By 2034, 7.3 billion people will be traveling through our airports. That’s equivalent to today’s total world population and it’s more than double today’s number of air travelers. We’ll see a further 37,463 passenger aircraft in service, also more than double today’s global fleet.
If airport operators didn’t already have enough stress to keep them awake at night, these figures will certainly have them questioning their strategic and master plans for the foreseeable future.
The good news is that airports are the focal point of innovation within the air transport industry.
“That has huge implications for airlines, passengers, airport operators and indeed many stakeholders involved in the steps across the journey, because the airport is where it all comes together,” says Matthys Serfontein, Vice President, Airports, at SITA.
“As such, it’s where information communications technology (ICT) can have the greatest impact, operationally, commercially and in terms of enhancing passenger satisfaction.
“After all, it wasn’t that long ago that common-use terminal equipment (CUTE) was the ’next big thing’. Since then we’ve seen leaps and bounds in every area of the airport – from curbside to airside – baggage and security to passenger self-service and remote check-in. In all of these areas, ICT has led the way, bringing to reality the idea of the ‘intelligent’ or ‘smart’ airport.”
Of course it’s almost impossible to say what will happen in 20 or 50 years. Who would have predicted 10 years ago that nearly every traveler (97%) would be carrying a smartphone, tablet or laptop when flying? Or that one in five passengers would fly with all three?
When you think the average airport master plan has a 20-30 year horizon, it’s easy to see the dilemma: how do we prepare now for the technology unknowns of tomorrow?
Paradoxically, ICT planning of new airport design projects must start in the very beginning, as any good Master System Integration (MSI) program with tell you.
Aligning technology with architecture and construction plans ensures airports will be able to roll out IT solutions in the future, mapped against clearly defined business objectives. Doing this is the best way to ’future-proof‘ the airport.
A Virgin Australia first
A case in point is the hybrid desk that helps facilitate a transition into a complete self-service environment, or switch to an agent-assisted traditional process. For the airport, the investment is done – there will be no need to install kiosks if self-service usage increases. This is future proofing and impact on terminal design at its best.
At Perth Airport, Virgin Australia, with SITA, launched the world’s first single hardware common-use hybrid desks late last year, enabling the carrier to quickly switch from self-service bag drop to full-service traditional counters.
“Just as ICT has helped transform airports over the last 70 years from simply providing space for airlines to land and takeoff to being the massive commercial and social epicenters we see today, it will be crucial to creating the future-proof airport of tomorrow,” says Serfontein.
“The end game is all about a seamless, integrated passenger experience, from end-to-end,” he adds. “No one pretends it’s easy, but by investing from the outset in a future-proofed and flexible technology infrastructure platform, there are opportunities to be seized down the road.”
That means preparing for technologies that are capable of meeting three airport imperatives:
- enhancing passenger satisfaction
- delivering operational excellence
- and ensuring commercial and financial success
As the latest Airport IT Trends Survey shows, airports are getting the message loud and clear. The vast majority (eight out of 10) intend to invest or evaluate major ICT programs through 2017, with those imperatives top of mind. See ‘The no. 1 priority,’
We’ve seen a raft of self-service investments to streamline processes, from kiosks for check-in, to border management, to self-bag drop and bag tracking. They’re no doubt helping the fact that three quarters of passengers, according to SITA’s survey, say they’re generally happy with their travel experience (and happy passengers spend money).
Ensuring happy passengers and efficient operations is also why many airports are introducing, trialing and testing new and nascent technologies that promise to be critical components of any smart airport of the future.
“Recent examples include the linking of traveler data, journey details and biometrics at the earliest opportunity to create a single travel token,” comments Serfontein.
“This is surely another vital step towards the ever smarter airport, moving us towards an end-to-end self-service, biometric-enabled passenger process.” Taking the idea forward with SITA are early trials with leading middle-eastern airports and flagship airlines.
Then there’s the rise of proximity sensing technologies based on Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, which can help gauge lines at traditional bottlenecks, such as check-in and security, as well as heighten passenger communications and create revenue opportunities.
No smart airport will be complete without proximity sensing. Airports were a hotbed of activity in this arena last year, as many of them explored the potential to improve passenger flow and direct relationships.
Fast emerging in this area are beacons, hailed as a ’game changer’ in passenger processing and retail. Using Bluetooth to transmit a continuous signal and communicate relevant information based on location, beacons can trigger an app on your phone to send notifications or promotional coupons as you enter a given zone, shop, café or lounge.
Kevin O’Sullivan, Lead Architect, SITA Lab, says that: “Beacons are slowly gaining adoption, and the Airports Council International (ACI) are working to ratify the standards proposed by SITA. The fact that Google, and Apple and Samsung are all in this space shows that the technology is here to stay.
