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Event Review: SMART Airports & Regions


Nearly 400 delegates and 37 exhibitors made the smart choice by attending the recent SMART Airports & Regions Conference and Exhibition in Edmonton, writes Joe Bates.

With its innovative take on everything from embracing renewable energy, working in tandem with its neighbours and the commercial development of its Airport City Sustainability Campus, in many ways Edmonton International Airport (YEG) was the perfect host for the annual SMART Airports & Regions Conference and Exhibition in North America.

Welcoming delegates, Edmonton Mayor, Amarjeet Sohi, noted that YEG was set to become home to one the greenest new cargo facilities in North America and had recently launched a partnership to buy 100 hydrogen fuel cell electric cars as part of the airport’s goal to become net-zero by 2040.

He said that YEG’s co-operation and collaboration with 13 surrounding municipalities, “out of the box thinking”, commitment to sustainable development and embracing technology and innovation would ensure that the Alberta gateway would come out of COVID better than it went into it.

Setting the scene for event – which in essence explores the catalytic effect and critical success factors driving the economic development of SMART airports and the regions they serve – conference chair and president and CEO of MXD Development Strategists, Chris LeTourneur, outlined some of the huge opportunities and challenges facing airports today.

He touched on how digitasation and the Internet of Things could help revolutionise the passenger experience as well as cargo security and logistics; and how the road to net zero provides airports with the opportunity to explore advanced air mobility and become energy hubs.

The opening session of the conference was a leadership panel discussion about ‘Resilience, Decarbonisation and Opportunity’ featuring YEG’s president and CEO, Myron Keehn; Seattle-Tacoma’s managing director, Lance Lyttle; Ferrovial Airports’ senior vice president of business for the Northeast region of the US, Kevin Costello; and the chief managing executive officer of Japan Airport Terminal Co Ltd (JATCO), Kazuyo Hachisuka.

All outlined their respective gateways’ decarbonisation efforts as well as the social and economic aspects of their sustainability strategies, while Costello talked about the future potential of carbon free electric vertical off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft and vertiports.

In terms of making an impression, SEA’s Lyttle noted that the use of renewable natural gas (RNG) for its Central Utility Plant and to power the airport’s bus fleet had probably had the greatest impact at the Washington State gateway as it was primarily responsible for the Port of Seattle meeting its target of reducing its Scope 1 GHG emissions by 50% by 2030 almost a decade early.

He felt that one of SEA’s most innovative initiatives was the move to work with ASSAIA (proof of concept tested with Microsoft) to develop a system that monitors whether aircraft parked at its gates are connected to 400hz powered pre-conditioned air units (PCAs) and have turned off their APUs. The system involves cameras together with artificial intelligence, machine learning and sound technology to detect and prevent the running of APUs on aircraft.

“In addition to this, and it wasn’t originally intended for this purpose, the system is being developed to allow us to know whether an aircraft is using a single engine when arriving at the gate, which is airline policy at Sea-Tac,” said Lyttle.

Talking about some of YEG’s sustainability initiatives, Keehn revealed that the Edmonton region’s investment in hydrogen stretched to tens of billions of dollars which would ultimately lead to the airport and the aviation industry reducing its impact on the environment. Going beyond the environment, he noted that YEG was determined to “include and create an airport for everyone” through social initiatives and responsible governance.

He told delegates: “We want to make everyone feel welcome at the airport. We want to create opportunities for employment and ways for people to participate in the ecosystem they find themselves in, and we constantly look at how we can drive and use the connector of the airport to help people propel their businesses forward. By nature, inclusivity, is one the most rewarding components of our business strategy.

“In addition to this, we focus on how we can utilise the airport so that people see it as their asset. Every airport is a community asset, and we want people to have ownership of that asset and be invested in it. We can do this not only through the commercial benefits of the airports but by working on things such as preventing the illegal trade of wildlife, replacing plastics, food recycling programmes, helping the homeless and other things that airports can do to bring the local community together.”

