Bucking the trends – airport IT solutions
Investment in emerging airport technologies will be key to managing growth and meeting changing passenger expectations. Keith Mwanalushi examines how IT will influence the traveller experience.
GCC airports are growing in size to cater for ballooning passenger and freighter volumes and technology is becoming central to improving operations.
The largest markets in terms of airport projects are the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and much of the spend in new information technology (IT) will be at airports there.
“Technology is changing how airports and airlines interact with passengers,” affirmed Eliot Lees, vice president at aviation consultancy firm ICF International. “We have already seen the impact of e-ticketing, text communication, radio-frequency identification (RFID) bag tracking, social media and push technology on the passenger journey through an airport.”
Airports increasingly need to integrate technology into their operating strategy, management decision-making process, and service delivery to their users.
The use of sensor technology and performance optimisation software is changing the way airports plan new infrastructure capacity, deliver service, and interact with the passenger. “For example, Dubai Airports has installed a sensor system that advises passengers on wait times and is using this to improve service to the passenger,” said Lees.
The UAE will lead Middle East passenger growth with more than 6.3% annual increase, according to new estimates by the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Dubai International Airport (DXB) has invested heavily in technology and engaged a staff of experts to manage and implement its IT strategy.
Other airports in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are also reviewing potential IT strategies. “However, while technology is a key ingredient to improving airport performance, equally important is the organisational and management changes that are needed to use technology to its fullest,” Lees cautioned.
IATA states that the Middle East’s aviation market is expected to grow significantly and will see an extra 258 million passengers a year on routes to, from and within the region by 2035. “The implementation of new IT solutions will enable airports and airlines to introduce new passenger processing procedures, which will improve customer experience,” stated Iyad Hindiyeh, head of airport IT business development at Amadeus.
New technology will also significantly improve baggage-handling and reconciliation systems and reduce airport running and operation costs, Hindiyeh added. “With the three main airlines in the region competing for customer numbers, IT is an important means for airlines to improve and differentiate their airport services for their customers.”
Middle East airports are both increasing local market demand and transfer traffic. John Grant, senior analyst at air travel intelligence company, OAG, said that coping with such increases in demand not only requires significant infrastructure development but also staying ahead of the competition by delivering operational and passenger service advantage.
“IT development has been crucial in that growth and will increasingly be of importance in the coming years. Only by embracing IT, in all its various formats through the travel experience from reservation to in-flight service and arrival, can airports continue to meet the needs of the ever-demanding airlines and their passengers.
“IT advances also bring efficiency of scale to airports and, in an industry where operating margins for all parties are extremely small, those advancements are required daily,” Grant said.
Self-service and automation have become the buzz words at airport technology exhibitions, with all the solution-providers pushing airport operators not to lag behind in adopting these technologies, or else face a decline in efficiency [and passenger numbers.]
“There is a clear linkage between technology and airport efficiency,” Lees observed. For example, he said, e-ticketing was already feeling the impact of technology in terms of terminal space.
“Ticketing kiosks reduce the need for airline check-in desks, airline staff and passenger queuing areas. Not only does this upgrade the level of service to the passenger but it reduces the need for, and consequently the construction cost of, additional terminal space.”
Over the past five years, it’s evident that the introduction of technology and automation has ramped up significantly, and over the next five it’s probable that this pace will be even faster. Lees foresees that airports that are slow to adopt technology and automation into their planning and management strategy will face higher throughput costs because today’s technology allows for greater throughput, given the same level of infrastructure resources and investment.
“So there is a direct payback of investment in technology in more efficient infrastructure, reduced need for future capital investment and enhanced service levels,” he said. “Those airports that do not embrace and adopt new technologies will be left behind.”
Grant is not entirely convinced that airports are slow to adopt such technology. He said, for every airport, any IT advancement requires a solid business case that looks not only at the cost of development but also the subsequent resource efficiencies achieved, and the improvements offered to their passengers. “Research tells us that happy passengers are more disposed to spend in concessions and, with that in mind, airports are always seeking to improve their overall passenger experience and IT is at the core of that objective.”
The industry in general is moving towards self-service and kiosk bag drop. In Europe, self-service check-in and bag drop has become the norm but, Hindiyeh noted, due to technology constraints and a cultural reticence to adapt to a self-service model, this is not generally the case at Middle East airports.
“Many airlines still use their own check-in technology, while self-serve kiosks require a multi-airline common use systems. Kiosks also require additional physical space at departures terminals and this poses a challenge for some airports in the region,” said Hindiyeh.
Beyond these technological and physical challenges, a further challenge for Middle Eastern airports is that passengers expect to be checked in and be given a personalised service by airline ground staff, as Hindiyeh pointed out.