“Beacons could be the opportunity the industry has been waiting for to personalize mobile services for passengers at the airport while also giving extra information for airport management.
“Because beacons have motion sensors, you can put them in elevators, escalators or walkways and report if a thing that’s supposed to be moving is not moving. Put them in a baggage system and they can monitor the movement and vibration of the system. The potential uses are really extraordinary.”
Many airlines and airports are forging ahead with SITA in this area, including American Airlines and the international airports of Hong Kong and Miami. See New heights for insights.
NFC use case
Beacons inevitably draw comparisons with Near Field Communication (NFC), another technology clearly on the radar of airports. But their use cases are separate.
Designed for quick transactions, NFC is a wireless protocol that allows communication at short distances. Because it’s secure and based in the hardware of a phone, it allows for storage and easy retrieval of things like electronic boarding passes, credit card information, visas and identification documents.
While the current focus for NFC is with payment, it remains a technology that has potential for improving passenger processing at security, lounges and boarding. It remains to be seen if Apple will open up the NFC technology on iOS to enable these uses cases in the near future.
“The travel industry is looking closely at the many possible uses,” says O’Sullivan. “SITA Lab has gained considerable NFC experience, with a number of trials such as the Toulouse Blagnac Airport Pass premium VIP card, Schiphol Airport CUTE NFC demo deployment as well as an NFC boarding pass trial with Air France/KLM at Toulouse Blagnac Airport.
“On top of that, SITA has defined interoperability standards in this area to enable the likes of Google and Apple to enable NFC boarding,” he continues.
The Internet of things
Beacons have been called a gateway to the Internet of Things (IoT). While the idea of the IoT has been around for over 15 years, it’s becoming a reality.
No airport of the future will be truly smart without exploiting IoT capabilities. In short, it means that physical objects are connected to the Internet via an IP address, enabling everything that connectivity entails: tracking, data collection, analysis, control and more.
As the IoT becomes the norm, the airport will be increasingly connected through all of the objects it contains: buildings, equipment, bags, trolleys – anything that can emit a status. And because passengers and staff carry smartphones, they too will be part of this connected future of travel. (See IoT article)
“The IoT gives the airport the opportunity to put a lot more sensors into their facilities to keep track of their different assets, passengers and staff,” says Jim Peters, Chief Technology Officer, SITA.
“Everything from maintaining equipment to ensuring the right people are in the right spot to getting passengers on their planes on time. It’s really the beginning of the smart airport of the future."
Serfontein again: “Many of these technologies are still in their infancy and they have huge potential. The same applies to business intelligence (BI). Most airports are yet to begin realizing the potential, though SITA’s new, ground-breaking Day of Travel and Day of Operations BI capabilities are providing a way forward.”
To meet the airport’s imperatives of passenger satisfaction, operational excellence and commercial success, BI and its ability exploit data is more important now than ever.
”We’re on the brink of another technology revolution that will produce mountains of data, and airports must develop a strategy for what to do with it,” says Serfontein.
That’s particularly so because fewer than 10% of airports are totally satisfied with either their data quality or their ability to access and update it, according to the Airport IT Trends Survey.
Smart airports will quickly and simply access huge amounts of data from a myriad of sources, then consolidate it in a way that’s understandable, constructive and actionable.
It’s positive, then, that nine out of 10 airports plan to make significant investments in BI over the next two years. Doing so will spawn a new era of real-time BI and analytics.
The intelligent airport of tomorrow will be one that can exploit the massive amounts of data in a proactive way to benefit its own operations, business needs, stakeholders and passengers.
Its focus will be on the use of real-time intelligence and predictive analytics based on data from everywhere. Instead of reacting passively to events such as long lines at check-in or security, the airport will proactively influence passengers to avoid lines before they can develop.
One of the industry’s trailblazers, Orlando International Airport, is using SITA’s queue management technology – SITA QueueAnalyzer – to reduce stress for travelers and enable more accurate resource planning.
Providing a real-time view of TSA checkpoints, it enables the airport to respond rapidly to unexpected conditions. It includes historical wait-time data to establish wait-time profiles for different times of the day, days of the week and seasons.
Citing the advantages to customer services, John Newsome, the airport’s IT Director, says: “We really wanted to be able to provide accurate checkpoint wait-time information to our travelers to reduce anxiety.
“We can do that now and the greater visibility and simplified metrics are also enabling us to plan more proactively and allocate resources effectively. SITA’s technology is also allowing us to respond more nimbly to the ebb and flow of unanticipated traffic flow.”
