Just before Christmas, I sat at the boarding gate of a major European airport with huge gate capacities. It was packed with passengers, as everyone was heading home for the holidays, and the flight was slightly delayed. No hard feelings. Suddenly a calming voice politely asked us over the speaker to move to another gate quite far away. It took a while for some passengers to get there so, ultimately, the flight was delayed by an additional 20 minutes. I’m not really sure what the cause was – let’s just assume that the parking position had to be changed because it was blocked by the preceding aircraft– but it seemed to me to be poor gate management.
Let’s take a look at the bigger picture. Airline traffic, just like passenger numbers, is increasing more and more globally and will continue to do so in the future, that’s a truism. At the same time, gate capacity and parking space at airports cannot be increased at the same pace – and here’s where the problems begin. The limitations of gate capacities affect gate planning as well as real-time decision-making and broken gate management processes. All of these factors may lead to inconsistent outcomes and significant manual intervention on the day of operation.
Better Planning required
Would increasing the number of gates solve everything? No, surely not. Limited gate capacity is only one major obstacle. Another one is suboptimal planning. We need to remember that, by nature, planning is primarily focused on demand calculation and allocating resources accordingly, while considering existing business rules. If gate and resource planning is done without integrating all the available resource information, it may lead to additional and unnecessary challenges like incompatibility between gate and overall network plans, or limited onscreen visibility for overnight aircraft. Processes become more difficult and error-prone when business rules between planning processes and stations are different, which almost certainly leads to different outcomes. In the worst case, inconsistencies may lead to gate management chaos on the day of operation. When IrOps (Irregular Operations, a common scenario in the daily aviation business) take place, things usually get much more complicated. Just picture it: unexpected harsh weather conditions, late aircraft arrivals, strikes and so on. Without a flexible planning system, the results of which can be disastrous. Dispatchers might use the gates inefficiently, using tribal knowledge and relying on their gut feeling when forced to improvise. Significant manual intervention poses many dangers: business rules or preferences can be forgotten or accidentally deprioritized; there is no clear overview of the entire situation due to excessive complexities. If situations requiring significant manual intervention occur over and over again, countermeasures are necessary. One thing seems pretty clear: It takes both a good planning tool and a same-day solution for successful gate management– and more importantly an effective integration of the two.
Optimizing Gate Management
This requires a lot of data and smooth processing – remember, it’s not only about which parking positions to assign to which aircraft. Hundreds of business rules, airline preferences and security constraints also need to be considered. Especially in case of IrOps, there might not just be one aircraft that needs rescheduling but 30 or more at a time. An optimal solution would be a software-based decision support system which integrates planning and real-time allocation tasks. It could offer the following benefits: improved operational efficiency, standardized gate management processes, increased resource productivity, and precise coordination with resource and network planning. This requires a solution with a good usability – it could help to resolve major challenges. There’s even the possibility to enhance the decision support system by using an integrated optimizer. This software can create a rough plan for the next few days, based on new data and developments of the flight plan and ground handling resources.
Short-term Reassignment of Tasks
Within a two to three hour time window, the enabled optimizer will automatically re-assign tasks based on business rules and preferences. Thus, the majority of short-term changes would be already be accounted for. The number of gate change disruptions would be reduced. Additionally, by leveraging tool automation to improve standardization, the gate processes will be standardized as well. Managing exceptions as opposed to all gate scenarios would increase resource productivity and, furthermore, a more effective synchronization of various planning processes will ensure that decisions are made in alignment with resource and network plans.
Sounds too theoretical? Don’t worry: even with all the automated processes, the user decision still takes priority. Take the example of an aircraft that has just landed and is approaching its planned parking space. However, due to a delay the position is still occupied by the previous aircraft. There is a time buffer of about 10 minutes for the preceding aircraft to depart and the space to be reoccupied. However, this can be reduced manually by the dispatcher in order to meet the deadlines in the event of delays. At the same time, however, this scenario should already have been avoided through robust planning – enabled by a good planning tool. The combination of planning and real-time assignment decision support systems is increasingly being implemented by airlines, and with great success. For example, United Airlines has taken steps to improve the planning and execution of their gate management processes, to unlock capacity and enable their growth strategy at their gate-constrained and often congested airports. At United’s largest hub, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, the carrier was able to gate ~10% more flights in 2018 without increasing the number of gates or airport real estate. In the absence of effective gate planning and execution tools, that capacity realization would have been significantly harder to realize.
What’s left to say? In an ideal world, if decision support systems for Gate Management were used everywhere, you would never have to move to another gate just before your flight again. We don’t live in an ideal world. But that’s a different story …
We would love to hear your opinion! Do you also think it would be beneficial to optimize the capacity of gates and stands? What are your experiences in this area? Let us know!