How airports can take off with digital transformation

With airport IT spending expected to reach $4.63 billion by 2023, what technologies are they looking to implement, and how will airports benefit – and change!

With the International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicting traffic will double by 2036 reaching 7.8bn passengers globally, airports are turning to technology to improve processes and meet passenger expectations.

A recent report by analyst firm Frost & Sullivan noted that increased traffic and global capacity constraints will drive airport IT spending to US$4.63bn by 2023 and that digital transformation roadmaps are being drawn up to address key performance indicators across all areas of airport operation.

“Digital transformation is not a new trend, but it’s one that over the past few years has been driven by peer pressure and technological advancement – mainly through sensorization and IoT,” says Renjit Benjamin, Industry Analyst, Aerospace, Defense and Security, Frost & Sullivan. 

“We also find that digital transformation programs are becoming more strategic in nature – you will find an increasing number of airports hiring chief digital officers and separating the digital transformation function from the IT department. Airports link digital projects and investments with their corporate and business strategies, their strategic objectives and with their target performance. The end goal is to create agile organizations with a culture that fosters innovation.”

Technology has always played a critical role in airport operations but has traditionally been deployed as a solution to a challenge or as a response to a particular opportunity to increase revenue, reduce cost or improve the passenger experience. 

But, as Alan Newbold, Director and Digital Transformation Leader at engineering and design company Arup points out, digitization has made the sector more proactive.

“It’s something that’s high up on CEOs’ agendas as it has the opportunity to affect shareholder value, brand and reputation, as well as the normal measures of a successful aviation business,” he says.

“Most aviation businesses have been built over many years of organic growth with numerous legacy systems and technologies that have created a complex web of interfaces, inefficiencies and substantial risk. Digital provides the opportunity to transform a business into a wholesale enterprise that is planned and coordinated in the right way to deliver the outcomes the business needs.”


Key technologies for airports

A wide range of technologies are being implemented both land and airside, from blockchain and big data analytics through to biometrics, IoT and driverless vehicles.

“Airports such as Singapore Changi, London Heathrow, Amsterdam Schiphol and Munich International are considered innovators in the industry. Peers are looking at these airports and the trials running there to assess benefits of projects and new technologies,” says Benjamin.

“There are quite a few unique use cases that show us how technologies will impact operations in future. Heathrow is looking at autonomous vehicles in airside operations, while Munich is leading in collaboration projects and aircraft turnaround efficiencies. Sweden is leading in implementation of digital ATC towers. Airports are also investing in smart parking, integrated passenger databases, end-to-end passenger flow management systems, and centralized airport management systems.”


Automated vehicles

Heathrow first introduced its driverless pods back in 2011. Since then 2.5m passengers have used the system.

“Since introducing the pods we’ve cut down on 70,000 bus journeys and reduced our carbon emissions by 100 tonnes annually,” says Steve Armitage, Heathrow IT Futures Programme Development Manager. “However, there is still room for improvement and we’re upgrading the communication network that connects the pods and the station control systems to a 4G system.”

The airport’s also been exploring how autonomous vehicles might operate on its airfield, and this March undertook its first self-driving airside trial with IAG Cargo and Oxbotica.

“The trial helped us understand both how these vehicles might operate as well as the points we’d need to consider to prepare both the airport’s physical and technological infrastructure for the technology,” Armitage notes.

Technology plays a role from the moment people arrive at departures through to when they leave at their final destination. At Heathrow this has included the introduction of additional self-bag drops and trialling self-boarding gates.

“Passengers are looking to spend less time queuing – this gives them more time to make the most of the airport’s experiences,” notes Simon Wilcox, Heathrow Programme Manager.

In the baggage space, robotics and automation are helping deliver improved safety and efficiency. Heathrow is currently using two fully automated baggage robots that sort luggage by size and weight to make the best use of space.

“They’re currently prototypes but we’re continuing to explore how to improve them and how they can strengthen other parts of the baggage operation,” says Armitage.


The benefits of IoT

Over at Gatwick, technology vendor HPE Aruba recently rolled out a new infrastructure to help the airport adopt IoT.

“The new network’s capability matches that of an internet service provider, with 14,000 access points,” says Simon Wilson, CTO at HPE Aruba. “The airport is using this increase in data collection and analytics to understand everything from passenger flow to security issues and consumer spending habits.

“Gatwick has identified 40 uses for IoT across the airport, from deploying sensors from the ramps for real-time operational analytics to measuring waste bin levels, the occupancy of check-in desks, as well as table availability or pond water levels,” Wilson continues.

“Customer movement throughout the airport is being monitored through passenger flow analytics, detecting traffic based on smart phone locations and identifying queues through heat maps can help manage queue times. Machine learning and facial recognition is also bolstering security levels and helping to develop passenger journey mapping so that gate staff can track late passengers and send notifications via apps.”


Biometric border control

When it comes to biometric applications within airports, the focus has been on border control. The aim is to reduce long queues at immigration by automating processes, and several biometric applications are currently being piloted at airports around the world.

“A biometric screening pilot is currently taking place at Dallas Fort Worth International and Denver Airport’s major transformation programme will include automated security lines,” notes Vinod Varma, VP of Product Strategy and Experience, American Express Global Business Travel.

“Plenty of airports have already deployed e-gates, including Oman, UK, France, Germany, Australia, Malaysia and New Zealand,” adds Nora Blomefield, Head of Marketing for Border Management at software company Gemalto. “The US has, on the other hand, focused on kiosks, but is also looking at solutions to expedite exit control using facial biometrics.

“Singapore has built a new terminal designed to be fully automated, and Australia is introducing second-generation e-gates, paving the way to contactless entry just by using facial recognition.”


Business and passenger benefits

These are just a few of the examples of technology implementations that airports are undertaking to improve processes. By considering and acting on digital transformation in the right way, airports will be able to make significant business gains: increasing revenue, reducing cost and mitigating risks.

Furthermore, this technology is helping improve the passenger experience and freeing them up to spend their time and money in the airports shops and restaurants. It’s a win-win for everyone.