21st-century traffic control

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As a traffic controller for American Airlines, Vicki King pushes paper planes all day.

But with new Vantage Point technology, King will be able to move computerized planes on a touch screen with her fingertips, making her job to manage American’s planes on the ground at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport much easier.

“It’s going to free us up to do many more important things, check for connections, be able to look directly to see if we need to get somebody to the gate right away, rather than sitting and playing with our little white pucks,” or strips of paper with each plane’s information, King said. American plans to roll out the new software at the Dallas/Fort Worth control tower within a few months.

Fort Worth-based American has been working on upgrading its operations systems for several years, Chief Information Officer Monte Ford said, adding that Vantage Point is another step in that process.

And for travelers it means that traffic controllers may be able to more quickly direct airplanes to open gates, enabling passengers to make connecting flights without having to run across the airport.

WORKING WITH ‘PUCKS’

King and other traffic controllers at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport have to keep track of almost 500 American flights a day.

For several years, they have used paper “pucks” ? which have flight information on them, such as airplane type, arrival time, next destination ? and moved them around on a map of the airport terminals and runways on their desk. Every two hours, a new page prints out with pucks that have to be cut out with scissors before the controllers can use them.

If there are any changes with the flight, such as a mechanical problem or a delay, the controllers update the information in pencil on the puck.

King said that when controllers are not communicating with pilots on which gate to park at or what turn they should make to get to the runway, they spend much of their time finding information about the flights in several databases or by calling gate agents in the terminals.

DATA AT FINGERTIPS

Controllers hope the new system will reduce the time they spend researching flight information, since it will be at their fingertips.

Vantage Point puts live data into a graphic interface for the controllers to view on a touch screen. Each screen has a layout of the concourses and runways for the terminals that American operates out of at D/FW.

Each flight is represented by a plane; controllers can touch the plane to see the most recent information about the flight. For example, the controller will know if 40 percent of the passengers have boarded, or if food services is still loading the plane.

“It’s much easier when you can see the airport, the contour of the planes and the gates,” Ford said, adding that software developers focused on making the data easy to read by creating an interactive screen that looks like the airport.

Colors are also used to convey information. If a plane is red, then there is a medical emergency or other situation that the controller needs to address right away.

CUSTOMER BENEFIT

Although the technology upgrade is a neat whiz-bang feature for controllers, American also expects it to improve customers’ travel experience.

Ford said that efficient management of planes’ location on the ground will make it easier for the airliners to leave and arrive on time and will let travelers make their connections.

For example, if a large group of people is arriving on a flight from New York and needs to make a connection to a flight to Mexico and the New York flight is late, a controller could place the New York flight at an arrival gate that is closer to the Mexico flight’s departure gate.

Gate agents will also be able to rebook customers who have missed connections before their late flight even lands, Ford said.

Ford said developers solicited ideas from the controllers on improving the system, which is still being tweaked in its final prototype stage. Controllers said they are eager to use the new system when it is rolled out in the fall.

“We don’t have to worry about sneezing and blowing the paper everywhere,” said American traffic controller Eugene Manuel, who remembers when the flights were on large boards in the control towers. “It is really an investment for us and American Airlines and brings us to the 21st century.”

(c) 2009, Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.