It is described as the UK’s Capital of the North – a centre of commerce, the arts, media and higher education. In 2002 it hosted the Commonwealth Games and in 2007 it was regarded as the best location for business in England.

Two years on, Manchester has another accolade to boast – Airport of the Year for 2008, an award granted at the British Travel Awards that followed runner-up spots for ‘Best UK Airport for Business Travel’ and ‘Best Airport for Leisure’.

The awards have a strong focus on service, and for the voters – passengers and travel experts alike – facilities also rank highly. But 2008 was in no way an easy year for airport operators in the UK. Heathrow’s Terminal 5 got off to a shaky start thanks to baggage problems of a logistical nature, airports were slammed due to long flight delays and security (another aspect at the top of passenger’s list of concerns in the British Travel Awards) also received criticism. So how has Manchester defied the odds to come out trumps in such awards?

Manchester Airport successes

For the Manchester Airport Group’s planning team a strong case could easily be put forward for future planning and proofing. And one technology in particular is helping its staff achieve strong results in this area. Using GIS (geographic information system) software, the airport has been able to predict how future increases in traffic, development and other external factors will weigh on airport resources. GIS software works by pulling together information from third-party providers and the airport itself, and displaying this in map or other format.

By 2015, Manchester Airport is expected to generate £6.3bn a year and support 260,000 jobs. This is a massive increase from the 19,300 people it employs today and the £3.2bn it injects into the UK economy each year. By 2030 it is expected 50 million passengers will pass through its gates annually, up from 17 million in 2008.

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Manchester Airport Group’s planning team spokesperson Vickie Withnell says it is these figures that are driving the direction of the airport’s infrastructure and service planning and GIS is what is allowing them to meet projected targets. GIS is doing more than just the preparatory work, it is also helping Manchester Airport improve on staff efficiency, conduct community reports and start early work on areas pertaining to social responsibility and upcoming changes such as new regulation including carbon trading and climate change.

“The primary role of Manchester’s GIS software to enhance passenger throughput and aircraft management.”

“Our main priority at the airport is to look at our future development in terms of this anticipated growth. So it is the primary role of our GIS software to enhance passenger throughput and aircraft management for 50 million passengers a year using the same operational area we have at present,” Withnell says. “[It also] helps us meet our stated aims of being a responsible neighbour, investing in our community and spending money on the things that really matter.”

Manchester Airport’s GIS system has been in use since 2001. So the fact that it is in place is nothing new and most airports will use a similar system to map out their environment. But the matured approach that Manchester Airport Group has taken to all that GIS has to offer is what is really bringing in the benefits.

The airport uses GIS to keep tabs on almost everything taking place in and around its 625ha site. It can help keep track and make predictions on the effects of more than 80,000 vehicles entering it each day, 310 companies operating within its grounds, 22,000 car-parking spaces and 24-hour rail services as well as the 57db noise contour and land set aside for environmental management. It has also helped it meet key government requirements for future-proofing for growth. The airport group itself is actually made up of a conglomeration of local councils which means community accountability is always high on its list of priorities.

Evolving with GIS

Manchester Airport first invested in GIS in 1996 when it rolled out a product called ArcView 3.2 by GIS provider ESRI. Using maps and globes, geographic data sets, processing and work flow models as well as data models and metadata that all linked into the airport’s systems, it was able to analyse its own operational impact and the impact on the surrounding area.

“We have been able to use GIS software to track demographics of our staff and passengers so that we know where to put car parks and we work with the Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive to plan suitable public transport services,” Withnell says.

“Manchester uses GIS to keep tabs on almost everything taking place in and around its 625ha site.”

In 2002, an upgrade to ArcGIS 8.3 was installed, allowing extra capabilities such as intranet mapping and spatial database engineering. Not only was the GIS mapping and analysing process faster and more efficient for the airport’s staff, it allowed the airport to look at its operations on a national scale.

Manchester Airport staff could use this data to depict how it was being used by its freight and passenger customers in relation to activities in other parts of the country to determine new ways to do business in the ever-competitive market.

Now the airport runs ArcGIS 9.2 which renders CAD files into GIS and saves files directly to Excel. This has allowed the airport to start making valuable cost savings on the technology by reducing the amount of time it takes staff to create reports. It is even being used in-house with staff timesheets and budgets. The next step, according to Withnell, is to move from an off-the-shelf solution to a more customised option that will allow it to investigate new areas such as carbon footprint tracking.

“We will be able to look at how many computers we have in an office, for example, and what the impact of switching those off could be,” Withnell says.

Analysis and mapping

Like any data service, GIS extrapolates key information that is of benefit to a business for analysis and mapping. In Manchester Airport’s case it allows it to pull base maps from the local council which show the land layout. Other data can be placed on top of this, such as traffic numbers entering the car park gates, to get an overall picture of everything from maintenance requirements to congestion and trouble spots. For Manchester Airport it is also used to identify areas that are for sale or lease and how many people will pass each shopkeeper’s floor – offering valued information for retail outlets.

“Manchester Airport first invested in GIS in 1996 when it rolled out a product called ArcView 3.2.”

Manchester is also using GIS to show how its noise contours, which are overlaid on ordinance survey base maps, affect residents so it can determine better ways to reduce its impact on the surrounding community. As the airport is signed up to the Sound Insulation Grant Scheme (which provides financial assistance to the installation of sound-proof glazing in areas most affected by aircraft noise) and Vortex Repair Scheme (which pays for repairs to houses where air disturbances cause slippage or damage to tiles), the consideration is not just polite etiquette – it is also a cost.

The overall capabilities of GIS are massive. But eight years on, the Manchester Airport staff are starting to mature with the technology to find new ways outside of the square to think about using GIS capabilities. Traditionally GIS has been used for city planning – perfect for an airport like Manchester that, if predictions are anything to go by, could become its own mini city in years to come.