IT innovation: Looking to the future
Elena Avila, head of the airport and airline operations business unit at Amadeus, talks to Airport World about some of the IT challenges, and potential solutions, facing airports today.
What would you say to those that argue that such is the rapid advancement of IT systems that any new technology is almost out of date within months of being installed?
I’d agree that this situation has been holding the industry back over recent years but that’s mainly due to the way technology has been managed at airports. Installing software on-site means it needs to be manually upgraded, it’s hard to bring it together with new innovations that emerge and it all costs more than it should.
Our aim when entering the airport technology industry has always been to change this by supplying modern and open technology from the cloud. Cloud software can be deployed quickly and cost-effectively, it can be integrated easily so different applications at the airport can talk to one another and it is the foundation for creating unified data that can be analysed for better operations. Amadeus has always designed its systems this way, and our solutions for operations and the passenger experience provide this flexibility today.
Cloud technology is critical to any platform approach, and this approach will maximise technology innovation across the aviation community, and importantly – it will future-proof the airport’s IT investment.
Biometrics is a great example. Designing a biometric platform in the cloud can be a key enabler to simplify its deployment and accelerate adoption. Offering end-to-end biometric experiences to passengers requires a complex integration involving multiple stakeholders. Airports and airlines can attempt to build these individual links themselves using APIs, but that effectively requires them to become systems integration firms, which is costly and time-consuming.
Our approach allows an airline to look at a map of airports where our biometric cameras are installed and choose to implement biometrics at them all, with just one connection to the cloud. The reverse is also true, and airports can more easily onboard airlines to their biometric programmes.
Does new technology, especially in the form of kiosks/equipment, inevitably mean high electricity costs for airports at a time when many operators are looking to reduce their raising energy bills?
Sustainability is high on the agenda for airports, and again cloud computing can be leveraged to help them operate in a more environmentally friendly way. By migrating to the cloud, airports push their computing requirements to far more efficient central data centers, enabling the use of ‘thin clients’ — simple computers that allow agents to serve passengers without an energy intensive workload. These machines consume less energy than standard PCs because they have far fewer moving parts.
Thin clients combined with a reduction in the number of airport servers and hardware equipment means less power consumption. For example, if 75% of workstations at a 300-workstation airport switched to then clients, the organisation would save the equivalent of more than 148 tons of carbon dioxide emissions over five years. While these calculations will differ for each airport, locations on average can potentially reduce energy usage compared by 30% compared to traditional technology.
What are the biggest challenges facing airports currently?
For me, there are two macro challenges the industry currently faces. Firstly, disruption is too high and this costs the industry both financially and reputationally. An inability to proactively manage disruption is the manifestation of historic silos of information between all the various partners involved in aviation. But change is on the horizon here.
At Amadeus, we’re making the transformation of disruption management a key priority by giving the industry new common technology to better predict, react to and manage disruption. This involves bringing a wide variety of systems together so that airline schedule changes can be conveyed to an airport and assessed within the context of that airport’s priorities. This is how automated recommendations can be generated to support airport operational control teams to better respond.
An insights-driven future is the only way to effectively manage efficient operations as well as embrace platform systems that allow the correct information to flow to the right partner. Beyond these innovations in technology, a number of business model changes and policymaking will be necessary to tackle the disruption and collaboration challenge.
Secondly, sustainability is crucial for any organisation involved in aviation. One of the most exciting possibilities here is the ability for airports to choose to prioritise sustainability within the operational technologies that manage an airport. So practically, that might mean an algorithm that allocates runway slots or stands and gates based on an objective to minimise unnecessary fuel burn on the ground. By making sustainability part of everything we do we can tackle it as part of our daily business.
How big a role will IT play in raising customer satisfaction levels at airports over the next decade?
Underpinned by closer collaboration between all stakeholders, we’ve long supported airports with modern technologies such as self-service touchpoints, biometrics, and the cloud in their efforts to deliver an exceptional end-to-end passenger experience. These technologies will continue to play a vital role in bolstering customer satisfaction in the near to long-term.
In November 2022, British Airways announced a major biometric trial at Heathrow Terminal 5 using Amadeus technology. The airline is upgrading its end-to-end passenger experience with biometrics, offering passengers the option to enrol for biometrics at home or via kiosks in the terminal. As biometrics removes the need for manual document checks it reduces the time taken at check-in, bag drop, and boarding. We expect to see more airlines and airports collaborating to deploy biometrics this year.