See also: New heights for insights
Helping the airport to deal with this data, among other things, will be cloud technology. It too is an area generating one of the strongest levels of interest in the air transport industry.
By centering their ICT infrastructure in the cloud – together with data and services – airports can cost-effectively leverage future-proof IT services. The cloud can contain every element, including hardware, software and support. Even network connectivity can be managed and maintained from cloud data centers.
“One of the main advantages of cloud technology is fewer requirements for the ICT infrastructure to be onsite,” says Serfontein.
“It’s here, in developing smart airports, that architects and IT specialists can collaborate to decide what infrastructure needs to be built and what can go to the cloud.
“This frees the airport to make investments in other areas able to generate revenues, such as retail, and utilize personnel for things other than support of the technology.”
Citing the advantages, President and CEO of Rhode Island Airport Corporation, Kelly Fredericks, says: “SITA has provided us with a solution that is hugely flexible and scalable. Because it is a cloud-based service, we do not have to invest in infrastructure on site here at the Airport and new airlines can be up and running quickly and adding Seasonal routes will be easy.”
At Brisbane West Wellcamp Airport, Phil Gregory, General Manager, says: “We expect passenger volumes to grow rapidly, and with SITA we can easily expand our capacity. And perhaps most importantly for us as a new airport, with SITA’s cloud solution there is minimal up-front investment and our costs are directly related to our passenger volumes.”
Playing a crucial part in the technology revolution that’s taking place at airports are wearables, drones and robots.
Wearable technology is still in the infancy. With the advent of smartwatches, smartglasses, fitbits and smartbands … it’s often difficult to separate the reality from the hype.
But two things are certain: wearables are more than a fashion fad, and there are real uses cases emerging for airports. In fact, they’re also paving the way into the IoT era.
The SITA Lab has collaborated with airlines and airports to pilot potential solutions for the industry. The work of SITA Lab with Copenhagen Airport and Virgin Atlantic Airways are celebrated examples of early trials of wearables.
Another recent pilot linked the Apple Watch to SITA’s Airport Management System, allowing duty managers to receive alerts when two planes were arriving simultaneously and had been assigned to the same gate or when there was a delay at a certain gate.
In another use case, SITA Lab developed an application that enables gate agents to scan a boarding pass and passport automatically and simultaneously in less than one second using a pair of smartglasses.
Other applications have included translation services, photo taking for documentation, and communications between duty managers.
It’s anticipated that smart airports of the future will be a place where drones operate. Drones can reach places easily and quickly that are often difficult, time-consuming, or just plain dangerous for humans.
They can take high-definition photos and videos, and transmit them in real-time. They’re safe, nearly hack-proof, and can be programmed to perform tasks such as processing, analyzing and reporting things no human being can detect (minute temperature changes, for instance).
The very attributes that make drones ideal for military use also make them suited for use in smart airports of the future.
They could potentially perform foreign object detection on runways, around the airport perimeter, even in parking lots.
They can patrol the airport more easily than a person in a car is able to, and then provide even more detailed findings. Drones can also go ahead of first-responders to provide real-time images and video of an emergency scene.
And as demonstrated by a trial between a major carrier, Geneva Airport and SITA Lab, drones can inspect an entire aircraft in minutes where humans would take hours, saving time and money and allowing for quicker turnarounds.
In the future, we’ll also see self-operating robots throughout the airport. Just as Google plans to release a completely self-driving car next year, the same technology can be implemented in the airport to perform a variety of functions – both passenger-facing and operational.
Airside, robots can bring people or parcels (self-driving luggage carts, for instance) to their gate. They can deliver bags from Point A to Point B without a ground handler’s participation.
Curbside, robots could be the magic bullet that makes self-service bag-drop a reality, thus taking the check-in process completely outside the airport.
Imagine handing your bag to a robot at the curb and seeing it whisked away to the baggage system, where it will go through security screening, be loaded onto your flight (plus any transfer flights) without being touched by another human until another robot delivers it to you upon arrival. Read about Geneva Airport’s ‘Robbi the robot’ .
SITA Lab is conducting several trials to determine use cases for drones and robots in the air transport industry.
“One thing’s for sure,” concludes Serfontein. “As we build smart airports of tomorrow, we’ll need to be prepared to test and trial new technologies like these."
“But added to that, we’ll need airport master plans and ICT platforms that can handle ever smarter processes, more self-service and ever higher quality connectivity, with a string of tools suitable for delivering a fast and smooth end-to-end journey from curbside to airside.”
 Air Transport World, SITA, “Passenger IT Trends Survey 2014”