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Taking control

Posted: 4 April 2013 | Chris Wilson, Control Centre Manager, Birmingham Airport | 1 comment

Chris Wilson, Control Centre Manager at Birmingham Airport, details how the airport’s new purpose-built control facility strengthened the airport’s operational effectiveness.

Ask any airport operator what their key priorities are and you’ll no doubt hear them mention safety, security and customer service. At Birmingham Airport, the UK’s third largest outside London and seventh largest overall, these are our top priorities and as such we’ve made significant investments across all parts of the business to improve these core areas, whilst also enhancing our infrastructure and operational efficiency.

The benefits of investing in our infrastructure over recent years, such as the development of a new International Pier and the merger of the previous two terminals into one, can be visibly seen and have gone a long way to benefit both airline customers and passengers.

Chris Wilson, Control Centre Manager at Birmingham Airport, details how the airport’s new purpose-built control facility strengthened the airport’s operational effectiveness.Ask any airport operator what their key priorities are and you’ll no doubt hear them mention safety, security and customer service. At Birmingham Airport, the UK’s third largest outside London and seventh largest overall, these are our top priorities and as such we’ve made significant investments across all parts of the business to improve these core areas, whilst also enhancing our infrastructure and operational efficiency.The benefits of investing in our infrastructure over recent years, such as the development of a new International Pier and the merger of the previous two terminals into one, can be visibly seen and have gone a long way to benefit both airline customers and passengers.

Chris Wilson, Control Centre Manager at Birmingham Airport, details how the airport’s new purpose-built control facility strengthened the airport’s operational effectiveness.

Ask any airport operator what their key priorities are and you’ll no doubt hear them mention safety, security and customer service. At Birmingham Airport, the UK’s third largest outside London and seventh largest overall, these are our top priorities and as such we’ve made significant investments across all parts of the business to improve these core areas, whilst also enhancing our infrastructure and operational efficiency.

The benefits of investing in our infrastructure over recent years, such as the development of a new International Pier and the merger of the previous two terminals into one, can be visibly seen and have gone a long way to benefit both airline customers and passengers.

Some £200 million has been invested in Birmingham Airport’s facilities, with a further £100 million committed to additional development plans including the new radar tower, air traffic control (ATC) tower and a runway extension scheme, which will be operational in the spring of 2014.

However, not all improvements have been so obvious. Behind the scenes there have also been some impressive changes to strengthen the airport’s operational effectiveness and communication with all of its on-site partners. Primarily, the development of a £2 million Airport Control Centre (ACC) to merge the airport’s previous five control centres into one state-of-the-art facility.

The ACC plays a multi-functional role to manage the apron, terminal, engineering and security control functions at the airport and to create better communication and processes using the latest technology.

The ACC is a 24-hour operation, overseen daily by an Airport Manager and a team of Airport Controllers. The team are responsible for monitoring and controlling the entire airport’s operations. During normal operations they are focused on improving operational performance in every area of the airport, ensuring that Birmingham is delivering the best possible service to its partners and customers.

Utilising previous flight progress data, the team are alerted to trends that highlight issues at an early stage, allowing resources to be appropriately deployed to manage various situations. The centre is also the hub responsible for managing and coordinating all emergencies on-site, from simple 999 calls to full airport closures. In major incidents, the ACC instigates the opening of silver and gold command structures, whilst managing the ongoing incidents.

The controllers work at combined communication consoles which allow them to effectively share workload; attending to all telephone lines, radio channels and site-wide public address which can be managed from every desk.

Located in the airport’s headquarters, the purpose-built control centre was designed with operational continuity in mind, which is critical to its success. It has an independent fire zone to ensure that day-to-day operations are not impacted in the event of an evacuation of the head office building, and the centre’s electrical loading is fully supported by an uninterrupted power supply and independent generator systems. With this extra layer of protection, the control centre team are able to remain in the facility for longer in the event of a fire alarm or emergency situation to investigate and confirm the course of action.

Another benefit is the ability to manage ‘Lone Worker Monitoring’. This allows an engineer, for example, to work safely around the site in the knowledge that they have contact with the ACC at all times, which reduces the need for excess cover outside of core hours. In situations where the radio user is working alone, safety and communication are essential. Utilising the latest digital radio technology the ACC is instantly alerted when engineers are not in regular communication. This allows them to be quickly contacted or located if assistance is required.

Integrating multi-disparate systems including fire detection, fire suppression, access control and environmental monitoring was quite a challenge but working with some of the world’s leading suppliers, the results have been outstanding and provided the team with the highest level of operational performance possible.

The ACC manages 420 CCTV cameras, a network of 700 configured doors, 6,000 fire detectors and fire suppression sprinkler systems, which minimises the potential damage from leaks. Operators have access to 24 different security points across the airport that provide video clarification from a host of alarm sources and all footage is stored in a resilient way to allow access to third party agencies, such as the Police, Counter Terrorist Unit and UK Border Force, if required.

