As the world continues to adapt and cope with the pandemic, with vaccines now on the horizon, all eyes are on the skies and international travel. Some countries are opting for a ‘traffic light’ system to determine which countries international travel will be open to and how long passengers may have to quarantine on arrival. Our route back to international flight will be slow and gradual, but one thing is for sure – communication and the exchange of data on the ground is going to be crucial. Airports call this ‘ground handling’.

Effective ground handling at airports is essential for airlines, allowing them to operate efficiently and profitably. Just a five-minute delay in turning an aircraft around can result in a cost to a large airline of up to $35 million in a single year. And it is a complex business. IATA estimates that there are over 200 separate operations involved in turning an aircraft around. Poor communication between ground handling staff can lead to collision damage, maintenance errors and, consequently, hefty delays. With airlines now under the spotlight and tough COVID-19 safety guidelines in place, these processes are only likely to get more complex.

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To cut time on the ground to a minimum, airlines, ground handlers and airport managers are using a range of technologies from PMR radio to push to talk over cellular (PoC). There has been a clear shift from point solutions working in isolation to a unified approach using integration technologies so that staff on PMR portables can talk to staff in ground handling or airport management over a common platform, regardless of device. Indeed, the shift to wireless has also enabled developments like asset tracking and AVL all in a bid to speed the safe turnaround of aircraft.

One area that has been neglected in this regard is wireless workgroup communication, particularly in a post-pandemic setting. PMR and PoC can only go so far in this application. First, they are not hands-free technologies, so the risk of cross-contamination and the need to periodically sanitise remains. Second, they cannot be integrated into new or existing PPE such as visors or helmets, making them yet another piece of bulky equipment that needs to be carried on shift. Last but not least is their geographic limitation when it comes to roaming wireless coverage, with PMR in particular often dependent on a stationary base station for operation. This is no good for fast-moving, roaming teams who need to stay connected with one another in large busy areas like warehouses, hospitals or – you guessed it – airports. One lesser but still poignant limitation of these technologies is their reliance on PTT (push-to-talk). PTT does not offer natural two-way communication, instead requiring users to push a button to speak and transmit a signal. This can make it more of a burden than an asset during a busy hands-on shift.

What is needed is an autonomous hands-free solution that is integrated into protective headgear, but that does not rely on cellular or PMR radio coverage. A way to enhance communication for professional teams. The answer? Mesh-based wireless networking.

Mesh-based intercom systems are quickly becoming the technology of choice for busy, roaming teams who need to exchange complex information quickly, reliably, and securely. Ideal for airport ground handling teams. One of the greatest advantages of wireless mesh communication is that it operates as a self-sufficient standalone network, with no need for a ‘base station’ and zero dependence on cellular reception. It can be voice-activated, making it perfect for COVID-secure work environments where contact should be kept to a minimum, and enables two-way conversation at a range of up to 3 kilometers.

Ground handling operatives perform a number of complex and hazardous tasks from baggage handling to refuelling and de-icing. Communication channels and fumbling with PTT kits is the last thing they need to be concerned about, so a non-intrusive wireless mesh intercom that is part of their protective equipment could be a valuable advantage in getting planes turned around faster without compromising on safety.

Efficiencies in the sky start on the ground. Our route back to international travel be a cautious one, and airports and grounding teams are going to need to leverage every piece of available technology to their advantage. Wireless communication is exactly what is needed for that.