Researchers: Don't forget airport ops

Efforts to improve commercial air travel have generated discussions about satellite-based navigation, new technologies that will free up flight paths and the need for more runways. But NASA researchers say that delays in terminals also have a major effect on air travel, and handheld computer technology could make a difference.

According to a report soon to be published by researchers at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., handheld computers, such as those from Palm Inc., would be useful in making airport operations more efficient. Airline personnel equipped with Internet-accessible handhelds could obtain updated schedules while on the tarmac, on baggage carts and in gate areas more easily than they can today, according to the research team.

"The air traffic process is a much larger system than I think researchers see today," said Roxana Wales, a research scientist and member of the team. "If we took a larger perspective of how all these pieces interact and [focus on] moving people from point A to B—and not just flying planes—it would help in understanding new ways of addressing delay problems."

Unscheduled gate changes are a common cause of delays, Wales said. Typically, affected workers—which include fuelers, cabin cleaners, airplane crews and baggage handlers—are notified by radio or telephone.

A better method, Wales said, is to have "an application that allows you to push that information to the right people. Handheld software makes it possible to contact all those people at once, instead of [making] three or four calls."

Giving passengers access to flight information through handheld devices would also cut down on delays and improve service, she said. Flight information display screens found at airports don't always carry the latest information and often only show a particular airline's flights.

"Under the [handheld] system, the screen would always be up-to-date, but it would require the airlines to participate," she said. "They would have to put in the new information as soon as they got it."

The team conducted its research by studying United Air Lines Inc.'s operations in San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago and Oakland, Calif., over a two-year period.

"STARS goes cross-country" [Federal Computer Week, Aug. 13, 2001]

"FAA runway system won't be 'cure-all'" [Federal Computer Week, July 2, 2001]

"FAA runway system faulted" [FCW.com, June 28, 2001]

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