flexibility in exchange for higher global availability of airside resources.

Another interesting way to support my statement is to focus on ICAO´s Global Air Navigation Plan (GANP), with emphasis on two specific Aviation System Block Upgrades (ASBU) - Block 0 (reference date 2013) 
  •  SURF - Basic Advanced Surface Movement Guidance and Control Systems (A-SMGCS) provides surveillance and alerting of movements of both aircraft and vehicles at the aerodrome, thus improving runway/aerodrome safety. Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) information is used when available (ADS-B APT).
  •  A-CDM - Implements collaborative applications that will allow the sharing of surface operations data among the different stakeholders on the airport. This will improve surface traffic management reducing delays on movement and manoeuvring areas and enhance safety, efficiency and situational awareness.
It is an obvious conclusion that, for any airports raising runway/aerodrome safety concerns, due to the complexity of its operation, real time position information should be a part of the ‘surface operations data’ to be shared amongst stakeholders, as a means to reduce delays on movement and manoeuvring areas.   

JR: Can this be illustrated by some examples?

SM: To illustrate how it works in real world, we can mention the results achieved in the US, in particular at Atlanta International Airport back in 2010, after implementation of a common-use surface surveillance platform (no formal CDM Operating mode, implemented):

With the deployment of Saab´s Aerobahn Surface Management System, fed by a ground based multilateration network in 2010, Atlanta has created a collaborative environment where all stakeholders (airport, airlines and the FAA) have a common platform to improve overall airport operations. In 2012, Atlanta saved 36,400 hours in taxi time and 64,400 hours in schedule delay per year, saving airlines $97 million annually with delays at their lowest level since measurement began in 1990 (10.1 per thousand operations).  This reflects a 21% improvement in addition to a 54.7% delay reduction achieved in 2011. Furthermore, Saab´s surface surveillance platform, with its advanced event alerting functionality, prevented long on-board delays saving 300,000 passenger days during those years.

Other deployments include: Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Minneapolis, New York-JFK, New York-LaGuardia, New Newark, Philadelphia and Phoenix. Major airlines as American Airlines, Delta and United are also prominent customers/users.

JR: The US approach seems to be more effective which must be associated with conceptual differences between A-CDM and S-CDM. If so, what prevents Europeans from following these steps?

SM: Air Traffic Management in US and Europe have a number of differences which cause their CDM initiatives, not to be so easily interchangeable, although both initiatives seek for the same results and require from airlines and ground handlers, high level of predictability with regards to flights´ readiness time. The one thing which remains valid for any and all CDM initiatives is that higher global availability of resources is achieved as a result of tighter flexibility levels enforced to stakeholders.

One of such major differences is that while in Europe, airside management is undertaken by Control Tower, through the Air Traffic Controller at the “ground” operational position (although no “control” service is actually provided within the Apron), in US, aircraft and vehicles within the Apron are monitored and supported by the “Apron/Ramp Control Centres” – normally operated by the airport operator itself or third parties hired for the provision of the service (quite often major carriers undertake such role at their main hubs.           

JR: Let’s talk about Latin America. How much is it opened for implementation of A-CDM? 

SM: Two main aspects are to be addressed, with the aim of understanding the challenge of airside management improve in Latin America:

Historically, airports in Latin America, were operated by state owned entities, as part of their “mission” (a pretty military concept). Under such scenario, things as profitability and competitiveness were not so relevant, as airports existed to provide the community with safe airport operations.

Airport privatization wave raised a new scenario, where private/profit driven concessionaries are challenged to efficiently serve private airlines, which are supported by private ground handling agents. All of this takes place within a fairly competitive environment, where airports compete with each other for airlines´ preference. Now, airport service efficiency directly impacts on airports/airlines´ profitability, which is their ultimate goal, as private entities.   

Under the new scenario, the need to tear down the frontier between airport and air traffic control is a must and airside lies right in the centre of the challenge to be faced by airport stakeholders. It´s important to acknowledge that aircraft operation within the apron area and around the gates involve the use of multiple resources – trucks, buses, cars, personnel, gates, etc., in a physical space not owned by anyone - air traffic controllers provide only information outside manoeuvring area. In short, Air Traffic Control manages runways and taxiways and airport concessionaire manages passenger terminal. The one-million-dollar question is, how to join all stakeholders into a single coordinated effort to improve the efficiency of airside procedures and that´s what A-CDM (Airport Collaborative Decision Making) and all other CDM driven initiatives are all about.  

Unfortunately, a number of regional issues have been dramatically affecting Latin American stakeholders´ ability to properly assess A-CDM related opportunities and requirements.

It is widely recognized that any A-CDM initiatives, including preliminary gap analysis, should engage all stakeholders as of day one. This basic concept has been recognized by all guiding documents of associations and organizations including ICAO, IATA, ACI, etc. However, that´s not how things have happened in Latin America, where individual stakeholders (typically Airport Operator or ANSP) unilaterally decide to develop an A-CDM program. As a rule, little engagement of those expected to be the main potential beneficiaries of A-CDM - airlines and ground handlers and that is precisely in this contradiction which lies the major risk of A-CDM deployment processes, characterized by unbalanced participation of different stakeholders.

