Historically, when travelers entered an airport, their primary concern was leaving it behind as quickly and easily as possible.
This is becoming less common. In fact, if airports aren’t yet reinventing themselves as destinations of choice, they’re trying to improve the traveler experience to drive both satisfaction and nonaeronautical revenue.
Today, convenience, efficiency and experience are the most valuable offerings an airport can provide to customers. This is also true for growing cities, where bringing in travelers quickly and conveniently has become a key part of economic development plans. Smart cities themselves are adopting emerging technological solutions, and today’s airports function almost as comparable city ecosystems — if not with more complexity. This means they should take advantage of opportunities within the airport sphere and integrate them into the wider city environment; this could involve traffic awareness around an airport, for example.
Digital transformation should already be an essential part of any airport’s strategy. In fact, digital initiatives are already responsible for advances in customer satisfaction at airports: In JD Power’s 2018 survey on customer experience in North American airports, customers reported their highest levels of satisfaction ever. They cited the convenience of self-service kiosks for check-in and baggage and improvements in coordination between security, airlines, airports, and the wider system of stakeholders.
Other technologies also provide a significant amount of promise for airports — digital twins could prove particularly useful in validating potential solutions much more seamlessly and efficiently, although solutions will still require live validation. This could reduce the time and effort associated with initiating and completing requests for proposal or information processes.
However, airports still have a significant amount of work ahead of them if they plan to reap the benefits of digital transformation. As highlighted by Airports Council International and other organizations, airports in America need an excess of $128 billion for infrastructure improvements. Considering these vast investment sums, airports must invest intelligently and ensure that return on investment can improve operational efficiencies and experiences. The key here? Airports might need to deliver more with less.
The enhancements we see in passenger experience are in part due to digital transformation efforts already happening alongside process optimizations. However, even more unrealized value awaits. What’s standing in the way?
Solving Airport-Specific Challenges
For one thing, airports face competition in terms of attracting airlines (and therefore, customers) based on specific destinations. Just consider that it was good news when last year, a trade group found that Europe’s airports were on track to lose out on hundreds of thousands of flights by 2025 due to capacity issues.
Although some airports have excess capacity, for airports that are at or close to capacity, the ability to attract new airlines will depend on the return on investment they can achieve and the use of larger aircraft. This certainly presents challenges for airport operators. Ensuring collaborative decision-making can help in this respect, especially when data is accessible across an organization.
When the short-term needs are so intense, strategizing for complex digital transformation initiatives can take a back seat. The ability to differentiate between short-term and long-term planning can help avoid self-reinforcing problems. The more airports fall behind what’s possible, the harder it becomes to implement new approaches.
Internet of Things technology, for example, holds a world of possibility for airports. From making it easier for travelers to find parking to improving baggage tracking to offering suggested activities during delays, IoT solutions could make it easier and more valuable for airports to share information across the entire customer journey. IoT also provides far more granular information that airports can use to make decisions, and those decisions can be operational or strategic in nature.
Besides this, implementing IoT solutions can help with the myriad challenges that airports face, whether it’s providing accurate collaboration data for stakeholders or general infrastructure management. This shared data can also help airports ease up processes, including gate allocations, equipment availability, and predictive maintenance. The right services should be available at the right time, from offerings that improve passenger experience to solutions that streamline airport operations.
With the massive amounts of data now traversing not only airports, but also the rest of the ecosystem, airports must ensure their cybersecurity master plans are robust and compatible with emerging technologies. They should also remain compliant with privacy mandates (the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation and California’s Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 come to mind, and more will certainly follow). After all, airports don’t want to face is a data breach. Aside from remediation costs and negative press, the potential customer recovery costs and reputational damage could be far greater and take far longer to recover from.
On top of that, the first airlines to adopt large-scale digital initiatives will likely have to build and design them all by themselves; there aren’t other use cases from which to draw ideas and solutions (though airports can glean insight from industries where parallels exist).
Without a doubt, digital transformation in an enterprise as complex and delicate as an airport will require investments of time, money, and commitment. These necessary investments will only grow as airports delay taking action — and the need is increasingly urgent. Why wait?
The Time to Act Is Now
Soon, customers won’t be the only ones demanding state-of-the-art airports — regulators are sure to join them. The International Air Transport Association, the responsible body for airlines,
continues to release new resolutions, recommended practices, and research. One of its recently issued resolutions, Resolution 753, requires airports to implement cross-industry baggage tracking. Perhaps IATA was acting on its own data: Its 2018 global passenger survey found that 56% of travelers wanted to be able to track their bags throughout their journeys. In conjunction with IATA, ACI — another organization at the forefront of airports’ interests — also issued a member statement expressing support for the measure. The alignment of the entire aviation ecosystem is key to providing optimal solutions for both passengers and operators.
However, this will likely require continual updates to the technologies that airports have deployed as well as their management processes. Although a well-planned strategy is beneficial in creating a clear vision and end game, waiting might mean airports fall behind the competition. Can they implement tactical solutions to underpin strategic ones? Without addressing processes and procedures, they risk falling behind on compliance as well.
IATA’s resolution certainly won’t be the only tech-driven update airports will need to adhere to in the coming years. Overall, they should be encouraged that customers and regulators want to take advantage of the benefits digitalization provides. It means that opportunities are waiting for airports that can put the right solutions in place.
Practice Director (Airports) at Wipro Limited.
He is an experienced IT Professional with over two decades’ experience in the IT and Aviation (Airports) industry. He has led and managed IT systems Design and Implementation projects for large Greenfield and Brownfield airports. He has also been responsible for IT strategy development, Operations and Maintenance of IT systems at various Indian airports like BIAL (Bengaluru), DIAL (New Delhi), Male International Airport (Maldives) and Mactan Cebu International Airport in the Philippines.