Embrace the revolution

Embrace the revolution

Airports must embrace the digital revolution, deploying universal and open source technology in the same way as many other industries do. So say Arup’s Justin Powell (Associate Principal) and Jim Robinson (Aviation Strategic Advisor).

Justin PowellAirport infrastructure in many busy regions is capacity-challenged, causing delays, crowding and poor service levels. Physical solutions through airport development plans will not be able to cope with expected long-term growth.

Our industry cannot simply build its way out and the situation will only worsen as planned capacity is outstripped by demand. The inability to develop new runway and airspace capacity in many major markets is evidence of this.

Where we stand

That’s a major issue if we’re to transform the end-to-end air travel experience. Today’s experience – from the alarm clock going off on the day of travel through to opening your bag at the final destination – is often a series of bottlenecks, uncertainty and ’dead time’ between journey stages:

  • Digital technology is being incrementally mobilized but is limited by regulation and the ability of parties to collaborate across travel networks
  • Trusted Traveler Programs facilitating security and immigration clearance – such as the APEC Business Travel Card, Global Entry, TSA Pre✓® and Viajero Confiable – are welcome examples of regulatory innovation to minimize physical constraints, using digitally-based management systems
  • Airlines are increasingly connecting various functions through smartphone information applications and Smart Bag initiatives

Security and regulatory constraints and uncertainty, however, are likely to continue and must be managed. As we consider these initiatives, we should quantify how they could increase passenger flow rates to increase existing capacity and reduce future capital expenditure requirements.

Targeting big wins

So where are the big wins in end-end process improvement? Arup’s interactive workshop process has revealed the following critical areas:

  • Big data and digital tools - Personalized passenger data needs to be liberated from existing silos, empowering airports to provide more information and control
  • Smart Bag technology and new services - These can free the bag to move independently and reduce baggage handling system demands
  • Surviving security and customs/immigration - New security sensor technologies and risk-based screening require regulatory and public acceptance
  • Smart City and Ground Access - Personal data, remote check-in and new transportation services will revolutionize the total passenger experience
  • Inflight services and processes - Limited access to digital travel processes inflight denies travelers the ability to prepare for subsequent phases. Immigration pre-clearance, ground transport pre-booking and destination wayfinding could be offered inflight to minimize arrival processing times.

Smart travel pilots

Jim RobinsonThis journey of innovation begins with the sensible first step: the Pilot Program. Pilot Programs allow the airport to engage directly with various technology companies.

They typically start with mapping the existing situation to analyze travel experience drivers, identify the critical bottlenecks and areas of meaningful optimization. This mapping will help to reveal the digitized end-end process.

Many airports have already recognized the need to actively engage in the digital revolution and have developed initiatives in this way. 

For example, GVK, owner and operator of Mumbai and Bangalore Airports, has established an innovation lab to explore opportunities in improving passenger levels of service while avoiding major capital expenditures.

Similar programs are underway at Schiphol, Heathrow, Dubai, Singapore and many other airports. Industry players such as ACI, IATA and SITA, among others, are actively engaged in supporting our industry to encourage advances in technology.

Proof of Concept

The initial stages typically involve a Proof of Concept to establish the user case – for example, indoor navigation wayfinding technology. 

A process of canvassing for technology solutions is then commenced, identifying potential candidate technology solutions that might hold promise. 

The next step can involve allowing various companies to deploy a Pilot Program which could involve a test case to shortlist the most likely successful solutions. Key success factors include:

  • Airports should provide the necessary digital infrastructure and engage with stakeholders to map and improve traveler processes.
  • Pilot Programs should provide the necessary authority to improve processes, while having the flexibility to reach for creative solutions. They should aim to quantify airport development benefits in terms of:
    • Applicable percent of traveler market using the technology
    • Processing time reductions
    • Passenger level of service improvements
    • Qualitative environmental improvements
    • Passenger survey input
  • A business planning framework should also be established to quantify financial and economic benefits to the sponsoring airport and stakeholders – for example, in terms of reduced capex, value of passenger time savings, and revenue generation opportunities.
  • Probably the most important aspect of the Pilot Program is the need to formalize the use and business case, including issues such as developing the collaboration strategy (for instance, cost and data sharing) and the overall project Return on Investment.


The Pilot Program permits a validation process for the airport and stakeholders to understand the overall benefits, implementation challenges and areas that require significant collaboration, with a key challenge being to understand which technology solutions hold real promise and which are vaporware. 

It is through the Pilot Program that airport management can manage risk and gain the best understanding of the potential benefits of an innovation solution before making major investments into the existing infrastructure.

A call for open sourcing

The aviation sector is a massive global transportation infrastructure business that is nonetheless highly fragmented when compared to many other industries, such as information technology.

To quote Professor Richard de Neufville from ‘Airport Systems, Planning and Design Webinar Series, September 2013’:

“…in some ways it’s a mom and pop organization of a business. There are no big leaders with significant market share, who are organizing things, setting standards, who are investing in research on how to operate and build efficiently. A lot of relatively small actors worldwide.”

Even though airports represent substantial infrastructure at the scale of a small city, they are still largely isolated entities with no real aligned business strategies beyond those provided by trade organizations and regulators to ensure basic levels of safety and security. 

This decentralization is not conducive to innovation solutions as it forces each airport to be a one-off project. The industry must align to develop a digital revolution that engages high economies of scale. 

The travel industry is changing very fast, driven by growing consumer expectations. There is a huge risk that airports and airlines will be left behind if they continue down the path of individual and proprietary innovation solutions. 

Holy grail

The holy grail of the technology revolution in air travel will be the advent of the truly connected travel experience where the customer drives the expectations. 

This is already underway in ground transportation and hospitality as evidenced by providers such as Airbnb and Uber. It is only a matter of time before the aviation sector is similarly transformed. 

We need to welcome and embrace the digital revolution that is upon us. We need to develop solutions that are universal and based on open source technology similar to other industries engaged in artificial intelligence and machine learning. Or someone else will.