NASA researchers have found that small, Internet-linked
computers in the hands of airport workers may help unclog the
nation’s air terminals.

The research finding is based on studies at San Francisco
International Airport and other air terminals. NASA
scientists at Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.,
collaborated with United Airlines on the two-year project.
Researchers also suggest that additional “curb-to-gate”
changes, including better signs in terminals, synchronized
clocks and improved check-in procedures, as well as
improvements in airline and airport operations, may help
reduce flight delays.

“The study recommends the development of a next generation of
airport information systems. These would include use of hand-
held computers to allow airline employees and others to
update schedules on the tarmac, on baggage carts and in gate
areas,” according to Roxana Wales, Ph.D., a member of the
Ames research team. “Delays can arise at any point in a
flight, including preparations before leaving the gate; and
difficulties at one point can lead to a slipped schedule at
any other point.

“We have to focus on the entire system. Much of the current
attention focuses on the movement of planes instead of the
whole process of getting people from point A to point B.”

Other experts across the country have advocated adding
runways to airports and are working to improve air traffic
control systems.

“Airline and airport operations need to be included in the
debate of how to streamline the nation’s air travel system,”
said Wales.

“United Airlines gave us access to all areas of their
operation. They badged us for access to non-public areas and
allowed us to interact and talk with employees at all levels.
This is extraordinary access for a group of researchers,” she

The team conducted extensive research in airline operation
centers, on baggage ramps where airplanes are loaded and
unloaded, in airline lobbies, at counters, at passenger gates
and in control towers.

Today’s airport information and communication systems are
designed for routine aircraft turnaround, according to the
NASA research team. Problem and delay situations “require a
‘richer’ information environment to facilitate decision-
making,” Wales said.

The good news is that there are near-term solutions in sight
that include simply integrating information systems across
groups in airports, according to the NASA researchers. They
also said that better communications and other improvements
should include not only airline employees, but all workers
involved in smoothly getting a passenger from the street to
his or her destination.

“A breakdown in the process, where the customer is unable to
understand and expediently move through one step to another,
at any point, can contribute to a delay,” said Zara Mirmalek,
research team member. The team conducted research at San
Francisco’s United domestic terminal and airports serving
Atlanta, Chicago and Oakland, Calif.