Image via Wikipedia
The Wall Street Journal reported today on new technology that helps airlines manage their ground traffic, also known as planes that are not in the sky. That’s right. Planes.Not.In.The.Sky. Didn’t think you could lose a huge jet on the ground? Wrong!
This is the sort of problem that should not still exist, and was solved years, if not decades, ago. Surely attaching some form of tracking device to a moving object and then tracking a signal to a display isn’t rocket science. You really have to wonder sometimes about the relevance of so-called modern technology if we can’t get the basics right. After all, we now have GPS, a system that has been around for years now, beloved of boaters, other recreational users, motorists and lovers of soft but irritating know- it-all synthesized computer voices (think a female Hal). Initially developed for the military, and now widely used in many civilian applications such as cell-phones, surveying, and recreational pursuits, it currently employs 30 satellites and is able to detect bird poo on your windscreen. Well, not quite that accurate, but we’d like to think so.
According to the maps-gps-info.com website the most recent innovation in GPS technology is the WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) developed by the FAA and Department Of Defense to augment GPS for air navigation. WAAS was designed to allow aircraft to rely on GPS for all phases of flights, including precision, or "instrument only" landings. Specifications for WAAS required accuracy of 7 meters or better both vertically and laterally, 95% of the time. In practice, WAAS achieved a lateral accuracy of 1 meter and of 1.5 meters vertically when over the contiguous United States.
Pretty impressive eh? So I guess, it won’t identify bird doo on your windscreen, but I think that an elephant dump is definitely possible! GPS has become a by-word for unbeatable direction finding, but you do have to be careful.
Returning home from my sister in Naperville, my wife, and father in law were confidently motoring back to Chicago’s O’Hare airport. The trip should have taken about 45 to 50 minutes, it was quite early so we weren’t expecting much traffic or delays of any sort. After 30 minutes or so we realized that despite heading to Chicago from a lesser built-up area, there was no visible signs of the metropolis, in fact not even the hint of a tall building. Surely we should be able to see the Sears Tower (as it then was). Something wasn’t quite right, but hey we were using all the tools at our disposal, a rented GPS, so nothing could go wrong, go wrong. Unfortunately the GIGO principle was at work. Garbage in, garbage out. My wife definitely keyed in O’Hare but failed to check the correct option, easy mistake I mean how many O’Hares are there for goodness sake. This is not good. By now we were sweating, as we did budget time for that never yet happendeed puncture, but traveling an estimated 15 minutes out of our way was not good for the heart. Careful not to alert Pops in the back she reprogrammed the GPS and fortunately within 10 minutes we were back in view of the airport perimeter fencing. Phew, close one.
My wife and I compare ourselves to BMW’s built-in positioning system, iDrive. She calls the directions and I drive. It’s much cheaper.
Once again I digress. What I am about to describe is real, incredibly so.
Turns out that air traffic controllers can track planes when in the air or on the runways. Who knew? They get paid for that? But, dear friends, once lost among the terminals, gates, and all the other tarmac clutter such as de-icing pad, baggage carts and jet-fuel tankers, you get the picture, this apparently is more of a problem. So what to do?
Well, help is at hand. The largest airports and airlines are rolling out a new ground surveillance technology called Airobahn. Not invented here obviously. The system allows airline ramp managers and airport managers an electronic, real-time view of all planes on the ground. Am I the only one that wonders why the aircraft transponders can’t be used to identify their position on the ground, because if they aren’t accurate enough on the ground why are they used in the air? Just a thought.
Appears that one of the problems is responsibility. Planes in the air or on active runways and taxiways are the responsibility of the FAA air-traffic controllers. Otherwise, on other non-active runways, they are not. We are now entering the Twilight Zone. Yes, the ramp controllers and other airport personnel, equipped with the latest technology, have a foolproof way of identifying where you are. That’s right, you guessed, they peer out the window with binoculars, call the FAA or even radio the pilots to find out where they are.
So next time you’re taxiing endlessly, it’s not just because it’s a huge airport (Atlanta, Dallas and JFK), it’s because the pilot has lost his way and you are now driving around the block looking for a space to park. And since most of the pilots are male, don’t expect him to turn the radio down and ask for directions.
This reminds of the old airline joke.
The German air controllers at Frankfurt Airport are renowned as a short-tempered lot, expecting pilots to know the location of the parking gate, and how to get there with limited assistance. The following exchange was apparently overheard between the Frankfurt ground control and a British Airways 747, call sign Speedbird 206.
Speedbird 206: "Frankfurt, Speedbird 206 clear of active runway."
Ground: "Speedbird 206. Taxi to gate Alpha One-Seven."
The BA 747 pulled onto the main taxiway and slowed to a stop.
Ground: "Speedbird, do you not know where you are going?"
Speedbird 206: "Stand by, Ground, I'm looking up our gate location now."
Ground (impatiently): "Speedbird 206, have you not been to Frankfurt before?"
Speedbird 206(coolly): "Yes, twice in 1944, but it was dark, and I didn't land."
So, come fly with me….not bloody likely. Makes you wonder how we ever got to the moon doesn’t it, all of 41 years ago.
Well actually…….oh alright, some other time then.