Smart boarding gates and remote check-in are all concepts currently trending within the airport community, particularly at the busier gateways. UAE residents, for instance, carrying an Emirates identification document, are able to process through passport control in a matter of seconds. This is after DXB underwent a major upgrade on the airport’s 127 smart gates, located in arrivals and departures across all three terminals at the airport.
Upon inserting the Emirates identification card into the smart gate, the system can quickly confirm the identity, travel plans and eligibility of UAE residents to enter and depart the country.
General Mohammad Al Marri, director general at the directorate of residency and foreigners affairs (UAE), said creating a system that enhanced both security and passenger convenience was a breakthrough for managing the borders in the UAE, and responded to calls from his leadership to provide services that made the passenger journey as smooth as possible.
Paul Griffiths, CEO of Dubai Airports, added: “With a transaction time that averages 10-15 seconds, this is clearly a smarter way to travel. It speeds up the immigration process significantly and shortens queues. Our focus, going forward, is to get more residents using it.”
Lees said new smart boarding gates and remote check-in systems had proven not only to improve passenger throughput, but also to allow the airport to capture important information about passenger behaviour. “This wealth of information can be used to evaluate performance.”
Lees added that technology was not just about replacing airport or airline manpower, or reducing physical infrastructure, but it is was fundamental in reshaping the future of airports. “New airport technologies generate a robust level of information about the passenger behaviour and actions, about how service is delivered, and provides a platform to support continuous process improvement,” he said. “Through new technology and big data analytics, airports are increasingly able to ‘view’ the passenger movement through the airports and improve airport performance to enhance the passenger experience.”
Because of technology, Lees feels the management of airports is undergoing a fundamental shift in how they are organised, how they deliver service, and how they interact with various stakeholders to improve the overall travel experience.
He advised that airport management needed to understand what emerging technologies and systems were being introduced around the world.
Amadeus technology now allows for remote check-in from anywhere – inside or outside the airport terminal, said Hindiyeh. “The same common-use technology also allows for gate changes, enabling airports to move airline departures from one gate to another seamlessly.”
Remote check-in technology permits passengers to check in anywhere from conference centres to cruise ships, and has the ability to track passenger bags from an off-site airport location.
“Anything that simplifies the required passenger processes without compromising on safety and security requirements should be to everyone’s benefit,” Grant reckoned. Remote check-in has been operational for some years and smart boarding is already close to adoption in some markets. “If these advances can streamline waiting times, then everyone will welcome the development. But, perhaps of more interest, is the opportunities that biometric technology and especially micro-chip data can have on the industry over the next few years. This really is an area of huge IT opportunity,” he added.
Airports are also keeping up with new technologies to streamline every aspect of baggage-handling processes. In August last year, Abu Dhabi Airports installed a new automated tray return system (ATRS) to speed up the process of hand luggage screening at Terminal 3 in Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH).
The new system allows more than four times the number of bags to be screened than conventional screening lanes, reducing wait times and congestion.
IATA announced a new resolution 753 for its member airlines, which comes into effect in 2018. Nick Gates, portfolio director at SITA, explained in his online blog that, essentially, it requires IATA member airlines to monitor and log the status of its passengers’ bags through the major stages of the journey. One of the biggest consequences will be that inbound (arrival bags) will need to be more actively tracked/monitored.
Clearly, IATA’s member airlines will be affected. But, so too, airports and ground handlers. By 2018, airports will need to have the IT systems and infrastructure in place to be ready to support the airlines that need to comply. This means that all airports (existing or new) will need to assess whether they have the appropriate baggage infrastructure to be able to support the requirements of this resolution.
Hindiyeh said Amadeus’ baggage reconciliation system (BRS) was already compliant with the resolution. “We already have 100 airlines on the BRS. It is used at Abidjan International Airport (Ivory Coast) and we have had a lot of interest from other Middle Eastern airports,” he added.
Elsewhere, the now famous Leo, a fully autonomous, self-propelling baggage robot that has the capacity to check-in, print bag tags and transport up to two suitcases, is currently on a globe-trotting tour and has been spotted at airports ranging from Geneva to Marrakech.
The robot also has an obstacle avoidance capability and can navigate in a high-traffic environment such as an airport.
Leo provides a glimpse into the future of baggage-handling being explored by SITA Lab and is the first step to automating the baggage process from the moment passengers drop their bags to when they collect them.
Hani El-Assaad, SITA president, Middle East, India and Africa said: “Through the innovative work of the SITA Lab, we are able to tackle some of the key challenges that face airlines and airports today. Leo demonstrates that technologies, such as robotics, can help the air transport industry manage the growth in traffic in a more sustainable way, while offering passengers an unencumbered journey through the airport and on to the aircraft.”