The engineering behind your summer holiday

Today is the busiest day for flying in UK airspace as people take their first opportunity to get away for the summer holidays. Air traffic controllers are expected to handle a record number in excess of 8,800 flights today alone and 770,000 over the summer, which is 40,000 more than last year.

In these busy periods for airports, clever engineering and innovative technology are crucial in managing the footfall of passengers through the terminal and onto the plane, and facilitating their onward journey. Technology advances particularly around automated processes, are significantly changing the airport experience. In an increasingly competitive market place, where passengers and airlines have a number of choices about which airport to use, being able to process a passenger quickly and efficiently can be a key factor in that decision. With this in mind, we’ve considered what skills it takes to design and run an airport and reflected on the technology which helps get passengers and their luggage from A to B in the most safe and efficient way.

Arriving at the airport

As passengers, our focus tends to be on where we’re staying the night before our flight or how we’re going to get to the airport on time. But engineering and construction professionals can appreciate the efforts that have gone into providing a robust local infrastructure that supports our journey to and within an airport, including power networks, waterways, transport links and buildings.

So how are airport buildings and local networks designed? And what kind of skills are involved?

Stuart Minchin, Director – Water & Buildings, tells us more:

“The kind of considerations construction companies have to think about are how many passengers the airport is hoping to accommodate and how they will safely and quickly get to the correct terminal, how much cargo the airport will process and where the runways can be located in conjunction with the terminal buildings.”

“The creation of a new £1 billion ‘super terminal’ at Manchester Airport is expected to create 1,500 jobs during the construction phase alone, which will see Terminal 2 double in size. This figure goes to show just how many people and skills are needed to create the necessary infrastructure our increasingly busy airports require.”

“A range of skills are therefore vital in the planning stages of an airport build or expansion, including highways engineers to support the local road networks, water engineers to ensure the airport has the right access/capacity to water supplies and wastewater facilities and construction engineers to build the terminal buildings.”

Checking in & baggage handling

Once you get to the airport, check in is likely to be your first port of call and methods behind this complex passenger management system are continually becoming more sophisticated. One of the most notable advancements made within recent years is the introduction of online check-in services and self-serve check in kiosks. Not only does this technology save passengers time but it also saves airlines money by cutting down on the amount of passengers that have to be manually checked-in by airline staff. Self serve systems are just one example of technology which has been utilised across multiple industries. Another is scanning and tracking technology which is crucial within the shipping industry, as well as in airports. 

The main form of baggage recognition currently used is barcoding but this does have its limitations, for example, if a barcode tag becomes wrinkled or damaged in some way. More recently though, some airlines, like Delta, have introduced Radio Frequency Identification (R.F.I.D), which works in a similar way but uses a chip embedded into a bag tag which can be more easily scanned.

Tim Carling, Director of Engineering Technology, describes the shift in baggage tracking technology and what this means for jobs:

“The IOT connectivity evolution is having a significant impact on both the baggage handling service offering as well as the skillset demands coming from the sector. Technology is helping to drive down the key traveller issues of baggage loss, delay and damage, through the emergence of RFID and robotic loading but it’s also providing customers with improved services such as baggage tracking via smartphone technology. Our automation recruitment team are experiencing increasing demand, not only for traditional PLC engineers who programme the handling systems, but also for higher level software developers with network security and cloud experience.”

Stuart Brown, Managing Director of automation company AAC highlights the changes and impact of automation in the airport environment:

“One of the greatest uses of automation technology is the baggage system. There may be multiple routes a bag can take through the system to allow for redundancy so by intelligently routing bags based on load in the system to make use of this typically underused redundancy, the capacity of the system is increased.”

Stuart describes more technology which aids efficiency:

“The increased processing speed of new automation solutions can be used to increase the speed the conveyor can be run at, enhancing baggage handling efficiencies. By using high speed optical character recognition bag tags can be read more reliably. Rather than bags being delivered to a pick up point and then manually sorted into containers we are seeing batch building, where bags are held in the system until there is a container load, they are then delivered as one batch to the makeup point. And even there the baggage handlers are being replaced by robots that can call up a container from the container store, it’s delivered by overhead transport and bags are then loaded into the container by robots.”

Getting through security

Airport security is one of the least popular aspects of travel, according to a passenger survey conducted by the International Air Transport Association (IATA). But of course, it is of paramount importance. Airports continually face the challenge of providing a security service which is both thorough but also as seamless and stress-free as possible for passengers.

Over the past ten years, full body scanners have become a staple part of airport security but their introduction hasn’t been without controversy. A few years ago a certain X-ray scanner was introduced, which produced full, in-depth body outlines of people, making them appear almost nude. With significant concerns raised about privacy, these scanners were promptly removed and replaced by millimetre-wave machines, which have been designed with smart detection and privacy in mind.

Whilst security scanning processes continue to be evaluated, workflow analysis is being undertaken to ease the passenger experience through security. A combination of cameras, sensors and data analysis can help with this. Tim Carling explains the skills behind this work:

“As with baggage handling, the skills required within security management are evolving. This evolution is defined by an increased need for electronics and software skillsets from the key suppliers delivering this technology to airports.”

Onboard the aircraft

For passengers, a good flight is defined by speed and comfort and in an increasingly competitive market airlines are under pressure to provide their customers with a comfortable and enjoyable experience. Multiple airlines will offer flights between two destinations on a similar frequency but the one which offers a better onboard experience is more likely become the airline of choice.

Senior Aerospace Consultant Lee Reid, shares his thoughts on the different experience offered by different aircraft and how airlines are competing to offer passengers the ultimate flying experience:

“Whilst the giant A380 could be seen as a more luxurious option, the Boeing 787 is a popular choice amongst airlines because it is lighter, cheaper to buy and costs less to operate from a fuel perspective. From a passenger comfort perspective, its carbon-fibre structure means that the cabin doesn’t have to be as highly pressurised and subsequently, the low pressure it creates increases humidity and reduces fatigue – two factors which contribute to a more comfortable flight.”

“Ultimately though, it is the interior of the plane which is the most important factor in creating an enjoyable flying experience and that is why airlines are largely investing in new aircraft interiors and retrofitting existing aircraft. The design and fit out of an aircraft relies on a variety of skill sets including Design Engineers, Manufacturing/Quality Engineers and Project/Program Managers, as well as Mechanical and Electrical Technicians. It is these people passengers can thank for their pleasant flight environment.”

Airport  experiences can be both exciting and stressful but passengers should feel assured that each aspect of their journey to the airport, in the terminal and their experience onboard has been designed and manufactured to be as safe, efficient and enjoyable as possible.

If you’re interested in any of the jobs mentioned in the above article, you may like to browse the available jobs on our website.

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