Airports are a working environment like no other. From high profile gateways to other countries, to the demands of second-by-second planning, strict security protocols and heavy regulation, to being “fixed” in space with legacy infrastructures that are difficult to adapt – operationally and logistically, airports are complex beasts.
I spent many years working in manufacturing, which also has quite complex environments with lots going on: production lines, HGVs coming in and out of the depot to load and offload stock, etc. The crucial difference between a factory, for example, and an airport, is that airports are shared with millions of outside customers every year. They are not locked down and private; they are fluid public spaces that still have to operate with a tightly defined rule book.
And so while a backlog of HGVs at a factory isn’t ideal, it is not going to cause the same level of chaos and disruption that planes backing up on a runway would. Also, given their built infrastructure, factories are much easier to expand or relocate too. Airports, on the other hand, can be quite inflexible.
Given how finely tuned airports need to be, they are necessarily data rich environments with a large set of stakeholders and complex web of interactions. As they operate with multiple logistical dependencies, there is broad scope for continuous improvement and this will rely on good and timely data.
Amid all the bad press airports have received in recent years for a variety of reasons – Covid restrictions, increased security checks, strike action – improved efficiency and customer experience should be welcomed.
Yet, airports have a surprisingly wide mix of new and old systems and the introduction of new systems is always a challenge. The stakes are much higher at an airport – they must balance the risk (disruption/downtime) with the reward (potential increased efficiencies and improved customer experience) – and so in some regards they have been slower to embrace digital transformation than other industries.
With this in mind, I wanted to explore some of the key digital challenges airports face and think about how solutions to these could improve the overall experience of airports.
When something goes wrong at an airport – say, a flight is delayed or someone’s luggage goes missing – this has big implications for the consumer. They will no doubt be feeling annoyed and frustrated, with little awareness of everything that is going on in the background.
Unless you work there, most people won’t realise how many stakeholders are involved with the running of airports and how complicated they are. There will be different organisations in charge of various components such as baggage, food and refuelling. Consequently, who “owns” the problem is a common and significant challenge.
For example, baggage handlers are usually either employed directly by an airline or an aviation services company, yet many consumers mistakenly believe they are employed by the airport. This means lost baggage often becomes a problem for the airport; while the airport might not be the ‘problem owner’, it can be left needing to come up with a solution to disperse crowded baggage areas and appease disgruntled passengers.
The vast array of sub-contractors brings with it another challenge: reporting data is often siloed. However, given security divides between different organisations must be maintained, the adoption of universal systems, or enabling data flow between different systems, is a tricky task.
Commercial airfields are also vast with lots of expensive kit – vehicles, ramps, stairs, engine stands – dotted around. Having real-time awareness of location and usage of assets is crucial but data is, again, rightly protected by layers of security. The key question here is how to access data easily and cost-effectively to produce digital solutions.
Amid all of these challenges, digital transformation would require extensive upskilling of the airport workforce to train people on new systems, which could be seen as an additional cost and another risk to weigh up against the rewards.
Improving operational efficiencies
The foreign object debris FOD project we worked on with Rolls-Royce is an example of how data flow can be improved airside without major impacts to security, upskilling or legacy systems, and is one that is relevant to every airport in the world. The app allows users to track and record foreign object debris, straight from their smartphone, by scanning objects to capture high quality imagery, accurate GPS location and size, which are then sent for analysis in a central database.
Thinking about this in an airport setting, being able to track objects on a runway helps to keep airflow moving and minimise delays. There is also wider scope for a similar app to track and report airport-owned assets or even consumer luggage.
Other areas digital solutions could be used to improve operational efficiencies include:
- Auditing the state of perimeter fence, nesting birds, the runway surface.
- Streamlining and scheduling maintenance of aircraft and aircraft engines with the kit needed to do the task, for example engine stands – an asset management and location task.
- Improving data capture of passengers and passenger flow as they move through the airport – from car park to gate.
- Increased use of geo-fencing for digital access and security.
For most people, airports are not a place they visit frequently and are associated with high value experiences – whether the destination is for a family holiday or key business meeting.
Simultaneously, anyone who has been to an airport has probably felt confused or frustrated at some point during the experience. They can be perceived as a maddening series of obstacles to overcome – from car parking and checking in, to security control and constant presentation of documentation. They are also “rabbit warrens” with a barrage of competing signage and instructions, crowded and difficult to get around.
Digital solutions have a clear role to play in reducing friction at control points and in aiding navigation, yet the economic reality post-pandemic is that budgets are tight and so a digital solution must provide a quick payback.
Finding “one off” digital solutions that give enough benefit to be worth using, while being easy to use and catering for the many, is always going to be a challenge. Airports are complex enough and so any consumer-facing digital solution must be accessible, otherwise the technology will be redundant and it’s money down the pan. Some solutions may require a carrot and stick approach, too, for example prior online check-in obviously helps airlines but having a boarding pass on the phone unquestionably helps the passenger too.
Improving the consumer experience
Theoretical solutions to airport navigation can be extrapolated from the NavSta project we did in partnership with TfL, which helps people with less visible disabilities to independently navigate through another complex transport hub: the London Underground.
At an airport, digital wayfinding could be implemented to help people to know what facilities or amenities are around, including toilets, as well as where important locations such as flight gates and bus stops are. This could, in theory, help to increase passenger spend at shops and restaurants, and reduce bottlenecks at gates and check-in.
Other ways consumer-based digital products could improve the experience:
- Passenger/location-specific offers for food and beverages or other retail outlets.
- Persuading people to explore less busy areas to try and control overcrowding.
- Incentivised digital feedback forms for continuous improvement.
- A streamlined way for reporting lost baggage directly to airlines.
- Integrating Internet of Things into airport “furniture”, such as cameras in seats, to monitor passenger flow around a space.
- Making use of digital smart screens to relay information.
Ultimate goals of digital changes
An airport is a destination in its own right, a place where an experience starts and where digital products can add experiential value.
Think about it this way: when you arrive at an airport, your first perceptions of the built environment impact the whole experience. You will likely have a much better experience if you arrive at a bright, airy and modern airport than one that is old, dingy and rundown.
It is the bright, airy and modern airport that we are trying to replicate with the digital processes; to make airports a more pleasant, enjoyable and stress-free place to be for both staff and passengers, from the initial arrival to check-in to take-off.
As we have established, airports are complex beasts riddled with digital opportunities and pitfalls in equal measure. Digital transformation cannot happen overnight in this environment, but there are low-hanging fruits that are ripe for improvement: baggage control, parking, wayfinding, reducing waiting times at security, reporting data internally to improve processes and staff efficiency.
Ultimately, to improve the overall experience of the airport is to improve the reputation of the airport too – most of which could do with a boost right now.