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Amsterdam Schiphol Airport: Smart operations


Amsterdam Schiphol continues to innovate by using smart solutions to enhance its operational efficiency and help secure its long-term future, write the Royal Schiphol Group’s Zahra Merchant and Jan Zekveld.

The very nature of the aviation industry ensures that it is constantly evolving and creating new logistical and transformational challenges for airports, which need to be addressed before current solutions become outdated and they eventually have a big impact on operations.

The Royal Schiphol Group cannot afford to let this happen at Schiphol Airport as we are the gateway to the world for Amsterdam and the Netherlands, welcoming 52.5 million passengers (+105%) and 397,646 aircraft movements (+17%) in 2022.

Luckily, Amsterdam Schiphol (AMS) is used to dealing with constant logistical challenges and, as a result, we have learned to adapt really well, resulting in a robust and resilient organisation that has gained a well earned reputation for developing innovative solutions to different challenges.

Explorative innovation

We tend to look at the innovative landscape as space and horizons as ‘Earth’, ‘Moon’ and ‘Mars’ within it as a modern-day simplification of the three horizons of innovation model developed by McKinsey in 1999.

Earth represents day-to-day problems which are focused in the here and now and usually solved by operational expertise. Moon represents opportunities in the near future that require a certain degree of transformation. Mars represents more disruptive opportunities.

While we innovate on all horizons as an organization, Schiphol’s Innovation Hub focuses primarily on Moon and Mars shots, the more explorative types of innovation, if you like.

To pursue these innovations that are characterised by a higher risk of failure, the team has developed its own way of working. A method that fits projects with horizon two and three challenges.

This includes looking outside the aviation industry for innovative solutions. We actually started doing this some time ago, initially by better understanding how companies like Microsoft and Netflix, for example, remained relevant and almost future-proof through their innovative thinking and creative mindset.

We then started to focus on our own future readiness by looking several years ahead and concentrating on specific issues in the airport environment such as autonomous technology, the future of baggage handling, and the future passenger journey.

Our Innovation Hub plays a key role here by trialling and testing new systems, processes and procedures, paying attention to how we can utilise digital technologies and services that will allow us to make better use of existing infrastructure.

I believe that the projects below show innovation at AMS its best, as well as the type of co-operation and commitment needed by different stakeholders in the airport ecosystem to make them happen.


The long queues, delays and flight cancellations experienced across Europe in the summer of 2022 caused by airports and other stakeholders not having the staffing levels to cope with unexpectedly fast rise in demand, proved the catalyst for the launch of Timeslots at AMS.

It was a simple idea that arose from a larger future vision for an home-enrolment programme for all passengers. It allows users to book a timeslot for security up to 72 hours (about 3 days) prior to their flight. The QR code received confirms their place in a virtual queue and can be scanned on arrival at the designated queue and timeslot chosen. The passengers can then swiftly make their way through security and free of cost.

At AMS, we are actively introducing innovative ways to better the quality of our service offerings to all passengers. The benefits of Timeslots include improved passenger sign-in patterns, a smoother flow through the security process and an overall better passenger experience.

It also provides a new touchpoint for passengers at the airport, which gives us better insights into passenger behaviours. To date, more than 668,000 time slots have been reserved, and a hugely positive 98% of all those to use the initiative say that they were very satisfied with the service.

Amsterdam Schiphol is currently examining whether the possibility to reserve time slots can be extended to other airport processes such as check-in and passport control. Schiphol | Timeslots


The world is moving towards automation, where manual repetitive tasks are replaced by robots. We have known this trend for more than 10 years now. However, if one looks closely at aviation and especially the baggage halls, one learns that the vast majority of their processes are still done manually.

These labour-intensive processes deteriorate the quality of work and life of the worker over time. Many airports face similar challenges due to a similar setup of the baggage halls.

‘COBOT’ (an acronym for ‘Collaborative robot’) is an emerging technology in robotics where an ecosystem is created to allow for a man and robot to work together as a unit and in the same space.

A Danish company called COBOTLIFT manufactures robot arms that can lift heavy items and place them at a different location, removing all the physical strain from a human in the process but still relying on the intelligence and judgment of the human.

Their robots were created with the purpose of being used at bakeries to lift heavy sacks of sugar and flour, but through rapid development and testing, an appropriate model was created especially for the baggage halls at Schiphol.

To date, we have purchased 19 COBOTs, which are going to be implemented across the baggage hall south starting at end of October 2023. We are confident that we will shortly see the positive impact it will have on the baggage handlers and how they work in the future.

Amsterdam Airport Schiphol to fast-track the use of baggage robots after successful pilot project.

Deep Turnaround

Deep Turnaround improves the aircraft turnaround processes based on historic, real-time and predictive insights for all stakeholders.

Using AI image-based processing, the Deep Turnaround algorithm detects and reports over 70 unique turnaround events in 30 turnaround processes. It detects delays as early as 40 minutes before the targeted off-block-time (TOBT), and helps to make informed decisions.

It uses computer vision techniques gained from thousands of hours of data from aircraft turnarounds at Schiphol, giving it the predictive capabilities to detect delays before anyone else can.

On top of these predictions it uses machine learning to predict a so called Actual end of ground handling time, that is an indication for when the ground handling will be finished and usually is more accurate than user-entered TOBTs.

This information is displayed to all relevant stakeholders through a dashboard that shows then where and when to take action.

Benefits of this technology are very broad. Examples range from post-operational analysis, to increased stand-capacity through better utilisation of existing assets and better use of available runway slots.

Photo courtesy of Roger Cremers.


At Schiphol, we are innovators. By being aviation innovation leaders we are compelled to look outside the aviation industry to scout for technologies and then develop it to fit the context of it is required in.

The centralised Innovation Hub’s role is to accelerate change by spearheading innovation, while still making sure that we are in line with the overall positioning and vision of the Schiphol group.

While we celebrate our successes, we are not afraid to recognise potential failures or reassess priorities when the situation calls for it. Explorative innovation is characterised by high degrees of uncertainty, and somethings innovations just don’t fly.

However, being able to recognise this is a superpower that allows us to explore and iterate on various innovations over the entire scope of the aviation sector and their relevancy on a timescale.

Our current efforts, for instance, are focused on automating airside operations by testing automated vehicles to shuttle passengers across airside and we hope to see it come into fruition by 2024.

Other initiatives are focused on new energy solutions or experimentation with other self-driving technology.

Indeed, you can follow our innovation closely on Schiphol.nl/innovation and when interested in opportunities to use the innovations at other airports, email us on aviationsolutions@schiphol.nl or visit Schiphol | Schiphol Group Aviation Solutions

About the authors

Zahra Merchant is a strategic innovator and Jan Zekveld is the head of innovation with the Royal Schiphol Group. Both are based in the Schiphol Group’s Innovation hub at Schiphol HQ in the Netherlands.

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