JATCO’s Hachisuka explained that the electrification of ground support vehicles, the installation of solar panels, new LED lighting and air conditioning units, the use of geothermal heat pumps and radiant cooling materials for buildings were some of the ways Tokyo Haneda, Japan’s busiest airport, had introduced on its path to being net zero by 2050.

The second CEO/airport director panel discussion of the day focused on ‘Smart Cities and Airports – How We’ll Live Next’, in essence covering how future transportation infrastructure will change to meet the demands of global economic and social development.

In the spotlight for this one were Robert Hoxie, managing deputy commissioner of aviation at the Chicago Department of Aviation; Atif Elkadi, CEO of Ontario International Airport; Tom Ruth, former president and CEO of Edmonton International Airport; Jesus Saenz, director of airports at San Antonio Airport System; and Elisabeth Le Masson, special adviser to the general manager, Val d’Oise-Paris Region Development Agency.

Discussing airports becoming living labs for the innovation of new technology, Elkadi flagged up the recent launch of the ONT+ Visitor Pass Program in partnership with the TSA that allows non-travelling airport visitors to enjoy the post security amenities at his airport.

Saenz noted that SAT is using technology to help it gather information about changing passenger personas to help it meet the needs of the passenger of the future, and that the Texas gateway recently took part in a pilot programme for new technology designed to prevent runway incursions.

“There is a lot of transformation, change and innovation going on in our airports, so it is important that we listen to what our passengers are saying to us,” said Saenz.

“In terms of the use of technology, ultimately, it is about having real-time awareness of what is happening across the airport complex, capturing the data and being able to respond immediately to different situations, and not an hour after the passenger has left or two days later when they are beyond aggravated with you.”

Hoxie said that the CDA had stepped up its use of technology to help Chicago O’Hare operate “much more dynamically” than it used to pre-COVID, while Le Masson revealed that the world’s first commercial use of a passenger carrying eVTOL aircraft will take place in Paris next summer, the timing coinciding with the Olympic Games being held in the French capital.

Looking at future innovation, Ruth stated although he thought that it would be quite some time before larger aircraft flying 1,000 mile plus distances were no longer dependent on a solid propellent of air fuel, he believed that hydrogen powered aircraft could be a “game changer for smaller cities wanting to get more frequencies to larger cities”.

He also believes that new opportunities to remotely drop off bags before flights will lead to a new era of travel where passengers no longer bring suitcases to airports, which in turn could change the footprint and future use of airports. And he suggested that a change in how we book travel could lead to companies like Google forming their own airlines.

Le Masson said the eVTOL flights around Paris next summer would be operated by Volocopter and use five already certified vertiports spread across the city, including one at Paris’ CDG, another at Le Bourget and one on a barge on the River Seine, with fares set at around $120 per passenger.

Next on the agenda during a lively and eventful first day were sessions on ‘Airport Cities and Commercial Land Development’, in which John Terrell, president of Commercial Real Estate Strategic Partners, said that “strategic partnerships” were behind most of the world’s most successful commercial development projects.

He said: “I would encourage all the airports and companies that are working on, or have the opportunity to develop commercial development projects, to have strategic partners who make a difference by bringing innovation and different thoughts, and who often know more about a specific topic than anyone at the airport.

“It is not just about partnerships with commercial developers. It is about partnerships with the city that the airport serves and with various other organisations and stakeholders. It is about partnering and bringing people together.”

Continuing the theme of partnerships, Edmonton International Airport’s director of real estate and property management, Raelyn Kruitbosch, said that they were key for YEG, which actively co-operated with partners onsite at the airport as well as with a host of others ranging from economic development partners across the region to local, municipal, county and federal government to drive innovation and new opportunities at the airport.

Denver International Airport’s director of real estate, Elise Brenninkmeyer, saw the development of ground transportation options to DEN, in particular bringing heavy rail closer to the airport, as a potential future driver of real estate and commercial land development at the gateway.

