The future-proof airport – how to create one?

Information and communications technology (ICT) is central to meeting the three key airport business imperatives of passenger satisfaction, operational excellence and financial success.

As the world’s airways become more crowded and the building of new sites more challenging, how can airports create a future-proof environment?

The latest Airport IT Trends Survey cites more investment in information and communications technology (ICT) as the world’s airports prepare for future growth and increasing demand. With airport infrastructure under massive pressure, that preparation is crucial.

By 2034, 7.3 billion people a year will be traveling through our airports, more than doubling today’s number. An additional 37,463 passenger aircraft will be in service, which is over twice the size of today’s fleet, say Airbus statistics.

Eurocontrol forecasts 50% more flights throughout Europe in 2035 than in 2012 – meaning that around 1.9m flights will not be accommodated based on existing infrastructure.

With the lead-time for new airport construction taking anything from five to 20 years, depending on location, future-proofing airports for ever busier times ahead is a huge dilemma. Clearly the airport sector will continue to encounter testing times juggling to make existing resources work harder and faster as demand grows relentlessly.

Three imperatives

Focusing on the dilemma, a new paper – one of a series of SITA papers under development – acknowledges the role of ICT as central to meeting the three key airport business imperatives of passenger satisfaction, operational excellence and financial success.

“More than ever, ICT is critical to creating the future-proof airport,” says Matthys Serfontein, Vice President of Airports at SITA, “just as it has helped transform airports over the past 70 years from simply providing space for airlines to land and take off, to being the massive commercial and social operation that we see today.”

Connected

Technology’s part in that transformation addressing the goals of improving passenger and baggage throughput, ensuring the rapid turnaround of aircraft and providing an enhanced customer experience. That may be anything from speeding up passenger check-in and boarding, to optimizing aircraft servicing and loading, or embracing the digitally ‘connected traveler’, and creating a personalized airside retail experience.

“SITA remains at the forefront of this airport transformation through ICT,” says Serfontein, “from the development of shared technology infrastructure such as common use terminal equipment (CUTE) in the 1980s to sophisticated applications and systems of today – including business intelligence, beacons, near field communication and wearable technology, such as Google Glass and smartwatches.”

Pace of change

Upping the pace of change is the ‘connected traveler’ element of the equation, as the latest Airport and Passenger IT Trends Surveys show. Who could have foreseen even a decade ago that almost every passenger (97%) would be carrying a smartphone, tablet or laptop when they fly, and that one in five travels with all three?

The challenge is that these travelers expect to be connected throughout the entire journey, which is vital to one of the airport’s top imperatives: passenger satisfaction. Airports must address the expectations of constant connectivity and service improvements – while also keeping pace with growth in demand.

Intelligent build

“For that to happen requires the increasing global adoption of the ‘intelligent airport’ model,” says Serfontein, “with a future-proof suite of intelligent technology across the airport.

“It means retrofitting modern airport technology into an existing terminal, or with new builds, realizing the significant cost-benefits of deploying a future-proof suite of integrated technology into a terminal while it’s being constructed.

“That creates the most value and will provide the greatest opportunity to deliver a truly ‘intelligent airport’ terminal,” adds Serfontein.

Self-service

One trend fundamental to passenger satisfaction is self-service, as it becomes almost universal – for example, 92% of airports expect to offer self-service kiosks for check-in by 2017, according to the latest Airport IT Trends Survey.

Whether it’s for an existing or greenfield infrastructure, self-service must be incorporated into the design of any future-proof airport because of its impact on passenger flow. That means a thorough understanding of flow will be as important as the technology to enable self-service.

It may be that for greenfield airports or terminals traditional check-in desks are not an important feature. On the other hand, one growth area is unassisted bag-drop, which is now expected to become mainstream by 2017 with 62% of airports providing this service.

Depending on the airport infrastructure the check-in counters will need to be retrofitted to enable the unassisted bag-drop process such as those in Brisbane, Melbourne, and Singapore Changi airports, implemented by SITA.

Upfront design

Connected travelers increasingly expect a digital infrastructure that allows them to use their mobile devices to find their way round the airport, make payments, store ID and tickets. This demands a retrofit for today’s airports, but for new airports and terminals it must be designed in from the outset. This requires not only physical design but also process and service design.

Another trend in airport terminal design where technology plays a role is in providing a ‘sense of place’ for passengers. Today’s modern airports are keen to deliver a passenger experience specific and quintessential to their locality.

