Can IT Make Airports Greener -- and More Efficient?

Can IT Make Airports Greener -- and More Efficient?

Face it: Airports are a mess. If you're traveling in or out of a large airport, then you face hassles from checking in to getting through security to finding your gate (and heaven help you if you have a short window to make a transfer cross-terminals...). Small airports are no better, and sometimes more frustrating for the big-time inefficiency that comes in small packages.

But a new research project out of the University of Nottingham hopes to bring the power of computing to bear on how smoothly airports operate, with the goals of cutting waste and pollution while reducing delays and speeding the baggage (man)handling process.

Good luck, you say; but the group has gotten nearly £690,000 (US$ 1.1 million) from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to conduct its research in airports in Manchester, U.K., and Zurich, Switzerland.

The goal is to apply computerized scheduling to streamline four areas of operations:

• Airplane takeoff schedules
• ditto for landing schedules
• Gate assignment
• Baggage handling

The hoped-for result is a search engine that is capable of analyzing the billions of possible scheduling combinations and provide the most efficient options to air traffic controllers, who can then route planes in the best way.

Professor Edmund Burke, principal investigator on the project and dean of the Faculty of Science at The University of Nottingham, said in a statement that "Many people in the industry recognise that automating just one of these aspects could improve the efficient running of airport operations, so integrating all four would be a huge step forward."
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Airlines, of course, have been in the spotlight for potential emissions; last month the global aviation industry announced plans to cut its emissions in half by 2050, and this could be a highly useful tool to achieve that goal.

Researchers have found that for every 1 percent increase in air travel, delays are increased by 5 percent. As any traveler can attest, that often means sitting in on the tarmac in a fully loaded and fully operational plane, for hours and hours on end. Cutting out delays and idling time could make major cuts in the amount of fuel wasted during those delays, reducing the emissions from burning that fuel, and saving costs to boot (and perhaps it's not too much to hope for that it will also cutting costs for plane tickets).

The IT industry -- itself often linked with aviation, as they're both responsible for equal amounts of the world's overall greenhouse gas emissions -- has been applying itself to greening not just its own operations, but also in smoothing out inefficiencies across all types of business operations. Just yesterday, for one example, IBM announced an expansion of its already broad green IT offerings, this time into the realm of supply chain efficiency and management.

With the power of the world's machines working to cut waste in airports, maybe flying won't have to be such a headache for much longer: The four-year project begins in December, and will wrap up at the end of November 2013.

Airplane photos CC-licensed by Flickr users lrargerich and egmb757lover.