“We are looking at rail and how we can get that synergy of rail and air building up our networks and creating new opportunities to activate our 14,000 acres of land that is available for development,” she said.

“We have large plots of land that could be doing heavy industrial activity if we had additional rail to air capacity, and there is strong interest in making this happen. It is also important to improve multimodal access to any employment centre as people really want multiple options to get to work every day and not just the car.”

Shannon James, president and CEO of the Aerotropolis Atlanta Alliance updated delegates on the progress of the co-ordinated commercial land developments around Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL), and David Storer, director of business development at Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT), discussed some of the pioneering manufacturing initiatives connected to its Neighborhood 91 campus.

Telling the audience about Neighborhood 91, Storer said: “It is an additive manufacturing hub that was really born from an idea that the chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh had to co-locate like-minded companies together to advance additive manufacturing, specifically 3D printing with metals.

“The idea was worked through with the county executive, our CEO and the chancellor’s office and it was decided to do it at the airport. We received over $20 million in funding from the State to make it happen and within two-and-a-half years of that meeting we had built up and landed Wabtec Corporation, a global locomotive company, as our anchor tenant.

“Since then, we have attracted other companies doing 3D printing and, the end goal, is we are going to invest in an argon recycler. Argon is an integral cost for additive manufacture, depending on the metals. The development will allow the airport to get a return on its investment and will enable and attract additional companies because it is of tremendous value.”

He noted that it also “worked out well” as PIT has its own microgrid fuelled by natural gas produced on the airport site which ensured that the airport, and subsequently Neighborhood 91, had its own source of renewable, low-cost energy. It is hoped that the project will prove the catalyst for 195 acres of additive manufacturing, creating hundreds of new jobs and boosting the local economy.

Giving delegates some idea about the size and value of Aerotropolis Atlanta Alliance, which includes and surrounds Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, James pointed to ongoing developments across 700 acres of land within a mile of the airport that were expected to have an economic impact of more than $1 billion in the next few year or two.

The Alliance’s board members include Delta Air Lines, Georgia Power and Porsche and, in James’ own words, its membership includes “every stakeholder that you can think of in Metro Atlanta” from the Woodward Academy and the Metro Atlanta Chamber to Invest Atlanta.

Up next were panels on ‘New Technology and Innovation’, debated by a panel of chief information officers; ‘Retooling and Rebuilding Airport Infrastructure – Preparing For 2030 and Beyond’; and ‘Airport Revenue Recovery’.

In the first of these, Miami Dade Aviation Department’s chief innovation officer, Maurice Jenkins, noted that the type of technologies Miami International Airport was looking at included virtual queuing and artificial intelligence to enhance operations and the customer experience.

DFW’s vice president for information technology services, Mike Youngs, stated that it was a great time to be at his airport as it had just signed a new use and lease agreement with the airlines that provided it with the framework to operate for the next 10 years, setting in motion the modernisation of Terminal C and the construction of its sixth terminal, Terminal F.

From a technology perspective, he said he was “truly excited by the opportunity the new terminal development projects presented to invent new capabilities that will benefit our passengers”.

Youngs, who also revealed that DFW was about to break ground on an all-electric Central Utility Plant, said: “I really think that we are on the cusp of great things that are going to make people really enjoy the airport experience.”

Houston Airports’ chief technology officer, Darryl Daniel, believed that technology together with collaboration with its airline partners would prove pivotal to helping the city’s airports and airline operators meet future demand, which had come back strongly after the pandemic and shown that the ongoing infrastructure expansion projects at both George Bush Intercontinental and William P Hobby were definitely needed.

It was a similar story at Reno-Tahoe, said chief information officer, Art Rempp, who noted that the airport had just started a $1 billion infrastructure development programme for the next eight to ten years that basically involved rebuilding the airport.

“There is a technology component underneath everything that we are doing, so last year we commissioned an IT master plan that will set the stage for how we move forward over the next three to five years,” enthused Rempp.

