2005-11-07

Edinburgh Airport's 'Iconic' New Tower Opens Today

It is one of the busiest offices in Scotland, yet also the quietest. As moving green dots flicker silently across black screens, controllers in Edinburgh's iconic new 57_m control tower -- due to be officially opened by transport secretary Mr.Alistair Darling today -- calmly organise traffic at one of Britain's fastest-growing and most congested airports. Their brand new workplace -- an elegant new landmark on the city skyline -- is one of a number of steps which managers hope will put an end to recent criticism of the airport's creaking facilities. The former military base at Turnhouse has grown in 20 years from a small-scale regional airfield to one of Britain's busiest. That growth has prompted planned expansion which, if sanctioned, will see a second main runway added by 2030. But many fear expansion cannot come soon enough. The committee of airline operators at the airport has warned facilities at the fast-growing complex are unable to cope with passenger levels at peak hours. According to 'The Civil Aviation Authority', 27 per cent of scheduled services at Edinburgh operated more than 15 minutes late between April and June -- four per cent more than last year. Charter flights fared even worse, with the proportion of late planes increasing by three per cent to 29 per cent. Passengers are also being kept waiting longer, with average delays for scheduled flights increasing from 12 to 14 minutes, and for charter services from 16 to 18 minutes. The chief executive of one of the airport's biggest operators, 'Bmi', has also condemned security queues in the main terminal as 'unacceptable' and warned overcrowding would hamper future growth. Earlier this year, security staff threatened a work-to-rule amid claims they were being stretched to the limit by staff shortages. For its part, 'BAA' claims 58 per cent of delays are caused by late incoming aircraft, with air traffic restrictions accounting for a further 23 per cent, and 4 per cent due to weather. Minimising these delays will be among the tasks for Mr.Keith Meakin, Edinburgh general manager for National Air Traffic Control Service (NATS), which owns and operates the new tower.
'It is a business-orientated airport with some unique challenges,' he explains. 'There is a very high demand for flights at peak times which are useful to business passengers, then quieter periods in between. 'Early in the morning there is a pretty intense period of departures and arrivals. 'Our job is to get them from the stands out to the runway as safely as possible.' The sheer size of the new tower is its main advantage -- it is the first time controllers have been able to see the whole airfield. 'Now they can enjoy views of up to 38 miles across central Scotland. 'The old tower was built for military purposes in the 1940s and was wholly inadequate. 'It was also so far away that we couldn't see many of the planes parked on the ground. 'Now we can be more flexible.'
This improvement means controllers can cope with up to 38 landings or take-offs every hour - compared with only 28 in the old tower.
'That makes a big difference at busy times,' Mr.Meakin adds.
Down in the lower half of the egg-timer-shaped building, the approach controllers deal with incoming planes up to an area around the city 40 miles wide, lining them up in sequence a few minutes apart. Shortly before landing, communication with the pilots is handed over to a small handful controllers in the top of the tower, who can see them descending towards the runway. As well as enjoying a better view, the controllers can guide planes along newly-extended taxiways. During our visit, flights are being guided in from the west, flying over West Lothian, but more usually planes gather in line over the Firth of Forth, giving passengers a spectacular view of the city and the famous bridges. They will also be able to see the tower itself, which is sure to become an icon of the capital's skyline. Mr.Meakin adds:
'This is a landmark not just because of its size but also because it marks the beginning of a new era of growth for the airport.'
Over at the terminal building, the usual Monday morning parade of suits has been swelled by the addition of families heading away for a half-term holiday. Again, the problem of sharp peaks and troughs creates a headache for planners. At 06:00, the check-in hall is a model of efficiency, with regular red-eye business travellers moving between the self-service check-in machines like worker bees. By 08:30, it is thronged with children, elderly tourists and stag and hen parties, and the queues have expanded into creeping conga lines. Upstairs in security, staff working the X-ray screens use hour-by-hour passenger estimates to anticipate when queues are most likely to build up. Waiting times can double within minutes, so staffing arrangements must be flexible. Passengers will wait longer at 07:30 - even with most of the six X-ray machines in use - than at 13:30 or 20:30 with only one or two machines working. The airport claims 94 per cent of passengers are screened in under ten minutes -- a fact disputed by some airlines, who claim their analysis of their own passengers suggests massive peak-time queues can take as long as 20 minutes to clear. But on this busy Monday morning, The Scotsman times the queue at four minutes and 40 seconds.
