As borders begin to re-open, is it time for APAC airports to reconsider how they will look and digitally interact with passengers in the future? Amadeus’ senior vice president of airport and airline operations for the region, Sarah Samuel, investigates.
When the pandemic emerged in 2019, Asia-Pacific was the first to feel its impact. And now as recovery occurs around the world, it seems Asia-Pacific will be the last to shed those impacts.
Yet, over the past few months, there have been signs of recovery in the Asia-Pacific market, and as border controls begin to ease, pent up demand for travel is being unleashed.
There are priorities we need to look at as we re-open. Like many industries, we must combat the reduction we’ve seen in our workforce and reduce friction for the traveller wherever possible.
However, we must also look further forward beyond these initial priorities. In my view, we must find our ‘big vision’, by stepping back to consider the full travel journey, before zooming in on airports within the context of a more connected overall passenger experience. There’s a wealth of value to create for the traveller.
The immediate priority: getting back off the ground
Rehiring will be a key element of this, but the reality is that workforces cannot be built back up immediately.
Whilst the importance of maintaining operations, reducing queue time, and ensuring an overall positive passenger experience is clear, many workers have stepped into permanent roles in other industries. This necessitates a drive for innovative solutions using technology. And we’re already seeing airports in the region respond by turning to automation.
At present, automated immigration is often only available to citizens, permanent residents and long-term pass holders meaning all other travellers must queue to be manually processed by an agent at a counter.
Yet, with an increased focus on chipping passports, airports are looking to auto-gates to deliver the majority of passenger processing at immigration, leaving agents to deal with any exceptions.
The same goes for all areas of the airport. There’s a real drive for auto-bag drop units and biometrics, for example, to remove manual touchpoints and enable passengers to transit seamlessly from check-in to boarding despite staff shortages.
Streamlining health checking practices
One of the crucial lessons of the pandemic has been the need for preparation and standardisation. Whilst automation has the potential to reduce friction for the passenger, it must extend beyond visas and passports to also become viable for health documentation.
Amadeus Traveler ID – a platform that digitalises identity and health documents – is an important technological evolution within this context. It’s interoperable and can be integrated into other digital health passes such as the EU Digital COVID certificate. And, in April 2020, it passed the milestone of 10 million documents verified.
So, from a technological standpoint, this is already possible, but complexity is added when different countries, and in some cases different states within countries, have varying rules regarding the vaccinations and health documentation required in order to travel.
During the pandemic, health checking processes had to happen manually as a result. Looking to the future, agreeing upon a single standard would be ideal. This would also create a more fluid airport environment where agents are able to roam with mobile devices and ensure fast processing rather than being tied to a desk.
If we look at a previous example, it took considerable time to get all stakeholders to agree upon the 2D barcode which is now commonplace on our boarding passes. Yet, once these sorts of standards are in place, operations become far simpler and more efficient.
Moving towards the bigger picture
With a move towards automation and standardisation in motion, it’s important that airports connect these evolutions to the bigger picture. In essence, digital progression must be designed at the strategic level instead of individual projects.
At present, technological innovations are adopted with the short-term in mind. An airport is experiencing problem ‘X’, and therefore looks to solution ‘Y’ to fix it, before moving on to the next priority.
Almost all airports will be looking to reduce the number of desks and kiosks in their departure halls, and automation will be part of this journey. But there will also be significant differences.
Larger airports, for example, may see themselves transitioning into big entertainment centres and destinations whilst others may envisage becoming streamlined, bus-stop, style airports. It is generally understood that the departure hall of the future will be different, but it’s important to consider how that looks for your airport and choose a technological strategy accordingly.
Connecting airports to the wider travel ecosystem
To really take a long-term strategic view, I argue we need to consider the future needs of travellers and how the end-to-end passenger experience can be enhanced. For airports, a clear opportunity is increased personalisation.
This personalisation is in part made possible by the ‘super app’, which airports are now using for steps like check-in and retail, as a means of forming a direct relationship with the traveller.
Let’s look at an example of the personalisation made possible once a traveller has agreed to sharing data when interacting with an airport’s super app. Let’s say a large family with young children is travelling and will be transiting via Singapore’s Changi International Airport for a connecting flight. Traditionally, Changi (in this example) wouldn’t know this group was due to be at the airport.
Leveraging traveller insights, the airport may decide to offer the best possible experience via personalisation.
Pre-arrival, the airport reaches out to offer the family friendly lounge at a charge. This information is welcome as the family would be far more comfortable in this family lounge as opposed to one filled with business travellers. Over time, this kind of personalisation helps to build loyalty.
Airports have never been afforded the visibility of arriving passengers, but if we think about the traveller journey, the airport represents a critical part of the trip. People spend hours inside the terminal. In addition, other elements of the journey – such as inside the airline cabin or the hotel – have already been highly personalised.
Connecting the airport element of a passenger’s journey to the bigger picture has the potential to revolutionise non-aeronautical revenues for airports and greatly improve the passenger experience.
It extends well beyond the travelling family example, too. Recently, our work with a Japanese airport revealed that Chinese passengers tend to arrive far earlier than average to a flight.
By joining the data together an airport can ensure they have enough check-in facilities open early when dealing with Chinese travellers. They can also personalise their merchandising displays to prioritise luxury products at the right time. Airports could also leverage their dynamic signage with relevant Chinese language messaging.
If we combine advances in data enabled personalisation, automation, the move of check-in processes off airport, and touchless biometric processing, it’s clear that the traveller experience is headed for big change. And with it, the airport is set to evolve, too.
In my opinion, we have reached a tipping point in airport technology where products no longer only perform a discreet function (e.g. self-service check-in), but are in fact just a spoke connected to a broader hub of intelligence.
This ‘hub’, or single source of data and insight, means airport touchpoints perform their core function like check-in, but they should also be a means to deliver meaningful personalised offers and experiences to the traveller based on the unique context of the passenger and the trip.
The past few years have shown how complex travel can be in the context of a pandemic. Combined with changing passenger needs, route changes, cancellations, and other disruptive factors, it’s clear that a single platform approach is more important than ever before.
Airline and airport collaboration is crucial to achieving this and shifting from a product to a value mindset. For example, a single platform would help remove friction with a single system for automated document checks, bag tracking could be improved with more regular updates, and predictive flight operations could help to better optimise landing and take-off slots.
Overall, as an industry, it’s time we realised the value in collaborating. The pandemic forced us to break silos between airports and airlines, and looking forward, it’s essential that we continue to come together.
With APAC beginning to enter recovery, airports also need to move away from a transactional approach to finding the right partners.
Rather than airports looking to continue buying individual IT products designed to iteratively improve existing processes, it’s time for APAC to think big and find its strategic vision, decide what the airport of the future could look like, and plan a technological roadmap needed to get there.