YEG’s vice president for technology, Tara Mulrooney, revealed that the airport is in the process of getting its own private Wi-Fi system for the first time. Talking about what excites her about new technology, she said: “I think it is that we are at a point where we have the opportunity to communicate directly with our passengers and give them the information they want from the moment they plan their trip to the day they arrive back home.”

In response to what keeps them up at night, Houston’s Daniel stated “holding on to good staff”, while DFW’s Youngs said “guarding against complacency”, particularly from a cyber security perspective.

During the debate on the ‘Retooling and Rebuilding Airport Infrastructure’ session, the deputy director of aviation for capital development at Philadelphia International Airport, Api Appulingam, revealed that she helped revise the airport’s $2 billion capital development plan during the pandemic to avoid investing in projects that were no longer a priority.

“COVID allowed us to pause and think about all of the infrastructure projects that we were doing and how we should rebuild and retool our infrastructure going forward,” said Appulingam.

“I was able to look at all of our infrastructure projects and determine what really was making sense for PHL in the future. As a result, we have brought on $1 billion worth of infrastructure projects focused on the airport footprint that we have today.”

The revised plan includes the drafting of a new 20-year master plan, but is primarily focused on ensuring the resilience of current infrastructure, and as a result has won favour with PHL’s airlines which recently signed a new use and lease agreement that they hadn’t previously wanted to commit to due to the financial implications of the previous multi-year capital development progamme.

Fellow airport panellist, Louisville Regional Airport Authority’s vice president of operations and customer engagement, Megan Atkins Thoben, talked about the upgrade of Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport’s terminal building, which she described as “the next most broken thing” at the airport due to its development largely being overlooked over the years because of the dominance of cargo operations at the Kentucky gateway.

While admitting that it wasn’t the coolest sounding thing in the world for passengers, she noted that the “massive electrical and mechanical upgrade” of the terminal led to the development of the US’s largest geothermal well field for heating and cooling the airport.

The other panelists included Steve Maybee, YEG’s vice president of operations and infrastructure development; Mark Rodrigues, vice president for aviation at Transoft Solutions; Curtis Grad, president and CEO of Modalis Infrastructure Partners; and Terry Bills, global director of transportation at Esri.

Speakers in the final ‘Airport Revenue Recovery’ session of the day included Alan Darling, vice president of business development at AeroParker; Forrest Swanson, associate vice president of airport systems and services at Transcore; Bob Kwik, worldwide head of airport solutions and business development at Amazon Web Services; and Daphne Shelton, director of concessions development at Edmonton International Airport.

An Evening Networking Party at Fort Edmonton Park followed, hosted by Edmonton International Airport, which gave everyone the chance to eat, drink and be merry while enjoying fairground rides and learning more about the city’s history.

The second day of the event featured a highly interesting opening plenary session on ‘ESG Partnerships Driving Change’, which showcased the way YEG has worked in partnership with a number of local companies to help grow their respective businesses on the airport campus.

These included direct-to-consumer and business-to-business social-impact gifting service and retailer, Indigenous Box; sustainability firm Wild + Pine; drone technology solutions provider Aerium Analytics; and shipping solutions provider VEXSL, whose workforce is made up of military veterans, first responders and cargo logistics specialists.

The conference then split into two streams, Stream A providing sessions on ‘Building Smart Connected Airports’; and ‘Driving a Culture of Innovation’ and Stream B featuring debates about ‘Infrastructure 2.0 – Smart Airport Design and Development’ and ‘A Sustainable Reset for Airports’.

A final plenary session on the topic of ‘Are Airports Ready for Autonomous Vehicles?’ brought the conference to an end, touching on the potential benefits and challenges of driverless vehicles, which appear to be becoming ever more popular with airports due to labour shortages.

Introducing the topic, moderator, Marie-France Laurin, the director of channel sales at Stantec GenerationAV, warned airports: “A lot of people are going to come knocking on your door telling you about how autonomous vehicles can transform your operations. However, AV technology is new and evolving really quicky and you really need to make sure that the technology you are considering fits in with the needs of your airport.”

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