To make it even worse, as previously highlighted, A-CDM, as well as any other CDM related operating model is based upon reduction of stakeholders’ flexibility in the booking of resources, as the means to generate higher global availability levels.

Another point of concern is the fact that, unlike United States and Europe, where meteorological conditions have led ANSPs (Air Navigation Service Providers) to deploy ATC Surface Surveillance (A-SMGCS) platforms for safety reasons at most medium/large airports, Latin American airports have virtually assumed blind airside operation as a standard, once no surface surveillance information is available. That dramatically affects stakeholders´ situation awareness, which makes it even harder for airlines and ground handlers to reach the level of predictability they need to seriously candidate for A-CDM implementation.

JR: From airlines’ perspective, planning block times on routes operating through congested airports and airspace includes complex tradeoffs. Enforcing such changes at one airport without understanding the consequences on other parts of airline route network has already been met by their resistance. Could you explain in more details in which way A-CDM affects this process.

SM: In traditional pre-A-CDM operation, airport resources are allocated based upon a “first called, first served” policy. That means airlines (and their ground handling agents) do their best to eliminate/minimize possible delays with no information exchanged with airport and ATC, with regards to imminent delays. That causes poor allocation of airport resources, due to the lack of visibility on predicted readiness time of each flight.

What A-CDM and its Target Off-Block Time (TOBT) and Target Start-Up Approval Time (TSAT) policy enforces is the continuous information exchange between airlines and airport operators with regards to each flight´s estimated readiness times. That allows airport operator and ATC to build a realistic start-up/push-back/taxi/take-off sequence, which proves supported by airport infrastructure and airspace availability. This is all about operating as fast as realistically possible while ensuring maximum predictability. The operation paradigm than changes to “best planned, best served”.

JR: Unhappy with some of A-CDM rules, European airlines have decided to form an Airline Airport Collaborative Decision Making Group ('AACG') in 2015 (supported by IATA) to tackle many unharmonized European A-CDM processes and procedures that added complexity, and in some cases inefficiencies and delays within airline operations. This signals that the whole process is still far from being fully harmonised and implemented in Europe. How long do you think the full implementation of A-CDM operating model can take? 

SM: If we assume that stakeholders are going to make a well-informed, joint decision to collaborate (for duly understood and acknowledged reasons), and accept the flexibility reduction imposed by A-CDM operating model and it´s actual implementation, quite optimistically, we are talking about two years; not to mention radically changing culture and behaviour of hundreds of thousands of people within the whole airport community... and beyond (regulatory agents, customs & immigration, etc.).

JR: There are so many valuable information related to these processes that can help with better planning and management of airline resources, adjustment of strategies, and also improve the visibility of reasons for disruptions caused by service providers. Can it be adjusted for decision making outside of operational environment? Is such information already available?

SM: This information can be provided. In the case of Aerobahn platform, apart from supporting immediate decision making, it can also provide number of tools required for post-operational analysis at various organisational levels, from operations through scheduling, network and strategic planning. This can help with:

• Improving schedule efficiencies and block time planning
• Maximizing runway, taxiway and gate/stand utilization
• Decreasing delays & heightening performance during irregular operations
• Reducing emissions
• Identifying trends and recurring operational problems
• Better forecasting of the impact of future operational events
• Understanding of usage of airport resources, enabling verification of related fees
• Improving post-operational analysis leading to automation or process improvements
• Facilitating long-term planning

JR: To wrap it up, what would be your message to those unsure about the benefits that new approach to collaborative decision making at airports can bring to the industry?

SM: Worldwide, privatization of airlines and airports is leading the profit driven entities to an obvious challenge - how to achieve the best cost/benefit ratio out of limited infrastructures. It is not a coincidence that A-CDM related discussions are flourishing everywhere, quite often ahead of time and lacking technical expertise. This seems to be the 21st century stakeholders´ intuitive strive to go for maximum profitability.

Under the light of such scenario, it becomes evident that, no matter which specific concept of operations stakeholders agree to adopt at a given airport, predictability is going to be the key for success! That is critical for the governance amongst airlines and ground handlers. As time goes by, airlines will be challenged to share more accurate information on their readiness times, with the owners of airside and airspace, at the risk of not counting on essential resources for their operations when they actually need them. Let's see where it all goes, as time goes by. At least, I remain absolutely convinced that collaboration is the way to travel… not the destination!      

I would like to thank Sergio for his insightful views on regulatory and technical aspects of airport collaborative decision making. The biggest challenge will continue to be the improvement in communication between people at frontline and between those responsible for strategic adjustments. These are the places where merging the best of human and technology capabilities can help with disrupting disruptions while waiting for the next leap in industry development.