“Whether it’s an interactive display or exhibit, or a customized promotion for a location-specific retail or food and beverage offer, airports are embracing and interacting with the digitally connected passenger like never before to reflect their sense of place,” states Serfontein.

“At the same time, airports don’t want to lose human contact, so staff need to be available to provide help and guidance. They need access to live information at any point in the airport, requiring integration with back-office systems and secure access to the digital infrastructure.”

Lose the silos

The second imperative, operational excellence,can only be achieved by finally getting rid of the silos that characterize many organizations, and fully embracing collaborative decision-making. This can only be done effectively with an agile, connected infrastructure platform that brings people and systems together. Shared infrastructure should follow, including counters, kiosks and boarding gates.

These can be implemented through real-time resource management systems, fully plugged into the airport-wide digital infrastructure, including indoor location technologies for staff and material assets.

If this is linked with an understanding of passenger flow, then resources can be directed to areas of immediate optimal impact, as well as to longer-term redesign of routes, retail layout and so forth, attracting passengers, airlines and concessionaires.

Business intelligence (BI) solutions for operations and future planning underpin operational excellence too, enabling airports to be flexible, proactive and efficient, dealing with new levels of connectivity and information demands. (See ‘Airports built to last’.)

Revenue not cost

The third airport imperative, financial success, relies on real-time integration of accurate data results in faster billing and faster payment. Again, this requires a digital infrastructure fit for purpose today and for growth tomorrow.

With the ‘airport-as-a-city’ analogy in mind, the shared infrastructure, focus on passenger satisfaction and operational excellence will deliver more opportunities for retail. Already airports are learning to analyze retail spend data using BI tools. The 2014 Airport IT Trends Survey records that 80% of airports will do so by 2017.

More than that, the infrastructure itself becomes a potential source of revenue, rather than a cost center. And passengers become a further source of future revenue growth, particularly through the provision of extra services that enhance their experience, delivered through their own personal mobile platform.

While it’s important that the design of the ICT infrastructure platform is incorporated into the airport or terminal design from the outset, there will be fewer requirements for it to be on-site. It’s here that architects and IT specialists can collaborate early in the process.

Smarter tools

“Our work with leading airports across the world is demonstrating the value today of creating a future-proofed intelligent airport,” says Serfontein.

“If you provide a communications and technology platform that can handle smarter processes, more self-service and offer high quality mobile connectivity, then you have a string of tools suitable for delivering a fast and smooth end-to-end journey from curbside to airside.

“That will cut stress out of traveling. And passengers will repay your investment many times. Airlines will become partners in delivering the stress-free journey and the airport ecosystem will flourish.”

Looking ahead

What’s clear is that it’s very difficult to predict what will happen in 10, 20 or 50 years. Although on average airport master plans have a planning horizon of 20 years, technology changes more rapidly.

Consider the main drivers of change in the airport IT infrastructure in the next 5-10 years. We’ll see passenger-centric business models combined with the ‘Internet of Things’, which will continue to demand more self-service, mobility and connectivity. Then there’s the rise of BI and big data for improved planning and decision making, which has still a long way to go. 

“The reality is that no one knows what the future will hold but airport architectural design must align with IT planning so that airports can manage the rollout of IT solutions mapped against clearly defined business objectives. Forward-planning at this level will surely deliver lasting benefits to airports and their stakeholders.

“No one pretends it ‘s easy,” concludes Serfontein. “But by investing from the outset in a future-proofed technology infrastructure platform, there are opportunities to be seized.”

Blazing the trail

Airports across the world are blazing the trail in the use of technologies that will become part and parcel of the future airport environment. Here are some of them.

Copenhagen Airport hosted the world’s first indoor augmented reality application, in partnership with SITA and Cisco Systems, using Wi-Fi positioning data. Now the airport is using location analytics to track passenger flow. It’s proving its value through increased flexibility and responsiveness to staffing requirements.

Miami International Airport is the first to have complete and open deployment of beacons in terminals, car parks and on the sky train allowing useful content to be triggered for participating passengers and staff by airlines, retailers and other airport partners.

Melbourne Airport has been working with SITA to provide self-service units so passengers can ‘tag and drop’ bags without the need for a staff member. The process takes passengers an average of 30 seconds.

Airport Authority of India has worked with SITA to deploy CUSS technology across 25 airports, as well as comprehensive baggage management technology that has reduced the number of mishandled bags by as much as 20%.

Orlando International Airport is the first to offer international travelers from visa-waiver countries the option to ‘land, touch and go’ using SITA automated passport control kiosks.

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