Collaboration lies at the heart of effective airport management systems
Peter Drummond, a seasoned airport expert, oversees a portfolio of products and solutions that help to streamline airport operations systems and ensure operational efficiency.
You started your career at SITA as a systems engineer, rising to head of SITA’s baggage portfolio. Now you head the Operations at Airports portfolio. It’s a vast space, how are you tackling the challenge of airport operations, and is it different to baggage?
This role presents different challenges and opportunities. It is a more competitive environment than I experienced in baggage, although that too is increasing in complexity. There are more stakeholders to align at the airport, with Airport Operations being at the heart of all the operational systems, so it unlocks a range of possibilities. As a trusted provider of operational systems, SITA is perfectly positioned to maximize these opportunities. I believe my experience of baggage, and what we did in that portfolio, can be exploited in this side of business; helping me to identify potential future areas for SITA’s expansion.
What are the biggest challenges airport operators face?
There are many challenges facing airport operations these days. Staff shortages and capacity constraints exposed by the sudden return to travel following the Covid-19 pandemic are being felt across the entire airport operation from baggage to passenger-facing roles. This has also made attracting top talent to the sector particularly pressing.
The impact of limited resources on operations will lead to more flight delays and disruption, which has a knock-on effect on waiting times and cancellations – all of which cost the airport time and money and negatively impact passenger satisfaction.
At a macro level, airports are impacted by issues, such as inflationary pressures, which drive up costs and changing local and regional regulations. Plus, there is a rising focus on increasing industry sustainability specifically around reducing emissions and optimizing energy in the race to net zero along with increasing airports’ resilience to a changing climate.
Therefore, for an airport to run smoothly and effectively, optimizing operations is critical. Getting this right saves airports time and money, increases sustainability, and ultimately creates a better passenger experience.
What stands out as a key means of addressing these varied challenges?
All these challenges require a commitment to new ways of working and keeping a future-focused eye on evolving technology trends and getting the most out of intelligent automation systems and, increasingly, self-service models.
One new approach to improving the efficiency of airport-based operations that is growing in adoption is increasing collaboration among the different airport partners – airports, ground handlers, air traffic control, and airlines operating from the airport, made possible through data and technology. Airports are big, complex ecosystems comprising a variety of in-house stakeholders and suppliers. Oversight of the entire system is critical for airport operators, but this can be a challenge if siloes don’t communicate.
Stakeholders across airport operations need to talk to each other a lot better than they do currently, and this needs to be founded on complete, reliable sources of shared real-time, actionable information. It’s about having visibility of all these areas of the airport and then seeing the ecosystem holistically by, for instance, considering how baggage operations might impact passenger operations and vice versa to inform decision-making.
That’s also why a lot of airport operators are moving to more automated ways in which to capture the data they need to make accurate predictions about critical operational factors like departure times. Better prediction means airports can offer more slots to airlines and increase capacity. In addition to saving airlines a lot in costs while reducing emissions, it also pleases passengers.
How can airports better utilize their airport management systems to collaborate with stakeholders?
The operational environment changes all the time. Being able to react quickly isn’t that easy, so what airport operations managers want is to make quick modifications to their systems to avoid negative impacts on efficiency and performance. Using an airport management system that is customizable is an effective way for airport operations to adapt systems to their needs quickly and effectively. This is a huge cost saver.
A good example is Athens International Airport, which uses SITA Airport Management. They were able to share key operational data by opening up the airport operational database to all stakeholders including airlines, government agencies and navigation service providers. This provides all parties with the same real-time data and a data-rich view of activities across the entire airport; giving the operations team a very precise view of how various activities were integrating and impacting the overall operation. With better visibility of arrival times in Athens, the airport can now plan ground operations more efficiently and assign aircraft to the correct gates, ensuring on time performance and minimizing unnecessary delays.
Another key aspect of SITA Airport Management is particularly pertinent to today’s climate situation. Athens experienced unusually heavy snowstorms in early 2022 which called for an extensive de-icing of aircraft. However, Athens Airport did not have a de-icing application so they couldn’t allocate aircraft to a de-icing location. Since SITA’s application is so flexible, within hours Athens could configure the application so all stakeholders could plan the de-icing processes effectively.
A lot of airport operations solutions are seemingly designed for large hub airports. Can regional airports reap the benefits of these new or forthcoming technologies?
Regional airports have more modest requirements with simpler operations, where problems can often be resolved using more basic tools. For example, an issue may be solved with a walkie talkie instead of needing an intricate management system. Nonetheless, there are specific functionalities that regional airports need to operate effectively, that’s why we provide cut down versions of more complex management systems. For example, SITA Airport Management and SITA Airside Optimizer via cloud are trimmed down operational management solutions suitable for regional airports which reduce infrastructure and costs, while also enabling swift deployment.
This degree of adaptability further facilitates the efficient expansion and growth of these regional airports. This sort of flexibility also makes it easier for smaller airports to grow and scale more efficiently.
We’re hearing a lot about AI. Will AI support future airport operations?
One of the things that has become clear in the last few years is that information is siloed across the airport ecosystem. That means that opportunities for efficiency are being missed since different systems are not really talking to each other, and each function may have its own data store and systems that are provided by different suppliers. At the same time, airport managers really need to understand what is happening now and how they can balance targets on safety, cost, efficiency, operational performance, and increasingly sustainability areas.
While the temptation might be to build one mega system to unite all the functions, having the whole operation in the hands of one supplier and system would add too much risk. Instead, we are seeing more customers recognizing the benefits of sharing data across the airport and with all stakeholders; a notable move towards an airport collaboration and decision-making process. Instead of building a mega system, they are looking to solve individual problems by letting existing systems continue as usual but overlaying an artificial intelligence to view the holistic picture, extract information and provide feedback on how to operate those environments more efficiently.