A 15 metre video wall is at the heart of the ACC, featuring 15 real-time video display monitors to display and track airport performance information, as well as radar, CCTV and news feeds. During incident management, the entire wall can be used to display a single image on a massive scale to give management and operators a better understanding of the situation to help develop appropriate strategies.

As well as being prompted to unplanned changes such as handling agent delay notifications and late stand change checks via a system called Alert Manager, Birmingham Airport also logs operational activity through MissionMode. This incident management software allows instant alerting to all key stakeholders and business partners, and virtual incident rooms can be created to quickly establish and share information and status updates if required. This has been invaluable during snow events when unplanned changes have to be made and require communicating quickly.

The key was to have a system in place that the team could use on a 24/7 basis to ensure it was familiar, easy to use and automated in the event of an accident at the airport. MissionMode allows those who have been called upon to access the key facts instantly wherever they are. By using the system for everyday events, the situation centre becomes a great place for members of the team to catch up with ongoing operational status, critical for shift work team that covers a 24/7 environment.

More recent technology introduced into the ACC monitors the security of the new ATC tower. The system detects intruders cutting through, climbing on or lifting the fence fabric and is fully integrated into the CCTV system. Dedicated Pan Tilt Zoom (PTZ) cameras are instantly deployed and replayed when activations are sensed. Controllers can then inform the relevant authorities who can access the scene.

This will open a spring and allow air traffic controllers to see the entire length of the extended runway. This runway extension is essential for the airport to handle long-haul traffic, with the 400 metre extension adding an extra 2,000 nautical miles, which will allow aircraft to directly fly to the West Coast of the United States, the Far East and Africa.

Video analytic technology was deployed at Birmingham Airport in 2012, to enhance security in the passenger arrivals area. The system is designed to monitor and detect any attempted breach of the boundary line and instantly alerts the control centre team. It provides video playback to aid decision making as well as securing the boundary doors. If people loiter or packages are abandoned in the area, these alarms instantly report back to the ACC, who can alert the relevant authorities and teams. The system is also designed to prevent people introducing or attempting to introduce objects into Critical Parts from the arrivals area. Members of the public affected by alarm events are automatically kept informed to ensure that they are aware of the security situation and the technology provides ‘identification level imagery’ in line with Home Office CAST guidelines. To ensure that 999 emergency responses can be maintained, the system can be overridden by authorised personnel.

The newest – and possibly the most impressive – system introduced to the ACC is the role of fire control. Previously carried out at the on-site fire station, the airport has now introduced technology to enable this critical role to be carried out remotely, which saves precious minutes and allows fire crews to reach the scene much faster than before.

Previously, operators took notes of emergency calls from ATC and then relayed them to fire crews. Now, such alerts are automated. When emergency calls go to airport control, fire crews hear the conversation live over the fire station’s PA system and can respond much more quickly. Meanwhile, the system turns on fire station lighting and opens the main doors ready for fire appliances to leave. It even switches the gas off in the kitchen so that crews can abandon their activity without delay or worry.

Dispatching first response is only step one in the airport’s major incident plan, though. Operators may also decide to involve outside agencies, so the three digital consoles give operators touchscreen control over dedicated safety-related communications channels, including ground and airband radio, hotlines to ATC, fire crews and off-site fire and ambulance centres.

We test the system twice every day, but nothing compares to a live incident, and the system was successfully used in September 2012 when an aircraft exited the runway incorrectly. Although this was a minor incident, it did require a response from the airport’s fire and rescue service and everyone involved was very pleased with how the system performed. Thankfully, there was no actual fire or injuries as a result of this incident, but the time savings we have recorded are real and consistent. Getting a crew to the scene of a serious incident as quickly as possible is vital – 20 seconds may not sound a lot but that extra time could help to avoid many injuries and save lives.

The ACC is always evolving and investing in the latest technologies to automate everyday tasks. This commitment allows the team to concentrate on operational performance improvements and informed decision making.

Birmingham Airport’s goal is to achieve EUROCONTROL Collaborative Decision Making status by the end of 2014. As such, the airport has recently completed a major project to replace the Airport Operating Database. This is a real step change in technology, delivering flight status updates to the airport community in real-time on mobile devices such as smart phones.

These commitments will enable all partners to progress with the airport and continue to provide a world-class service to its customers.

Biography

Chris Wilson is an airport operations professional with over 10 years’ experience. Currently the Airport Control Centre Manager at Birmingham Airport, Chris designed and managed the complex change process that resulted in the state-of-the-art airport operations centre. Embracing technological development is one of Chris’ passions; to continually enhance operational decision making. Prior to his current role, Chris worked in airport construction projects and airport fire safety.

One response to “Taking control”

  1. BHX has a great set-up. It is driving financial efficiencies as well as making the airport increase its operational effectiveness.

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