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Sensors to replace airport runway marshalers

Marketplace Staff Dec 14, 2010
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JEREMY HOBSON: You know those guys on the airport tarmac who direct planes with those bright orange wands? They’re called marshalers in the industry. Well, now American Airlines doesn’t need those wands any more. Instead, the company is using sensors on the terminal wall to glide the planes into place.

Chicago Public Radio’s Tony Arnold hit the runway for us.


Tony Arnold: American Airlines is the only major airline to use the devices extensively — so far. It’s rolling them out at some of the biggest airports across the country: Miami, Dallas, New York. And as recently as this summer, the device went live at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

John Burton: It’ll identify the aircraft type and it’ll wait until that aircraft type presents itself to this gate.

Pilot John Burton has been with American for 25 years.

Burton: What it does, it’ll give it guidance for centerline and then it will allow it to come in to a stop point. And you can see that stop point right there is that yellow ‘T’ right on the ground.

We’re standing on the ramp watching the plane nose in. Burton points out the black box hanging in front of us that looks pretty much like a digital clock. As we walk down the terminal, he brags about how the sensors inside help pilots see exactly where to line up their planes. And how they shave two minutes off each flight’s time on the runway — critical for an airport like O’Hare, notorious for delays.

Burton: It’s leading edge. It doesn’t get any more up-to-date than this.

Sean Doyle: I know that with technology, there’s always the chance of failure.

Sean Doyle heads the union in charge of American Airline marshalers at O’Hare. These workers are responsible for more than just helping to park planes. They also unload luggage and de-ice aircraft. Doyle says under the old system, three people guided one plane to the gate.

Doyle: With six set of hands on that and all the eyeballs on it, I think it’s safer with us doing the work, personally.

American has not cut any jobs since installing the devices and Burton, the pilot, says the airline won’t. But Doyle isn’t so sure. He says he doesn’t think his job is in danger, until airlines come up with a device that physically unloads bags from the plane.

In Chicago, I’m Tony Arnold for Marketplace.

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