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The digital airfield


Esri’s global transportation industry director, Terry Bills, explains how the digital transformation of airfield inspections has enhanced safety and operational efficiency at two very different US gateways.

Maintaining the continuous safety of an airport’s runways, taxiways and ramps requires dedicated teams focused on a large number of details.

Each light, pavement marking, navigational aid and airfield sign must be inspected daily, along with pavement inspections to identify any small foreign objects (FOD) that could compromise the safety of planes landing and taking off.

In the US, the daily safety inspection is a Federal Aviation Administration requirement for Part 139 certified airports (ICAO Annex 14 for non-US airports) and requires airports to demonstrate they have adopted programmes to ensure the appropriate safety maintenance procedures for the airfield, including proper record keeping.

Historically, airports used paper processes to document these inspections, and had difficulty turning these paper records into the type of documentation required for FAA certification. In turn, because these were paper forms, many airports struggled to turn an issue found on the airfield into a work order in a timely manner.

A tale of two airports

Two airports of quite different size – Miami International (MIA) and Rick Husband Amarillo (AMA) – used the time during COVID to focus on their digital transformation efforts, with particular attention on improving overall safety, and specifically airfield inspections, to gain significant efficiencies and improve safety for their airport operations.

MIA used the time during COVID to adopt an all-digital workflow, replacing a paper-based inspection process with tablets running applications built with geographic information system (GIS) technology.

The applications capture the location of every data entry, use pull-down menus to streamline record keeping, and can append a photo to text descriptions.

Maurice Jenkins, MIA’s division director of information systems and telecommunications, focused on runway safety as a key component of his digital transformation efforts at MIA.

He notes: “We can’t fail, so we make sure to have all the tools and resources available to ensure we rapidly address, respond to, deal with, and mitigate any disruptions in the most efficient and effective manner.”

Before their adoption of Esri’s cloud based mobile technology to perform their daily inspections, Jim Murphy, MIA’s head of airfield operations would not see the results of the inspections until the next day. Now, he reports that “the output from this inspection tool allows us to drill down further, focus more, track better.”

And the benefits are not just in speed and efficiency of the inspections, but also accuracy, as Jenkins relates: “It’s clear cut, it’s concise, no one has to worry about deciphering an inspector’s cryptic notes or interpreting what that individual meant when they made that notation.

“There’s no paper to worry about and there’s no wait for someone to input the data. Having a visual representation and seeing everything within a dashboard lets us do better empirical decision-making on-the-fly to improve our operational efficiency.”

Being able to visualise the data captured with Part 139 inspections has been a great help. When the FAA visited MIA for its twice-yearly review of inspections, instead of poring over papers to review inspections, the auditors could view all inspections in ArcGIS Online, look at inspections for any given day, and conduct their review more efficiently.

“Nobody likes having to sit there and read a lot of paper,” says Jenkins. Now the FAA can simply log into MIA’s Part 139 Dashboard, and evaluate the airport’s performance remotely, an approach the FAA is encouraging at other airports.

Rick Husband Amarillo Airport, located in Potter County, Texas, had already been using a digital inspection software solution for some years. While this digital process had been successful, the airport was looking to digitally transform a number of other processes at the airport and wanted to move away from having a series of discrete, standalone software systems.

They were interested in a common platform which could enable better oversight and more ready and harmonious collaboration between different tasks and stakeholders.

Now Geographic Information Systems are providing the ability, in an online, cloud-based form, to bring together safety inspection, safety and asset management, and a number of other functions.

“The centrepiece is hazard identification — having that chain of custody and accountability. The pre-existing software served us well as a first foray into digital inspections, but we were looking for a ‘Swiss Army knife’, rather than lots of separate solutions,” says Thomas Oscarsson, AMA’s assistant director of aviation.

Amarillo found gains not just in the efficiency of their inspections, but also in better documentation of the health of their assets.

“What these various inspection programmes do is help to build the safety, environmental and economic cases for investments,” notes Oscarsson.

“Digitisation removes duplication of work orders that might have been written up in different fiscal years or manually stored in different places. Our recent replacement of two taxiways illustrates why that’s important.”

Because the FAA wants to understand an airport’s investments in preventative maintenance before they fund new improvements, Amarillo’s new system will easily give them all of the necessary documentation.

As Oscarsson explains: “GIS facilitates the move from a point solution for inspection to a platform which incorporates asset management information as well as safety management systems.”

Central to that transition for Amarillo Airport was the integration of their airfield inspections with their asset and maintenance management software to further streamline their safety processes.

Now, when a safety inspection identifies a problem, a work order is immediately initiated in the maintenance management system, and the status of the work order is tracked in an Esri dashboard. The completed work order then comes back to the operations staff as a re-inspection task.

The shift from pen-and-paper to apps-and-tablet has been very well received by the operations staff on the ground. By providing a click-through environment, it protects both the individual and the organisation from the consequences of human error.

It also drives further efficiencies. As Oscarsson points out: “We get lots of people coming back and saying, ‘If we can do ‘this’, can we not also do ‘this’? It’s a continual improvement process.”

Consolidation and digitisation of the safety inspections also makes the FAA’s job of auditing much easier as well. “A day taken to trawl through paperwork across multiple on-site locations can be reduced down to an hour or so because everything’s just there,” says Oscarsson.

“Because we’re now using a dashboard accessible to the FAA, we’re now instantly inspectable. That makes scheduling easier. It also means that because FAA staff don’t have to spend so much time on the audit itself, they can focus more on other priority areas, too.”

Here again, having an integrated system helps the identification of wider issues which often went unseen in a pen-and-paper setting. Explains Oscarsson: “With a dashboard, you can point, click and filter your way to whatever it is that you wanted to see originally, but also more readily identify trends.”

Amarillo Airport was amazed at how relatively easy the implementation proved to be. There is not a GIS manager or GIS resource at the airport, so they relied on the three way collaboration of Esri, the City of Amarillo’s GIS department, and the airport staff. And since the applications all run on ArcGIS Online, there is not a need for dedicated staff to manage the suite of applications.

And best of all according to Oscarsson; “All this happened across pandemic lockdown without anyone ever meeting face to face.”

Greater digitalisation

While every airport was faced with enormous pressures to cut back budgets and expenditures during COVID, a number of airports took advantage of the quieter times to accelerate their digital transformation efforts.

Key trends for many airport CIOs and IT directors was the desire to consolidate and ‘rationalise’ their information technology systems into a smaller number of technology platforms to better support key business functions.

This was a continuation of the pre-existing technology trends, but for some airports, with fewer passengers, airport CIOs and senior managers could give their undivided attention to these technology enhancements.

It is clear that for these two airports, the efforts not only paid large dividends in accuracy and efficiency, but also served to greatly increase the operational safety of their airfields.

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