Travellers the winners as technology is being used to reduce turnaround times and enhance flight reliability at London Gatwick

10 October, 2019

Having relied on paperwork and radios for decades, aircraft turnarounds are being revolutionised at London Gatwick thanks to a partnership with Assaia, which is providing its Apron AI product to harmonise a complex process involving numerous stakeholders.

The result of this collaboration is not only expected to harvest cost savings for both airport and its serving airlines, but passengers will ultimately benefit from the increased on-time performance of flights. As a VINCI Airports Innovation Centre of Excellence, Gatwick is leading on this project, which has the potential to be generalised across the VINCI Airports network.

London Gatwick and VINCI Airports have been early technology innovators for years. Both believe that the early use of technology to improve operations will lead to ongoing success, particularly true given Gatwick's role as a gateway, and as its traffic volumes are predicted to continue to rise. Following its acquisition earlier this year, Gatwick is now one of three VINCI Airports Innovation Centres of Excellence.

On behalf of the VINCI Airports network, Gatwick has recently been leading on innovation in reducing aircraft turnaround times and introduced the Assaia Apron AI system on two of its stands for a trial period. The UK's second busiest airport has now cautiously deployed the ground-breaking solution across 13 stands which are spread over three of its piers.

The Swiss company's system uses computer vision from two cameras on each active stand to monitor the individual aircraft turn events such as the aircraft taxiing onto stand, air bridge connection, fuelling, catering, cleaning, right through to push back.

"Following the successful trial and partial implementation across the airport, we expect to see the optimisation of the aircraft turn process, which will result in improved passenger experience and better on-time departure rates," says Abhi Chacko, Head of Innovation, Gatwick Airport.

"Up to 10 stakeholders can be involved in the turnaround process which in the past tended to rely on paperwork and radios. Now Apron AI offers Gatwick and its partners unbiased, accurate and automatic measurements of this complex activity," he adds.

Selection of Assaia's solution was viewed as being the least intrusive by Mr Chacko's team at Gatwick, with other providers' approaches involving having sensors fitted to ground handling vehicles. "While we have had to fit two fixed cameras with unhindered views on each stand to facilitate the introduction of Apron AI, we felt that this was the most practical solution for our requirements," he adds.

With late flights required to be tagged with a delay code, the existing more manual system often resulted in finger pointing by the stakeholders involved. With Apron AI anyone can replay the turnaround log to understand where the delay occurred.

"This system transparency immediately breeds trust between the stakeholders," suggests Mr Chacko. He is also at pains to explain that the product is not stand alone. "Apron AI will be used in conjunction with another tool we have built working with AirportLabs ─ known as AirTurn ─ which would facilitate real-time collaboration among stakeholders."

London Gatwick expects that by joining up such tools it will gain not only richer feedback on why flights were delayed, but by applying machine learning, it will optimise processes and be able to make timely interventions in order to keep flights running on time.

A more efficient operation is beneficial for the airport, its airline partners and travellers alike. London Gatwick also hopes that the introduction of such technology like this will result in substantial cost savings, especially once it has been implemented airport wide.

CHART - Passenger growth at London Gatwick has slowed since a third peak of +7% year-on-year growth in 2016, and for 1H2019 is performing at +2.7%, up on the +1.1% recorded for 2018Source: CAPA - Centre for Aviation and London Gatwick airport reports

"With real-time intervention in the process, making palpable reductions in turnaround times, we expect savings to be realised for the airport and our airlines," explains Mr Chacko. While airlines will extract value from not having to pay costly fines for flight delays for example, the airport will make its savings from areas like more efficient stand utilisation.

As a VINCI Airports Centre of Excellence, London Gatwick is not stopping there, confirms Mr Chacko. "We are doing a number of other things to improve turnaround performance. One trial currently under way is the use of information boards in gate lounges instructing passengers on a revised boarding method involving those travellers in window seats to board first, from the back to the front of the aircraft in terms of allocated seat," he explains.

"Boarding then continues with those passengers in middle seats, followed finally by those in aisle seats. This can result in valuable time savings in the boarding process," he continues.

Other areas where London Gatwick is looking to make strides in reducing aircraft turnaround times is making the aircraft line maintenance process smoother, as well as working with Eurocontrol on using alternative flight paths avoiding congested airspace. While all of this will undoubtedly benefit the airport and its airlines, ultimately the passenger will benefit from enhanced flight time keeping and schedule reliability.