Keeping the lights on6 September 2013
Airport lighting plays a vital and unheralded role in the safe and efficient operation of airports of all sizes. Failure of lighting systems can lead to significant safety issues, and effective maintenance is therefore vital to ensure high availability and low downtime. James Bridges reports on why training of maintenance personnel should be a high priority.
From the smallest commercial airport to the largest international hub, there is a strong emphasis on safety throughout the aviation industry. Ensuring the optimal operation of every system that contributes to safe and efficient management of aircraft is top of the list of priorities, and one of the most crucial assets in this matrix of systems is airfield lighting.
Years of investment in lighting technology and design means that, to a large extent, airfield lighting systems continue to achieve high levels of performance and reliability, while being sufficiently robust to reduce maintenance requirements. Cutting-edge systems require fewer spare parts and less maintenance, but they must still be inspected regularly by knowledgeable, trained personnel if they are to achieve optimum levels of sustained operation.
In fact, one potential problem associated with better-designed and more robust lighting systems is the possibility that their reliable operation might be taken for granted. If this crucial asset is overlooked, then the safety of passengers and personnel could be compromised. Sudden loss of a lighting system, which dramatically reduces the operational capability of an airfield, can often be the result of a relatively minor fault. Repairs made at short notice can be very expensive compared with regular preventative maintenance.
A planned schedule of regular checks is in place at every commercial airport, in many cases on a weekly basis, and it is essential to ensure that these checks are thorough and comprehensive. Visual damage inspection is the bare minimum, while checking of alignment, primary and secondary circuit integrity and the state of the fittings should be a matter of course; so, too, should analysis of all parts of the power infrastructure.
In March of 2012, a runway blackout at Abuja Airport in Nigeria, which happened at a time of heavy traffic with many aircraft incoming and preparing to depart, was traced back to faulty generators that had suffered damage due to poor maintenance. The emergency installation of lighting systems that were rapidly flown in from another airport proved costly, as did the disruption to flights caused by the initial failure.
No matter how modern the lighting system in an airport, or how well designed it is, regular maintenance is a must if the operational dependency of an airfield is to be guaranteed. Routine scheduled downtime is preferable to unscheduled downtime that occurs suddenly - possibly at peak times. Furthermore, thorough scheduled maintenance can help to avoid the proliferation of temporary repairs that patch up or bypass faulty systems, but ultimately store up bigger problems in the long term.
The accent on training
Lighting plays a crucial role in day-to-day air traffic operations. The reliable performance of airfield lighting systems enables an airport to continue operating at all times and in all conditions, particularly at night or in poor visibility, as it provides pilots with crucial information about the alignment and orientation of their aircraft during the approach, landing and take-off phases, as well as on the ground. It is also an essential operational component for other vehicles moving around an airport.
The maintenance regime designed to keep the lights on may appear simple at first, but it encompasses several processes, each of which is essential and must be performed to the highest standards. Routine maintenance includes inspection, cleaning, adjustment, lubrication and corrosion treatment. This applies to every component, the connection of which must also be thoroughly checked. The insulation of conductors must be inspected for burns, scrapes, breaks, cracks and signs of overheating. Constant current regulators (CCR) must be inspected visually, fuses and switches must be checked, and relays must be tested to ensure freedom of movement.
Should any of these checks reveal damage or fault then the maintenance engineer must have the necessary skills to make good the system without recourse to temporary stopgap measures that address only immediate operational needs. Fortunately, there are creditable institutions that provide the training to equip engineers with the right skills.
The American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) is one of the leading providers of training in the field of airport lighting maintenance and was the first to introduce a comprehensive professional certification programme in the US. The structure of its Airport Certified Employee (ACE) - Airfield Lighting Maintenance qualification is based on the recommendations of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), as well as military and international aviation bodies, and it is designed to cover both the detail of electrical theory and proven maintenance techniques, as well as providing a thorough grounding in the responsibilities of maintenance staff.
Course attendees can now earn college credits that go towards an associates or bachelor's degree through a prior learning assessment (PLA), thanks to a tie-up between the AAAE and the University of Phoenix. The emphasis, therefore, is on providing a high standard of professional training aimed at raising standards within the industry and furthering the educational and career opportunities of airport staff.
Keeping pace with change
One of the main priorities for any kind of maintenance training is keeping the course content up-to-date. This means ensuring that the knowledge and expertise made available to course attendees remains current as new technologies develop. While there has been little in the way of change in airfield lighting technologies over the years, there are nuances with which maintenance engineers must be familiar.
In airfield lighting, one of the most notable changes has been the move towards LED systems, which are proven to be a reliable and effective technology for airports operating at night or at times of low visibility. While the major impact of LED technology is to lower maintenance requirements and cut utility costs, these systems still need to be kept in optimum condition;
they are low-maintenance, not 'no-maintenance' systems.
LED lighting offers better reliability and efficiency compared with traditional lighting technologies, but it still gives rise to challenges in terms of operation and maintenance. There is the possibility of obstruction by snow or ice, for example, and guidance for airports on the operation and maintenance of LED lighting is still in development. What is certain is that LED systems require a unique maintenance training programme.
The LED revolution is well underway, and the number of airports using the technology is steadily climbing. The skills of the engineers who maintain these systems must be kept current to meet the standards laid down by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) for airfield lighting and by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), which play a key role in setting international standards for lighting systems.
Technological developments, improved specialised training and responsive industry-wide certification are vital to the standardisation of maintenance practices across all airfields, regardless of location, in order to ensure high standards of airfield lighting worldwide.