'We're working as hard as we can to improve the facilities at Edinburgh, and reduce the amount of time spent in queues,' says Mr.David Lister, the airport's customer service director.
Among other forthcoming improvements is a radical redesign of the terminal entrance to make it quicker to drop off and pick up passengers. For the first time, black taxis will be able to pick up fares at the airport at a dedicated rank -- helping to relieve the misery of queues for the dedicated fleet of white saloon taxis which have blighted the reputation of the airport for many years. Work on the 2_million_GBP improvement programme is already underway, with the taxi rank expected to begin operating in 2006-01. The location of the airport bus link to the city centre -- one of Lothian Buses' most successful routes -- has also been improved, to allow passengers to walk directly from arrivals to the bus stop. The time from landing at the airport to walking along Waverley Bridge is now as little as 30 minutes. But many airlines remain unconvinced, and there is concern among operators that the arrival of more new routes, such as the daily 'Delta Airlines' service to Atlanta which begins 2006-05, could cause serious congestion. While passengers linger in the new shops and restaurants to pass the minutes in departures with a coffee and a sandwich, dispatchers working for airline 'Bmi', are frantically trying to find space for arriving planes. To make matters worse, thick fog at 'Heathrow' means air traffic delays of three hours or more. Big planes that should have departed for London are still parked at the gates, occupying vital space. A small 49-seater 'Embraer' jet has landed from Manchester, but, even at this relatively quiet time of day, its usual spot is occupied by a plane belonging to a different airline and there is nowhere it can go to unload passengers - more than half of whom have paid up to 200_GBP for the convenience of a business-class service. For them, as well as the airline, every minute wasted is an unwanted cost. Eventually the aircraft is taken to a remote parking spot, which means another wait -- this time for a bus to take everyone across the apron to the terminal. Meanwhile, 'Bmi' duty manager Ms.Julie Matthews hears from the airline's operations department that the lunchtime Heathrow flight will have to be cancelled. With 'BA' also facing cancellations, hundreds of passengers will now have to be rebooked on later flights. To minimise delays and reduce pressure on space, 'Bmi' board the earlier 'Heathrow' flight more or less on time, and send the plane around to an empty corner of the airfield. With the plane ready to take off, and the fog at 'Heathrow' lifting, controllers in the new tower may be able to allow the flight to leave earlier than expected.
'If the slot comes up, we can get them away within a couple of minutes,' explains Mr.Meakin.
'A long delay can then become shorter.
'If they were still parked at the gate with passengers sitting about in the terminal, there is no way we could use the flexibility to achieve that.'
The runway to success
  • Edinburgh Airport, which handles 8.3 million passengers a year, is set to overtake Glasgow as Scotland's busiest if current growth rates continue. Glasgow currently handles 8.6 million passengers annually.
  • Edinburgh's growth outstrips Heathrow and Gatwick, and the volume of passengers is expected to have trebled by 2030.
  • Up to 23_000 passengers/day pass through the terminal.
  • The new air traffic control tower is 57m high (187ft). The controllers at the top work 54m above ground.
  • It cost around 11_million_GBP to build, and was constructed in under 18 months.
  • The lower floors, connected to the top by a lift and an emergency staircase, house electrical equipment, administrative offices and area approach controllers.
  • To ensure a smooth switchover, wiring was activated in the new tower before the old tower was closed. The exact time of the handover was at 22:24 on 2005-10-15. The last flight handled by the old tower was a 'Ryanair' Boeing 737 heading to Dublin; the first handled by the new tower was a 'Gulfstream 5' private jet from Dallas, Texas.
  • The airport serves 80 domestic and international routes, with recent additions to Helsinki and Warsaw. Services to Florida and Atlanta are planned.
  • The flagship service, a daily flight to Newark, New Jersey, was described by operator Continental Airlines as one of its most successful start-up routes ever. It doubled to a twice-daily service over the summer.
'A towering leap forward for Edinburgh Airport', ALASTAIR JAMIESON, The Scotsman, 2005-11-07, Mo

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