Smarter ops

Snow plough

Gary Mason reports from the Smart Airports conference in Munich on a number of mobile data initiatives which are improving winter resilience at Heathrow.

Snow ploughDuring extreme winter conditions airports are particularly harsh environments to work in. This doesn’t just apply to ground handling and runway clearance operations. The extra demands placed on staff and infrastructure during periods of sudden bad weather can have an onerous effect on people and the equipment they use.

Increasingly the use of Technology – particularly mobile data IT – is playing a role in overcoming some of these difficulties. Heathrow Airport for example has introduced a number of initiatives aimed to help both passengers and staff during winter operations.

Ben Wagenaar is a technology Innovation Architect at the airport. His team has helped develop a number of IT solutions, which have helped staff and improved the efficiency of the way operations are run, particularly in stressful periods. He says that a vital part of each project is that it doesn’t take years to develop or cost millions of pounds.

“It’s an agile delivery process – the idea is delivered to the user, they test it and it moves on from there. We take the ideas and measure them but we also talk to the users a great deal. It is not just about measuring analytics,” he says.

“The really great thing about this is that the users are a key part of the innovation process – they don’t go away and come back after a year.”

He says the secret to a successful innovation is to look for “high benefit – low complexity ideas” because the lighter the touch on the infrastructure means that effectively “you back the fastest horse” and will get quick returns on your investment.

The first project came from one of the main business challenges set for the airport’s innovation department and relates to snow clearance.

The airport has 23 stand clearance teams within the overall winter resilience group at Heathrow.

Each team operates Blades vehicles to drive out to the stands and clear them of snow when required. The problem is that these 23 teams have only one radio channel in order to communicate with the control tower and get stands assigned to them according to operational and scheduling priorities.

To make this process more efficient the innovation team worked with Samsung smart watches in an attempt to provide a solution. The idea was to get rid of the snow clearance teams’ reliance on the single radio channel altogether except as an emergency back up system.

The snow controller who is based in the control tower uses Heathrow’s ACD-M (Airport Collaborative Decision Making) portal to assign the stands to the snow clearance teams. He also uses the stand/watch portal to assign these jobs to watches worn by members of the snow clearance teams. Ben Wagenaar says: “The jobs come down to the watches and staff can accept them using that device and set status reports etc. The guys then can move out to that stand and send more information such as they have arrived or have completed the clearance job.”

The watches use a simple red/amber/green colour coding system to inform managers the status of each clearing operation. “The massive saving in this is the bandwidth we no longer need to use now the radio channel no longer needs to be used,” he adds. “Also the watches work particularly well because on the user’s wrist they are kept warm and dry under a coat sleeve during winter.”

During live operational trials of the watches at the airport the battery life of the devices emerged as a concern given that in very bad weather snow clearance teams could be working longer shifts. “To overcome this we have adapted the system so it can be used inside airside vehicles in a tablet mounted app that sits inside the vehicles,” says Wagenaar.

The second application to increase resilience is for “reservists.” These are staff who are normally office based but can be called upon to act as highly visible ground support staff during critical periods such as bad weather or strike action.

They wear purple uniforms and are taken down to the terminals, put into teams to help passengers are staff if necessary. They are also given welfare packs, which includes iPads and other mobile devices for sharing critical information. “The problem with this process is that while it has worked well for passengers it has never been particularly well coordinated on the ground,” says Wagenaar. “In particular, the reservists have struggled to communicate with one another. They are given BlackBerries but because they are put into teams they have to swap numbers and try and find one another in the terminals. Secondly, the crisis management teams are unable to provide the latest information down to them.”

The airport decided it needed to overcome these difficulties by using a new broadcast mechanism that looks something like a Facebook timeline. “It acts like the single source of the truth so that the latest information is sent down the line to the reservists,” says Wagenaar. “The reservists themselves are able to enrol themselves into specific groups as they go out to the terminals. They can also add photos and other ways of personalising their profiles.”

There is also a what’s app-style facility which allows them to chat about what the situation on the ground is like. “The great thing is that our incident managers get a console which shows all of these messages as they are happening. So it is providing the eyes and ears on the ground that is the main purpose of the reservists role,” says Wagenaar.

Another of the initiatives is a “spot and report a problem app” which allows staff to monitor and look after the airport infrastructure. During winter operations runways, aprons and planes are at a higher risk of structural damage given the harsh, slippery conditions and the increased number of ground support vehicles being used for clearance and de-icing operations. Keeping on top of any incidents and reporting damage or faults needs to be an ongoing process.

