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Airports go spatial

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When the Airports Company of South Africa implemented a geographical information system, it realised that the technology’s benefits go beyond that of just managing infrastructure.

When the Airports Company of South Africa decided to use geographical information systems (GIS) to track and manage its infrastructure, it started a journey that has seen spatial awareness improve nearly every part of the business, from infrastructure development through maintenance and engineering to commercial endeavours.

‚An airport is like a municipality in miniature: it contains nearly every discipline and activity,‚ says Airports Company SA’s national Head of Technical Services Marzaan Henry. ‚We own and manage massive infrastructure. When we first looked at GIS we simply wanted to stop duplicating information and get everything into one central repository so we could manage it effectively.‚

‚But I’ve since realised that GIS is a powerful business intelligence tool that can provide benefits to the entire business,‚ adds Henry. ‚It’s starting to provide answers that managers can use when making decisions about maintenance or new development.‚

‚It makes life much easier for the executive who has to make decisions about airport development,‚ says Henry. ‚We can produce a picture that shows which pieces of land belong to whom and how they are related to the surrounding environment. We can query size, zoning and land use, among other things.‚

Communication within the technical team has also improved, says Henry. ‚Our senior civil engineer at King Shaka International Airport is responsible for all the national and international airports around the country. Through the GIS he has all the information he needs about those airports at his fingertips and can answer questions quickly. With GIS things happen faster, and our senior team members can use their time much more efficiently.‚

The success of GIS at Airports Company SA is partly attributable to the approach and expertise of the Aspire Solutions team, says Henry. ‚They took the trouble to understand aviation and the specific demands the industry has for maintenance and infrastructure. You have to consider the three-dimensional airspace around the airport, for example, and then there are the regulations ‚ the International Civil Aviation Organisation has 20 manuals of regulation and advice on how airports should be run. Aspire took all that on board, and really understood our needs thoroughly.‚

Aspire Solutions is also helping Airports Company SA manage relationships with local stakeholders, for example communities concerned about noise. ‚Noise is one of the factors we consider when designing an airport and planning flight paths,‚ says Henry. ‚We constantly monitor noise levels through permanent devices that deliver daily data, as well as surveys by acoustic experts. We also maintain a register of complaints by members of the public. Visualising all that information on a map helps us to advise pilots about when they need to take noise abatement measures, and to decide whether we need to recommend changes to flight paths.‚

‚It’s amazing how often GIS can help with a business problem,‚ says Mike Steyn of Aspire Solutions. ‚That’s how the system has grown at Airports Company SA, as they have identified opportunities to solve business problems using spatial information.‚

‚There’s always a new challenge facing us,‚ confirms Henry. ‚It’s part of my role to provide tools the business can actually use to help achieve its objectives, and GIS is just such a tool.‚

Henry says he has been surprised that so few other airports around the world are using GIS as an enterprise-wide management tool. ‚Most people seem to be using GIS in a very narrow application, usually limited to one or two departments. We believe we can use it to provide information and solutions for every division in the company. The more information we put in there, the more we get out of it ‚ we become able to ask ever-deeper questions. GIS system should always be developed with the goal of delivering valuable information and services to as many functions within the enterprise as possible. You will be surprised how far it can go.‚

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