Positioning itself as a global air travel hub in Australasia, New Zealand’s Auckland International has committed around $2bn to expand its infrastructure between 2018 and 2022. The airport is looking ahead, with more than 19 million passengers passing through its doors last year, and the expectation that this could increase to over 40 million by 2044.
However, this growth has led to major traffic problems, with an influx of holidaymakers often causing snarl-ups on roads to the airport. In December 2016, New Zealand media sources reported that gridlock had caused several flights to be delayed by up to 50 minutes due to missing staff, while late-arriving passengers were left stranded at the check-in desks.
Alongside the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) and engineering consultancy Beca, the airport recently completed a new road traffic measurement project to guide long-term and short-term decision-making. Based on the deployment of sensors across the airport’s road infrastructure, the project is said to be a world first for the sector; Auckland is now able to visualise passenger movement not just on its home turf, but along the rest of the journey too.
Visualisation of the passenger journey
Crucial to the traffic measurement project was BlipTrack, a digital platform that analyses data from external technologies, such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth sensors. The solution provides airports with real-time data passenger data, from time spent in popular dwell zones, to walking routes and entrance/exit usage.
BlipTrack already provides this service at more than 25 international airports – including Auckland – allowing them to distribute resources more efficiently, provide better information to retailers, and observe how various disruptions change passenger behaviour.
“The data has provided valuable insight into our operational performance across both our assets and processes,” said Mark Croudace, operations manager at Auckland International Airport, in a press statement. “Most importantly, it has enabled us to have meaningful conversations with our key operational stakeholders and vendors, as we collectively seek to improve the passenger experience.”
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While Auckland already featured numerous monitoring technologies, such as CCTV and in-road vehicle count systems, it lacked an end-to-end view of the road system outside the airport. Therefore, the goal of the project was to expand Beca’s existing remote digital recognition (RDR) traffic monitoring system, already in use on a nearby motorway, to cover Auckland International’s road infrastructure. This would allow the airport to seamlessly monitor the flow of traffic from the airport all the way back to Auckland’s city centre.
“In the case of Auckland there were specific operational and strategic advantages in using the BlipTrack technology,” says Richard Young, senior associate – civil engineering at Beca. “It neatly bridged between BlipTrack sensors on the neighbouring state highways and the passenger tracking system inside the terminals.”
Using Bluetooth to track vehicles
Through a network of BlipTrack sensors deployed on streetlamps, Beca’s RDR system tracks vehicles that feature Bluetooth hands-free kits. As a car passes by, a sensor picks up its unique Bluetooth ID, which is then matched with other sensors on the same network.
“Due to vehicle speeds and the protocols associated with Bluetooth, we were able to detect and then re-detect close to 100% of all Bluetooth-enabled vehicles (around 20% of the overall fleet),” says Young. “This high sample rate is almost unique to the BlipTrack sensors.”
The system is augmented further by Doppler radars, which bounce signals off vehicles and analyse how motion has affected those same signals on their return. This method was used to count and classify vehicles going into and departing from airport thresholds and terminals.
Young says that while advanced Doppler radar is common on the airside of airports, their deployment on roads is “innovative”. While similar radar applications are usually set up to fire across the road, in the Auckland case they were deployed at several locations alongside it, allowing the system to track six lanes of vehicles at once. This reduced the issue of ‘shadowing’, the issue of one vehicle hiding behind another as they pass a side-firing radar.
Overall, the system was a more viable option than other measurement methods, according to Young. GPS-based services do not provide real-time data, while ‘crowdsourced’ traffic services do not track vehicles directly, meaning there is no way to confirm how many are included in the sample examined.
“Some of these services we even called ‘Best Guess’ – not really suitable for relying on for a complex airport environment,” says Young.
With the expansion of BlipTrack, both the airport and NZTA are able to measure traffic to and from Auckland’s central business district (CBD) in real time. This not only enables the implementation of new initiatives to reduce congestion, but also pinpoints areas that are being affected by construction projects or road incidents.
Data from the RDR and Doppler radars is fed into Beca’s Active Balancing program, which identifies when gridlock is likely to occur. Traffic controllers can then use this information to adjust the length of time a red signal shows on routes into and out of the airport.
Meanwhile, road users are able to access live travel times between the city centre and airport via NZTA’s Ridemate app, which uses historic data to highlight days with a higher risk of congestion. Passengers and staff can plan their journeys ahead of time; a major boon during the holiday rush at Easter or Christmas.
The traffic monitoring data could also inform future road network maintenance and infrastructure projects, which can demonstrably ease congestion. For example, the newly opened Waterview Tunnel has reportedly dropped the average travel time between the CBD and the airport by 20 minutes. Since Active Balancing was implemented, peak delays for airport-bound traffic have been within 30 minutes, meeting an overall maximum target set by Auckland.
According to Young, the project shows that in order to be efficient, airports need to understand and optimise road movements in the same way they might analyse dwell times in duty-free. For example, Auckland International will now be able to identify the mix of staff and passengers using its Park and Ride facility, enabling it to improve operations accordingly.
“Airports are processes by which people and freight move in and out of that system,” he says. “The ability of airports to measure and track movements from threshold to gate will undoubtedly provide significant opportunities to enhance that journey, whilst providing airports with the same quality of intelligence outside the terminal that they currently have both inside the terminal and airside.”
The traffic measurement project has demonstrated the power of technology to extract helpful trends for airports, and could be increasingly seen elsewhere in the future. BlipTrack marketing manager Christian Carsten argues that documenting movement patterns allows airports to see a passenger’s journey as one process, rather than a “string of isolated events” and optimise the positioning of signage, retail outlets or when planning new constructions.
“With predictive insights on passenger movements paired with flight/carrier/route and concessionaire sales data, airports can get a complete picture of guest behaviour,” says Carsten. “It enables them to make informed retail and capital planning decisions, understand how disruptions affect behaviour to improve contingency planning, and attract airline partners and optimise gate selection by aligning passenger profiles with carriers.”