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Connected, data-driven airports: The runway to the future

Nurdianah Md Nur
Nurdianah Md Nur11/7/2022 05:25 PM GMT+08  • 9 min read
Connected, data-driven airports: The runway to the future
Many airports are struggling to cope with the surge in air passenger traffic as border restriction lifts, evident from flight and baggage delays and long queues at the airports. Photo: Shutterstock
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The air travel industry is buzzing again as consumers are eager to make up for lost holidays and reunions in the past two years.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), total air passenger traffic in July 2022 is 74.6% of pre-Covid-19 levels, with international growth driven by the Asia Pacific (APAC) region. IATA thus predicts international air travel will return to the pre-pandemic levels by 2023.

This growth will drive airport revenue, but it is also causing operational issues leading to poor passenger experiences. “Since most airports have not handled such high volumes of passenger traffic in the past years, they are faced with operational issues such as flight delays, long queues and staff shortages. These are a result of insufficient resources as travel demand surges in the wake of relaxed travel restrictions,” says YC Lim, president of Malaysia and Singapore at Honeywell, which delivers industry-specific solutions, including aerospace products and services.

Allan Schulte, partner and head of APAC Airlines, Logistics and Transport practice at management consulting firm Bain & Company, agrees. “By far, the biggest challenge has been supporting front-line staff capacity. While airlines and airports have worked hard to hire more people, it naturally takes time for new employees to understand software programmes, booking policies, security protocols etc. A massive network of systems and hardware is integrating 400,000 global city pairs, hundreds of airlines and thousands of airports.”

Enhancing operations with technology

Faced with a workforce crunch and tight budgets, airports should leverage technology to scale their operations more efficiently and effectively.

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Technology will play a crucial role as an enabler and accelerator of recovery in managing passenger traffic and in times of asset crunches. Creating the right technology foundation for recovery and new growth will mean accelerating a journey of incremental transformation.

Mike Tansey, managing director and growth markets travel industry lead, Accenture

Cloud, he adds, will be one of the critical technologies in enabling airports to be more efficient, agile and innovative. “Through the cloud, airports and airlines can enter a sandbox environment quickly and get new products or offerings to market at speed or test out new technologies. They can experiment with booking flows and new loyalty initiatives to transform customer care and experiences, which have tripled in importance since the pandemic.”

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Airports should also harness the power of 5G and the Internet of Things (IoT) to create more intelligent work flows that can improve the overall passenger experience, says Bhupinder Singh, president for Asia Pacific, Middle East and India at Vodafone Business.

“With faster speeds, low latency and increased capacity, 5G has the potential to support advanced video analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) linked to flight data, facilitate smoother progress through security, support retail spending and create a smoother passenger experience.

[Combining 5G with IoT can help] improve turnaround time for airlines, data offload from planes for preventative maintenance, independent runway inspection, vehicle collision avoidance, terminal inspection, asset management and more.

Bhupinder Singh, president for Asia Pacific, Middle East and India, Vodafone Business

London’s Gatwick Airport, for instance, went live with 5G networks in its North and South terminals earlier this year. The move allows passengers to download film or TV box sets, make last-minute bookings and check the status of their flights faster than ever before.

“The rapid response times of 5G will also help Gatwick Airport support the growing number of connected devices and applications, which require instant communications, such as trials of robotic parking and further automation of check-in and boarding procedures,” says Singh.

Additionally, Bain & Company’s Schulte highlights the need to leverage automation and self-service technologies. “For example, enhancements to airline apps that help passengers manage their bookings and collect their boarding passes can shorten the queue waiting time at airports and give front-line staff more time to support passengers with complex needs.”

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“Some airports are also experimenting with advanced screening technologies that limit the need to remove laptops and liquids from your bags or take off your shoes. These improvements offer the opportunity to enhance security while making queues move faster and reduce some of the stress of travel,” he adds.

Becoming connected and data-driven

The ultimate goal of incorporating various technologies into airport operations is to realise a connected, data-driven airport.

A connected airport allows the passenger to experience the airport without the choke points. Passengers can access information and services at their fingertips for the entire curb-to-gate journey. Indoor location and wayfinding can help them find what they need at that moment in time, and the airport and airline staff are available to assist at a click of a virtual button.

