Manoeuvres on MARS

A Boeing 777 is being serviced at a MARS gate

A Boeing 777 is being serviced at a MARS gate. With alternate lead-in lines on either side of the plane, two smaller planes could occupy this space on the tarmac when the larger aircraft leaves. (Photo: Sam Chui)

Chris Johns from Transoft Solutions explains how the company’s MARS product enables airports to make gates more efficient.

When most people hear the word ‘Mars’ they might think of the big red planet several million miles off in the night sky.  However, to an airport planner, the word MARS is an acronym for maximising parking space on the tarmac.  The Multiple Apron Ramp System (MARS) allows airport planners to make their gates – and, therefore, their aircraft turnarounds – more flexible and efficient.  As more airlines acquire the new generation of larger aircraft to keep up with passenger demand, airports have to build gates to accommodate them.

The daily routine is the same at every major airport in the world: an aircraft lands, taxis to an assigned gate, passengers get off, baggage is removed, the aircraft is refuelled and more passengers get on and the aircraft takes to the skies again.  Passengers are probably just happy to get to their destination, but dozens of critical decisions have taken place prior to the airliner landing and they affect every aspect of the aircraft’s safety.  They are decisions that one person cannot make alone.  Airport planners need intelligent software like AeroTURN Pro to juggle all the variables needed to taxi and dock an aircraft safely.

Imagine an airside planner at John F Kennedy International Airport in New York has just seen an Airbus A380 push back from the gate, heading towards the taxiway and he has two smaller planes on final approach.  He knows a large footprint has been left by the A380, but will the two smaller aircraft fit into that space the larger one occupied?

In our example, the two inbound airliners are ICAO Code C/FAA 3 aircraft like the A321 with Sharklets.  If the gate is MARS-capable, the planner already has lead-in lines painted on the tarmac, which show each pilot the line they should follow.  If the pilots hit their marks, the software gives the planners validation that the planes have the necessary clearance to support safe pushback operations and avoid any wingtip conflict.
Routine Scenario
A common scenario that perhaps many can relate to is waiting on an aircraft on the taxiway and hearing the pilot announce: “We’ve just been told that our gate is tied up with another aircraft and they’ll get back to us in a few minutes with a new gate.  Thanks for your patience.”  In this case, planners from the airline are looking for another gate that can accommodate the aircraft from a servicing and passenger bridge perspective.  AeroTURN can put this kind of information at the planners’ fingertips.  Every minute the airliner’s engines are running costs hundreds of dollars in jet fuel, so getting a new gate ready to handle the aircraft is paramount.

Airport planners need intelligent software to juggle all the variables needed to taxi and dock an aircraft safely. (Transoft)


An important part of the decision-making process is visualisation and not leaving any variable to chance.  Jim Cota is a senior airport planner with the consultancy company Stantec and his airline clients are using MARS gates wherever they exist.

“My clients might ask me to look at an existing gate where two code-C narrowbody aircraft might dock,” says Mr Cota.  “With AeroTURN Pro, I can bring the boarding bridges in and see where they go.  I can see where a third lead-in line might go and it helps me account for wingtip clearances and other conflicts.  For example, we need to know the footprint of the aircraft when it’s stationary and whether it can be pushed back safely.  I would then use the software to set up a docking simulation to see if the bridge will go to both doors of the aircraft.”

JFK International Airport in New York City has every conceivable type of aircraft landing and taking off so the planners have to continually juggle gates and gate assignments.  “AeroTURN really helps me with lead-in lines,” says Frederick Fernandez, an aviation planner with the Port Authority for New York and New Jersey.  “We need to know exactly where to park aircraft by locating lead-in lines within the aircraft envelope.  I love AeroTURN Pro for that,” he said.  While Mr Fernandez and his colleagues don’t call them MARS gates per se, precise lead-in lines means passenger boarding bridges go to precise locations, continually freeing up tarmac space.

In addition, the JFK planners are constantly getting requests from the airlines and the FAA to adjust turning radii for bigger aircraft.  As Mr Fernandez explains: “This software is really important on taxiway relocation or rehabilitation projects.  With taxiways at JFK and neighbouring La Guardia, the FAA often changes their regulations.  They might come to us and say: ‘Group 5 aircraft are having a tough time making this turn.  Please change the taxiway to make it easier for them.’  When we relocate the taxiway to come up with the extra footage, AeroTURN Pro is very handy then.”
Towards 2015
With airports across the world expanding to accommodate more travellers and bigger aircraft, planners are factoring MARS gates into their tarmac layouts.  Calgary International Airport is currently building a new runway, scheduled for completion in 2014, to accommodate the A380 aircraft.  As the saying goes; ‘Build it and they will come’.  With the capacity to land larger aircraft, there will be a need for increased gate capacity when Calgary’s new terminal opens in mid-2015.

“When we complete our expansion, we are planning to have MARS gates as part of our system, but we’re not quite there yet,” says Jeffrey Tuazon, a computer aided design development (CADD) technologist at Calgary International Airport.  “We currently have two
lead-in lines to some gates, with one typically for a widebody aircraft and the other for a narrowbody aircraft.”

The airport planners in Calgary are streamlining their operations to make their gates more efficient ahead of the new terminal.  “One of our current projects is to minimise the number of stop bars,” addS Mr Tuazon.  “Currently painted on the tarmac is the aircraft type, like an MD-11, A330 or 747.  AeroTURN Pro helped me with minimising those stop bars.  I can grab multiple aircraft and set one stop bar for all the Code C aircraft.  The software automatically tells you where you can place the aircraft.  When we go to the MARS gate system, this kind of visualisation will be really important.”

Another major airport using MARS gates is Pearson International Airport in Toronto. There are currently nine MARS gates at Terminal 3, and 14 at Terminal 1.  Knowing the type of aircraft that will fit at a particular gate is central to the work of airside procedure specialist Lars Olsson at Canada’s busiest airport, Toronto.

“We use AeroTURN for gate allocations, determining new aircraft types or changes to existing gates, to determine what aircraft would fit where,” says Mr Olsson, who works for the Greater Toronto Airport Authority.

Mr Olsson was one of the key personnel on an airside project at Pearson International Airport to determine how the new Boeing 787 would dock safely at gates in Terminal 3.  “For the past three months, I’ve been using AeroTURN every day.  I use it to help me determine jet blast, turning radius and pushback procedures.  Can the aircraft handle a specific turn going backwards from a gate?  Is it possible to drive from one entry/exit on the apron on to a gate, based on the actual turning radius of the aircraft?  I evaluated every gate at Terminal 3 for compatibility with the Boeing 787.  For this type of intensive project, AeroTURN is a very good tool.”

Many large hub airports are going to need the ability to plan additional lead-in lines in the coming years to maximise tarmac space.  Mr Olsson is starting to plan for additional MARS gates.  He explains: “We have gate B15 where we wanted to park the 787.  The gate has one bridge but two lead-in lines, B15 and B15A.  AeroTURN was used to determine the bridging capabilities on B15A and any restrictions on adjacent gates.

“We needed to know if you parked the aircraft at Gate 15A, how it would affect the gate on the left?  It would also be helpful to determine if a third lead-in line might be beneficial on a slightly different angle.”

Bigger aircraft like the A380 are game-changers for airport planners.  They are asking how the new aviation giants can be accommodated at existing airport gates around the world while maximising the space left around them on the tarmac.  MARS gates are one way to answer those questions with a software tool to make the job easier.