Qatar's Hamad International Airport (HIA) in late 2017 joined SITA as its newest airport member, joining a growing base of more than 400 airlines, airport and aviation organizations globally.
At the same, SITA and HIA have come together to push the envelope of innovation with the aim of delivering a smoother, seamless journey at the airport.
The focus of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) is to advance HIA's initiative to implement seamless identity management across all key passenger touch points using biometrics, eliminating the need to present travel documents at every step. Trials will also be held to evaluate the effectiveness of robots for passenger facilitation; blockchain technology for rapid and secure sharing of data across stakeholders; and the potential use of augmented and virtual reality for operational concepts.
The formalization of this partnership follows the successful industry-first pilot of biometric exit checks in the airport, using SITA's Smart Path technology. The lessons learned at HIA have led to SITA optimizing the technology and subsequently implementing it with major other airports and airlines around the world.
We spoke to Hamad International Airport Chief Operating Officer, Engr. Badr Mohammed Al Meer who explains what lay behind the recent signing of an Innovation MoU with SITA and what technology will shape the future of the industry.
1. Tell us a little more about the reasons for signing an innovation MoU with SITA?
HIA's efforts towards innovation and its strategic alliances with key partners such as SITA, all contribute towards its 'Smart Airport' vision that was officially launched in May 2016 under the patronage of the Prime Minister and Interior Minister of the State of Qatar, H.E Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani. Our aim is to empower our passengers to experience a seamless journey at their own pace, all the while keeping them informed about what matters to them.
The use of biometrics as the only verification required at each passenger touch point along the airport journey will go a long way in improving the flow of passengers, providing a better travel experience as well as greater operational visibility for the stakeholders. SITA has already demonstrated high capability and agility in pioneering and optimizing biometric exit checks for the boarding process at HIA. We believe that such joint efforts will contribute to digital transformations across the air transport industry.
2. Would it be correct to say the MOU will not only look at exploring the immediate requirements of the airport but more disruptive technologies that could change the way passengers travel in future. Tell us more?
The current technologies used or being explored in airports worldwide have definitely started to transform the passengers' journey across the key touch points of their travel experience. The main focus of this MoU is to advance the use of biometrics at HIA for seamless identity management across the terminal.
Ultimately, the use of biometrics will be integrated into self-service processes of check-in, baggage drop, security screening, and aircraft boarding for all travellers. The idea behind the use of biometrics is to enhance security while delivering smooth end-to-end travel using a single biometric token.
This MoU is the beginning of an exploration phase of new technologies aimed at designing a seamless and friction-free travel experience while ensuring the highest safety and security standards.
The next step for HIA is to commence new trials aimed at evaluating the effectiveness of robotics for passenger facilitation, and of blockchain technology for rapid and secure sharing of data across multiple stakeholders. We will also explore the potential use of augmented reality and virtual reality for operational concepts: some airlines are already using this technology for in-flight entertainment and we are interested in how the technology can be used on the ground.
The passenger is at the heart of everything we do and every investment we make. We thrive to strike the right balance between cutting-edge technology and a warm passenger-friendly experience. In line with our 'Smart Airport' vision, HIA's strategic investment in new technologies is aimed at redefining passenger experience as a whole and, ultimately, showcasing HIA's global leadership in the use of smart technologies.
3. Opened only in 2014, Hamad International Airport is one of the most advanced airports in the region and globally. How do you ensure the facilities were future-proofed and what role did technology play?
HIA is indeed a very young airport, yet a very ambitious, modern and sophisticated one.
The airport was launched when some of the most disruptive technologies were already well underway. As a consequence, HIA was strategically designed to naturally accommodate the advent of those new technologies allowing us to pioneer some of the most advanced technologies. For example, HIA is among a few airports in the world that are championing the 'Smart Security' programme and has ongoing trials using the latest technology to optimise security checks by speeding up the process and minimising inconvenience to the passenger.
We are also accelerating the digital transformation at HIA with tailored solutions aimed at boosting our core IT infrastructure technologies. HIA has a strong research culture allowing us to anticipate the impact of new technologies on airport facilities in order to make the right decisions at the right time.
4. Do you see the benefits of this innovation partnership with SITA eventually spilling out beyond this airport and benefiting the broader air transport community?
At the end of the day, all airports and airlines are inter-connected globally; and affect and influence one another. Innovations implemented at early-adopter airports such as HIA definitely ensure that the followers do not have to go through the same learning curve, invest extensive time, and take on risks of failure associated with trialling and proving leading-edge technologies.
However, as the airport transport community pushes leading non-traditional technology to transform passenger experience, it is also incumbent upon us to collaborate in making our systems more robust in mitigating cyber security risks, especially as some recent highly disruptive system crashes in the industry have been alarming.
Hamad International Airport plays a crucial role in the industry due to its very strategic location, bridging the East and West sides of the world and, hence, positioning Qatar as a global hub for business and leisure travel. HIA's plan to process more than 50 million passengers per annum in a few years is a strong incentive to stay ahead of the curve in terms of innovation and new technologies for a very smooth passenger journey.
5. What are the key trends and technologies that you see shaping the future of this industry?
Air transport security is paramount and will remain paramount for decades to come. As a consequence, new technologies providing solutions to increase air transport security will be on the rise. Biometrics screening and facial recognition scanning are taking over all airports in an effort to improve the security screening process and to reduce waiting time at airport terminals.
Artificial intelligence is the hot topic within the industry: AI has the potential to streamline the process of answering passengers' simple and basic questions, allowing a better use of on-the-ground staff members who will be dedicated to tackling more complex issues.
With the rise of beacons technology, airports are very likely to start using this technology to provide better/customized services to passengers as they travel through the airport terminal. HIA has been pioneering the use of iBeacon enabled mobile app since early 2015.
Our priority is to provide an immersive experience to passengers who can stay connected while they travel through our airport. To that effect, we have developed our HIAQatar mobile app in-house and installed Bluetooth iBeacons across the terminal, guiding our passengers along their journey, providing real-time information about flight status, baggage claim, time and direction to boarding gates and food, beverage and retail offers from Qatar Duty Free, the airport's award-winning shopping emporium.
As airlines and airports intensify their attempts to personalize the air travel journey, wearable technologies can provide radical improvements to personalised experience for air passengers. HIA recently showcased its use of innovative and leading-edge technologies as part of our Smart Airport vision, with the launch of our new smartwatch app and augmented reality offering which will enable visitors to discover the unique art exhibits on display at HIA.
All these technologies have the potential to reshape airport customer experience in the coming years and to take us to the future, in addition to transforming the jobs created in the air transport industry. With 3.8 billion global air travellers in 2016, predicted to double to 7.2 billion passengers in the next 20 years, smart technologies will help the industry support this exponential growth.