There will also be more instances where biometrics are used for payments. If passengers can already use biometrics to check in, drop off luggage, and board the plane, then these identity checks could double up to cover payments the passenger might choose to make for ancillary services or upgrades, further removing friction – adding an in-flight meal, upgrading to business class, or purchasing lounge access, for example.
Automation is a critical driver for frictionless travel, for streamlining experiences at the airport. As a very frequent flyer, and in my own experience, I know I seek out any option to streamline my time at the airport. If I have extra time, I prefer to get some work done, grab a beer after a busy day of work, or go and buy some gifts for my kids. But I certainly do not want to stand in line.
And the numbers speak for themselves. When using self-service devices such as Common Use kiosks and Self-Service Bag Drop, we see significant improvement in the time it takes to process passengers. We have been involved with some recent studies that show a two-step self-service process can eliminate lines and waiting times.
Our study compared this with a situation where, with an identical flight schedule and passenger demand profile, but without the self-service technology (i.e. assuming a manual, staffed, check-in and bag-drop process). In the manual scenario, the average wait time would have been 14 minutes, which rise to 35 minutes.
Naturally this approach leads to reduced staffing requirements. Our study suggests staff needed reduces by a factor of 2.5x, helping airports that are still struggling to recruit. People often overlook the space saving benefits of self-service that help an airport delay major capital investment. Less check-in counters also means more scope to focus on revenue-generating retail and leisure facilities, with passengers spending less time on aviation processes and more time enjoying those facilities.
How important will it be to better understand and optimise data sets from all crucial airport stakeholders in 2023?
Simply investing in technology won’t be enough in the face of evolving passenger expectations and increased levels of disruption as witnessed in 2022. That’s why a key focus for us in 2023 will be working with our airport partners to derive actionable insights from the information these technologies collect at every passenger touchpoint and from every operational system.
From a passenger completing check-in, to a runway slot being assigned, a change in weather, or even a problem in the local system transporting passengers to the airport, creates data. Data that can be captured, brought together and harnessed to generate insights that help airports operate more efficiently.
The amount of data that can be aggregated in an airport is enormous. However, when data is siloed in various applications belonging to various stakeholders, it is very hard to make that data work for everyone.
For airports to become insights-driven, the ability to collect and act upon timely and accurate data can be transformational. Benefits include the better matching of airport resources to demand. Collecting data passenger touchpoints accumulated over time makes it easier to create accurate forecasts. Airports can take this a step further by introducing machine learning to analyse the specific behaviour of each flight so they can predict the number of passengers likely to show up, and how many will rely on airport services, like on-site check-in.
Another significant benefit of understanding data insights is the predictive optimisation of baggage handling. It’s now possible to predict baggage delays and misconnections before they happen. Amadeus is already working on a project to offer airlines a complete view of mishandling across their network with AI used to provide predictions about expected rates of mishandling per route or expected misconnections. If it is apparent that a passenger’s bag can’t make a specific connection in time, then perhaps they should be re-booked on a slightly later flight. These are just a few examples of the value of becoming insights driven.
What might the airport of the future look like?
While one cannot be certain of what it will look like exactly, we do expect certain processes to become obsolete. For example, do we even need to check in at the airport today? The process was initiated in the 1920s to ascertain how many passengers have boarded, or missed a particular flight, helping airlines fill empty seats.
The universal use of smartphones means paper documentation could be eliminated completely one day, ensuring checking-in is completed 100% digitally. Indeed, the majority of passengers check-in remotely today, in many parts of the world. Coupled with the prevalence of self-service technology, including auto bag drops, the space used for airport check-in desks and kiosks could be used much more creatively than it is currently.
More broadly, we expect technology to better integrate with airport design so that passenger services are designed around the needs of the traveler, with technology increasingly ‘shrinking’ and melding into the background.
On the operational side, we are already working to improve how airports can collaborate with partners around disruption. Instead of having to negotiate with airlines to accommodate new schedules and plans when disruption occurs, airport systems should talk to airline systems.
There’s significant scope for automation and better communication channels between airports and airlines that will improve how disruption is handled. Applying modern technology to this challenge is long overdue and we believe it’s one of the most important objectives for
the industry over the coming years.
We will also see fully sustainable operations, including a significant percentage of local and regional traffic provided by electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft (eVTOL). Major airlines are making significant investments in this technology, to bring their passengers to their flights in pilotless electric aircraft.