Background research - Airport turnaround study

Between March and December 2007 a study into the optimisation of aircraft turn-around was carried out by the University of Cambridge, with sponsorship from the International Air Transport Association - IATA and from telecommunications and systems provider SITA. The goal was to examine how innovative technologies and better information sharing between turn-around stakeholders could be used to enhance aircraft servicing processes, thus improving operational punctuality and helping to reduce the impact of unforeseen disturbances.


Background research on industry and business trends forecasts a 140% increase in annual UK passenger traffic in the 1st 30 years of this century, from 200 million in 2002 to 485 million by 2030. A significant portion of that traffic (275 million pax.) is expected to migrate to low cost airlines, which have experienced a sustained 9% annual growth in the volume of flights in recent years. This trend signals an increase in demand for the 30min turn-around, represents mostly business travellers that put a high value on their time, and aggravates the pressure for punctuality and efficiency on airport operations.

Furthermore, the introduction of larger aircraft to long haul flights (e.g. A380 and 747-8) is expected to cause increased ramp congestion, requiring effective management of ground support equipment and similar assets. Finally, Cargo operators are looking to leverage extensive international passenger networks and larger aircraft with mixed cargo / passenger capability. This trend is compounded with tighter restrictions on passenger baggage, creating room and opportunities for cargo, but adding complexity to logistic processes in the airport.

Case studies

The focus of these past 10 months was on short haul flights of less than 3 hours - requiring a typical turn-around of 30 minutes - and operated by 'no frills' (low cost) airlines.

Case studies were carried out within 3 airlines (including 1 maintenance department), 2 ground handling companies, 2 airports and 1 fuelling operator. Most of the studies were conducted within Europe, specially in the United Kingdom.

The team from Cambridge identified analogies between turn-around and industrial processes, and therefore employed several tools most commonly associated with manufacturing in their research work. Some of the most important ones were Single-Minute Exchange of Dies - SMED, Critical Path Analysis, Lean Manufacturing, and Impact Responsiveness.

The turn-around sequence of activities for short haul flights was modelled, then combined with field operational data on delays and their causes. As a result, researchers were able to identify areas with potential for significant contributions in the reduction of operational disruptions, or in the minimisation of their consequences.

Key findings

The main candidate areas for improvement were identified as:

Economic impact

By examining the nature of the processes involved against the applicability of automatic identification technologies, for instance, it is estimated that up to 27% of the time currently wasted on delays can be spared. In 2005 figures, this represents savings in excess of US$ 300 million at the 10 largest UK airports alone.

Next steps

Industry response to these results is leading the University of Cambridge to launch a new phase of the research. The scope would expand on the previous work and:

Getting involved

This project is led by the Distributed Information and Automation Laboratory (DIAL) at the University of Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing (IfM). Funding is provided by a consortium of sponsors. Those involved will have the opportunity to influence the direction of the research, take part in key technology trials and receive early access to its findings. We welcome contact from organisations interested in joining the consortium.

For further information please email:
Alan Thorne or Andy Shaw

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