At Heathrow staff are equipped with Windows phones and the system uses these to record and report damage, faults or other issues. “Anyone who works in airports knows that they have a duty of care to report such issues but it is not always straightforward,” he says. “Do they know they right number to call – is it an engineering problem or operational or perhaps an airline’s responsibility?”

The app on the phone allows staff to take pictures, to tag the location and a feature where staff can add an audio commentary to the report.

Staff using the app don’t have to decide who to report the problem to. They just have to press one button to send the report after which it is filtered through the engineering help desk to the right department. It can also raise a work order through the airport’s Maximo asset tracking system. The app is also able to gather together multiple requests so if there is a really serious fault that a lot of people have seen and reported they can be batched together.

According to Wagennar the app is in the process of being rolled out to staff but also to some of the airport’s third party suppliers such as ground handling staff.

Heathrow’s new snow blower

Heathrow Airport had added a new snow blower to its winter fleet supplied by Aebi Schmidt. “The Supra 5002 is built into the Heathrow snow plan when we experience a forecast of over 6cm accumulation. This is the point at which the regulation snow bank profiles will take effect. This allows Heathrow to maintain a full width and full length runway during winter operations,” says Ricky Oakes, Winter Operations Manager, Airside Operations, at Heathrow Airport.

With a total airport size of 1,227 hectares, Heathrow operates two runways; Northern (with a length of 3,902m and a width of 50m) and Southern (with a length of 3,658m and a width of 50m).

“Ideally we would have two units, however we currently have one machine only and have built the methodology around a single deployment,” says Ricky.

He explains that, despite the airport’s physical area, one of the reasons for acquiring the Supra 5002 was its medium size: “The previous cutter/blower was oversized for the weather events we experience at Heathrow. Also, these vehicles were a combination of two units which made for slow operations. The Supra 5002’s speed and operating capacity are a good fit for the conditions and events we face. The machine’s operational capability, speed of operation, visibility and ease of operation are key features for us.”

The Supra 5002 is the world’s first 420 kW (571 hp) snow blower with an ECO-mode. This feature ensures that only the necessary engine power needed to drive the cutting-head and pumps in all conditions is used; thus offering the lowest fuel consumption and sound and exhaust emission levels of any modern four-wheel drive articulated snow blower.

Following delivery of the machine, Aebi Schmidt UK provided certified training on the Supra 5002 to six operators over three days. “The training was well received by the operators,” says Ricky. “The operators at Heathrow do not get the experience of regular heavy snow experienced on the continent so training is an expensive necessity at Heathrow.”

The Heathrow operators like the Supra 5002, “especially as the cab and function layout is consistent with the other Schmidt machines that we have,” says Ricky.

Winter operations outsourcing

Of the 510 staff who are available for a winter operations shift, some 65 per cent are seasonal workers provided by Heathrow’s private contractor Dyer & Butler. This includes an 83 per cent figure for supervisors and a 90 per cent figure for Plant operators.

The management team at Heathrow responsible for winter resilience says that the extra resources are needed because although there are 60 full time winter operations staff at the airport nearly all are required to provide additional leadership capacity to help with the snow clearing operation. Against this there is an operational requirement of 1,020 personnel per day if winter weather hits.

Heathrow put out an initial winter resilience tender in 2011 to provide a stands and roads resource. Dyer and Butler won that contract for a three-year period but the airport then decided it wanted to extend the contract for runway and taxiway clearance.

This contract was awarded to the company in 2014 and Heathrow signed a five-year extension in January of this year.

In assessing where the contracted workers would come from a number of advantages and disadvantages were noted. For example use of shift workers and emergency service personnel could mean that there was poor availability, large numbers would need to be trained and they would only then be available for three shifts in eight.

However while farm workers lack airport experience and do not hold airside passes and driving licences for certain vehicles they would be experienced plant operators, would have little full-time work during winter and generally had a good work ethic.

The benefits of having a motivated, capable workforce who were experienced plant operators was a “key factor.” Because they were available during the winter months this reduced the training requirement to provide 24-hour cover in two 12-hour shifts to only three shifts of staff.

Through the contract, Heathrow is able to map resource locations of manpower so it can assess how far the workers live from the airport and where they are located. Using coloured icons they are also able to differentiate between supervisors, plant and HGV operators and hand workers.

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