Feb 08, 2022

Airport Operations Centers: The sky is the limit for control rooms

Airport Operations Centers 6 min read last updated on: Nov 02, 2022

Airport Operation Centers (AOCs or APOCs) are on the rise! Although air transportation has taken a heavy blow due to the covid-19 pandemic and subsequent travel restrictions, there are a lot of investments planned in the sector for the near future. Especially in Asia-Pacific, forecasts look bright, with estimated investments of 1300 billion dollars over the next 20 years (source: Statista). In Europe, Airport Operations Management in SESAR1 promoted enhanced situational awareness via the Airport Operations Plan (AOP), whilst reinforcing the collaborative decision-making process through the Airport Operations Center. The ambitions are high: the sector wants to move more people, improve safety, and offer the best possible flying experience. In all these requirements, AOCs play a vital role.

First, don’t confuse AOC with ATC. While ATC (Air Traffic Control) deals with aircraft movements in the sky, AOCs (Airport Operation Centers) focus on the end-to-end processes considering departing passengers and arriving passengers. All available information, ranging from transportation, car parking and luggage handling to overall security, comes together in this central intelligence hub. In this way, AOCs enable a common focus by all airport stakeholders on punctuality, process quality and continuous improvement. They also drive collaborative decision-making processes around specific issues.  

In general, all AOC functionality centralizes in one control room. In larger modern airports, however, there may be multiple of these autonomous control rooms, varying in size, handling a specific aspect of the airport operations. 

A large city that never sleeps

An airport is an extraordinarily complex ecosystem. You could call it a large city: there are many operational duties to be performed (luggage handling, plane guidance, …), but also many crowd-related tasks (security, parking, shopping, …). All this, in a quite condensed area. In other words, many of the traditional control room verticals are represented in an airport. There is Security & Surveillance, Process Control, Emergency Operations, and Traffic Management.

In cases of emergencies – which could be a blizzard, a severe security breach, or simply an unexpected airport event – the AOC even becomes an emergency Command and Control Center. This single point of control coordinates all emergency handling operations. Which means that the infrastructure needed to do this in an optimal way needs to be in place. Depending on the size of the airport, this can vary from a large meeting room to a hall-sized control room.

Building an AOC from the ground up

The recently opened Tianfu International Airport in Chengdu (China) is a notable example of how modern airports should and are being designed. Because this is a brand-new site, constructed from the ground up, the architects and airport designers had the opportunity to include all the necessary means to streamline airport operations. The inclusion of 14 control rooms – very much varying in size, from only a few operator seats to the large AOC hall of 870 square meters (about twice the area of a basketball court) and room for no less than 105 operators. Other control rooms include the Terminal Area Operations Command Center (TOC), the Ground Traffic Management Center (GTC), the Emergency Rescue, the Freight Management and Test Center – all equipped with Barco OpSpace operator workstations, and some featuring Barco video walls.

Of course, it’s not always possible to start from scratch. Often the control rooms need to be integrated into an existing (and 24/7 functioning) airport. This means there are not only many legacy systems to consider, but any downtime should be avoided at all costs. New integrations should therefore be carefully designed, planned and tested. In other words, you should carefully select your partners – on the part of operational & ergonomic design, system design, equipment, suppliers and integrators.

5 key takeaways

AOCs are all unique projects, so there is no one-solution-fits-all approach. However, there are some criteria that apply to any control room in airports. Let’s write down some of these key criteria an AOC should answer to:

#1 Prepare for growth: Despite some current turbulence the future for airports looks bright. A particularly important aspect is to prepare for expansion. Not only in terms of room size, but also in technology. This doesn’t mean to buy a solution that is 25% above your current capacity, but rather a modular system that can be expanded by simply plugging in new equipment (like IP cameras, sensors, etc.). In this way, you are always on top of things without the need for a complete system overhaul.

#2 Always on, 24/7: An airport is literally a city that never (or rarely) sleeps. At any time of the day and night, planes land and take off. This always-on mindset is also relevant to the control rooms – and their equipment. So make sure the Solutions are up to their tasks and are of the highest quality, designed for 24/7 use.

Nights at airports are usually noticeably quiet. Smaller airports can even be called ‘closed’ during these times, as no flights are scheduled. However, this does not mean there is no activity in the airport. Shops and vending machines need to be restocked, reparations are done, everything is cleaned, etc. Delayed planes that arrive need to follow a completely different exit strategy for the passengers, as the normal security checks, baggage carrousels and trains are all closed. All these operations are steered from the control room – meaning that these locations are indeed staffed 24/7...

#3 Separate different systems: Security at airports has become a lot tighter over the past 20 years, and it remains a major focus point – with still room for improvement. It is obvious that all necessary precautions to keep away intruders should be taken. However, this is often not enough to protect very vulnerable environments. In many cases, the different networks are physically split so that the most critical information can never be accessed by outside hackers. In many cases, however, the operators need information from multiple systems to get a complete overview. To do this, you need a system that can display all information on one workstation, without physically mixing them. A system like Barco OpSpace integrates the information from multiple domains at the presentation layer, always upholding the separation.

#4 Foster collaboration: There are many completely different things to monitor in an airport. Splitting these functions in different control rooms can be a clever idea. On the other hand, every decision or crisis could have consequences on the other functions. For example, security problems will have consequences for plane departure times, on luggage handling, possibly on traffic, etc. A straightforward way to communicate between different control rooms is essential. This can for example be done by sharing perspectives (joint blocks of video and/or data) between different operators using CMS

Collaboration, however, has many faces. Sometimes it’s easier to collaborate electronically, sometimes it’s better done in person. When choosing the electronic version (mainly when the different people are in separate rooms), it’s best done using the personal workstation of the operator – sharing information or perspectives. In-room collaboration is best when using a Common Operational Picture (I.e., a large video wall), displaying the information in full when discussing. At Shenyang Taoxian International Airport (China), for example, Barco recently installed the largest curved Barco UniSee LCD video wall – an impressive 11x7 configuration.

Next to that, there is also the collaboration with stakeholders that needs to be considered. Fire departments, the police, emergency services, etc. all need to be involved at some point, so make sure you get those collaborative communication lines in place from the start.

#5 Involve field workers: The field workers (security staff, luggage handling supervisors, aircraft marshallers, …) play a vital role in the airport operations. it should be able to consult or involve them whenever needed. Exchanging information with them should therefore be swift and simple. But also: upholding the strict security protocols that are necessary in airports. With SecureStream, you can exchange information with field staff easily. Because not the actual data but only pixels are streamed in and out of the control room, there is no danger of a security breach whatsoever.

Bottom line: it’s all about view better, share faster, resolve quicker.

In the last year, Barco has done a dozen AOC projects on 3 continents. Do you have plans with AOCs? Then don’t hesitate to contact us!

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