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Future thinking


Exploring and developing ways of sharing technology will make airport operations more efficient and cost effective and help transform the passenger journey, writes Sarah Samuel, Amadeus’ head of airport IT for Asia-Pacific.

Modern technology is playing an ever-increasing role in ensuring airports can meet the challenges faced today by the industry globally.

Whether it’s the use of advanced analytics to optimise operations, or self-service automation to increase throughput while streamlining the journey for passengers, new and innovative technology can support airports in reaching their business objectives.

Thanks to advances in underlying technology architecture, the ability for software to be provided ‘as a service’ allows multiple airports to use the same system without the need for costly and complex local IT infrastructure.

The advantages of a shared approach include reduced on-site infrastructure and energy costs. But, while these savings are significant, cloud technology is about much more than that.

Flexibility when you need it

There are some airports that do not have the agility to scale operations to match changes in demand and, due to a combination of limitations on physical expansion and rigid legacy systems, flexibility is inhibited.

Innsbruck Airport in Austria, for example, was the first to adopt a complete cloud-based common use solution. With cloud technology effectively allowing an airport to scale capacity up and down depending on demand, a ‘software as a service’ (SaaS) approach provided the flexibility at check-in required based on traffic at any given time.

The needs of Hong Kong International Airport, another early adopter of cloud computing, are very different. As one of the world’s busiest airports, it typically caters to upwards of five million passengers a month. But even here, ebbs and flows in passengers at check-in, places pressure on ground handlers.

Through the deployment of mobile, cloud-supported ‘iCUSS’ check-in kiosks, the airport has been able to significantly increase capacity at peak times, while also being able to scale back as demand declines.

This flexibility allows airports to adapt more quickly to changing situations. For example, were an extreme weather event to force an airport to close a terminal, mobile ‘pop-up’ workstations could be used to quickly resume operations in an adjacent one.

Meanwhile, the fixed workstations no longer in use in the previous terminal could be powered down to minimise operational costs, such as those associated with energy consumption.

Rapid adoption of new innovations

Cloud computing provides airports much greater flexibility at check-in. But while airports such as Hong Kong have been able to scale capacity, ground handlers like Off Airport Check-in Solutions (OACIS) have taken this approach a step further.

Initially launched in 2017 at Sydney Airport, the company has plans to expand further across Australia and internationally in New Zealand, and the South Pacific. Linked to the airport via the cloud, it can check-in passengers at any location with a mobile connection: conferences, city centres, hotels, and homes.

It envisions a truly distributed airport, where luggage and passengers are handled separately; and where both extra space and saved time can be devoted to transforming airports into ‘retail and entertainment complexes’, helping drive additional revenues.

Unlocking tailored services for passengers

This flexibility is now proving to be the first step in a transformation journey for many airports as they seek to harness new technology to deliver travellers a tailored experience. Today’s passenger expects a smooth and frictionless airport experience, one that’s sensitive to the nature of their trip.

For example, a young business passenger is likely to opt for a self-service automated approach at every touchpoint. A family with three young children that aren’t native English speakers are more likely to choose full-service, agent-assisted check-in.

With flexible modern IT systems, airports can personalise journeys to meet the needs of both types of travellers, as well as for others.

Another example is the emerging trend of ‘self-connecting’ passengers. Currently, flyers connecting between different airlines without a traditional interline agreement must, on arrival at their transit airport, pass through immigration and pick up their bags, before checking in for their next flight, dropping off their bags, and passing through security again; a highly inefficient process.

But when the IT is flexible, passenger services can be portable, and self-connecting travellers can be checked-in upon arrival at the transit area instead.

Not only does this make life easier for the passenger, but it also clears additional congestion at check-in and creates a new optional service which can be monetised to generate new revenues for the airport.

Biometrics is another case in point. When each airport and airline offer their own biometric solution, there is typically little or no integration between systems, meaning passengers have to enrol and re-enrol, each time they fly with a new airline or arrive at a new airport.

This means a hugely inefficient duplication of systems and friction for the passenger, who has to navigate multiple biometric systems across numerous locations.

The solution is a single, common and shared approach to IT, standard across the industry, which would allow passengers to travel using one biometric system across multiple airlines and airport destinations.

However, despite the passenger experience and economic advantages of a SaaS approach, there are still many airports choosing to stay with their traditional method of keeping IT infrastructure on-site at the terminal. This has contributed to a number of common misconceptions.

Modernising IT infrastructure so you can adapt as required  

The first is regarding control. Naturally, there’s a sense of comfort that comes with being able to touch and feel the servers that power your airport. However, airline departure control systems run remotely, communicating with the common use service at the airport over Wide Area Network links. In essence, they’re already in the cloud.

Secondly, it is often difficult for resource-constrained in-house teams to match the number of IT experts and investment levels of a dedicated provider that can benefit from significant economies of scale. A dedicated provider can offer a team in the hundreds monitoring for issues and patching systems, as they are identified.

We are also witnessing an evolution in off-site computing with applications and processes that can be replicated across multiple physical data centres, and ‘turned-on’ for an airport using a fixed internet, Wi-Fi or 4/5G link.

This form of computing has been envisaged since the early 2000s and has now matured to a level where it is trusted by even the most sensitive of industries.

In the US, for example, the Pentagon’s recent award of the world’s largest contract for off-site computing to Microsoft, in a $10 billion deal to house its critical data and systems, marked a watershed moment.

The significance of this moment was not lost on Baku Airport in Azerbaijan when it became the first fully cloud-based airport last year. The decision was indicative of a mindset shift among some of the world’s most innovative airports.

The airport recognises that if it is to achieve its ambitious digital transformation goals, its underlying technology architecture would have to be based in the cloud.

Shared IT with common standards has been a defining characteristic of air transport, helping to connect the world’s first truly global industry. The advance of technology now presents us with another opportunity to choose a globally shared infrastructurethat facilitates co-operation, so we can make air travel frictionless for all.

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