Ilya Gutlin, senior vice president for APAC at Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise

He adds: “A connected airport also optimises daily operations through data. This can lead to improved decision-making, enhanced maintenance interventions and efficient resource management. Data through IoT adoption, modern asset tracking, and timely communications can lead to transparency and grow coordination and collaboration between stakeholders. This is key to ensure quick recovery when operations are disrupted.”

Honeywell’s Lim shares the same sentiment. “To ensure a seamless and enjoyable journey for passengers, airports and airlines can incorporate intelligent, integrated technology that leverage the IoT, connectivity and data analytics to streamline work flows and optimise operations.

“By integrating smart technology and conducting deeper, real-time data analysis in the terminal and onboard the aircraft, airport and airline operators can stay connected to create a better, safer and more comfortable travel experience for passengers.

“A full view of real-time insights will allow easier monitoring and adjustments to safeguard the airport and its occupants when necessary. For instance, when there is a rise in passenger traffic in the terminal, airport operators can arrange for more staff to tend to the checkpoints accordingly.”

This is exemplified by Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA). By using Honeywell Total Airport Management System to connect technical facilities within the airport, KLIA can provide a streamlined and seamless experience for passengers and airport operators.

For example, it allows the central airport building management operator at a single computer terminal to monitor and control every physical activity that takes place within the airport. If necessary, an intervention can be made in real-time to ensure the safety and security of passengers and staff.

KLIA also deployed Honeywell’s airfield lighting system to enable simultaneous monitoring of the aircraft traffic situation and airfield lighting control on the same control screen. The system is also interfaced with surveillance and navigation systems like Surface Movement Radar (SMR), Surface Manager (SMAN) and Runway visual range of automated airfield light intensity settings set to International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards to reduce energy consumption.

Honeywell also implemented a built-in system redundancy to minimise the oper￾ational risks for KLIA. If one server fails, a backup server will immediately take over. The active standby architecture ensures that passengers will not notice anything amiss or be affected.

These technology-driven solutions benefit passengers as it propels fast and efficient services in the terminal and helps airport operators lower operating costs as server failures sometimes lead to extended downtime and high repair costs.

YC Lim, president of Malaysia and Singapore at Honeywell

The final goal

To become connected and data-driven successfully, Lim recommends that airports first audit their current systems to assess their viability and efficiency. “However, rather than entirely replacing ageing infrastructure and systems, operators can shift to integrated systems and rely less on point solutions. This not only helps to reduce the need for an end-to-end refit, but it also provides a holistic and quantifiable improvement to processes and energy use in aircraft and airports alike.”

Accenture’s Tansey also highlights the need to redesign processes and organisational structure. “It is important to remember that the path here is more intricate than just investing in the cloud [and other technologies] and watching everything else fall into place.

Airports must also make organisational, process and cultural changes. Maximising the benefits of [technology] means tearing down entrenched silos — both within their organisation and with an ecosystem of partners — and adopting more open, collaborative mindsets.

“The path forward is to realise the possibilities for cross-functional collaboration with cloud and supporting technologies to enable and accelerate growth where possible, drive efficiencies across functions, and foster organisational innovation and transformation.”

Meanwhile, Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise’s Gutlin shares that airports must also improve collaboration between internal teams and the ecosystem players. He says: “An airport is an extremely complex environment with multiple teams and stakeholders. Efficiency, agility, and customer service [can only] flourish when the various teams have the same transparent data in front of them and are working as a team.

“While the airport remains a complex environment, the efficiency of operations and the effectiveness of customer service can always be improved by shielding the complexity from the final user and providing a seamless passenger journey.”

Airports [also need] to drive even more cooperation with their governments — including immigration, aviation regulators and others. Some countries have automated customs clearance that eliminates the need to fill out immigration forms, for example.

Allan Schulte, partner and head of APAC Airlines, Logistics and Transport practice, Bain & Company

He continues: “Airports can look at the passenger and employee experience to see where there is unnecessary wait time or sources of frustration. Addressing the biggest pain points first is key [to delivering a better passenger experience].”

As the holiday season nears, demand for air travel will continue to surge as passengers rush to take to the skies after being homebound for the last few years. To capitalise on this and increase revenue, airports should digitally transform themselves quickly to become passengers’ airports of choice for their travel or layover destinations.

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