Time for a new approach?
Iyad Hindiyeh, Amadeus Airport IT’s senior vice president for strategy and marketing, considers some of the integration challenges and opportunities facing airports today.
Airports are extremely complex operational environments with many different applications that need to share information in order to deliver a safe and efficient service, therefore the integration of the IT systems governing those complex processes has always been important.
The trouble is, airports have often inherited large numbers of different systems from different vendors, without clear responsibility from any one vendor for the functioning of the entire system. This has meant airports have evolved to become system integrators, stitching these systems together in order to achieve the outcomes they need.
But airports aren’t IT companies, rather they provide the infrastructure that makes moving people from A to B possible.
With the number of one-to-one technical integrations between these disparate systems increasing year after year and the expectations travellers have for a smooth airport experience also sharpening, the burden placed on airport IT teams is becoming immense.
Perhaps worse still, a complex patchwork of manual integration can never be perfect, leading to outdated data populating the systems that co-ordinate the actions of different airport stakeholders, ultimately limiting the effectiveness of operations.
Connecting to airlines is a case in point. It’s the airline Departure Control System that acts as a single source of the truth for passenger information and supports the provision of services at the airport.
For too long legacy approaches to technology have overcomplicated this situation, with each airline being asked to maintain network connections to each airport it serves.
In fact, for an airline to propose a simple update to its departure control system at the airport requires a lengthy certification process to ensure the change works for all airlines and hardware providers involved in the common use set-up.
Waiting three months for a simple software update is holding the industry back. There are several reasons airports need a new approach:
COVID-19 has highlighted how slow the traditional approach to IT can be for airports. If traffic volumes fall significantly then it’s logical to consolidate airline operations into a single terminal to reduce costs.
The problem has been that shifting an airline’s passenger handling infrastructure from terminal A, to terminal B, is far slower than it should be. Legacy networks take in the region of three to six months to provision and this needs to be organised with each airline the airport wishes to relocate.
The same problem occurs again if the airport needs to scale back up to handle more passengers. Throughout the COVID-19 fluctuations many airports have lacked agility.
The historic model has slowed the pace of innovation across the industry, with an on-site approach to IT that requires airports and airlines to focus on ‘keeping the IT lights on’. If an IT team is focused on managing on-site applications and provisioning legacy network connections to airlines, then they aren’t free to innovate with technology.
We know from conversations with our customers that most airport CIOs are keen to shift the balance from ‘maintenance’ to ‘innovation’ by trying new technologies like Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things. The trouble is that maintaining and working with a patchwork of legacy systems saps time and hampers the deployment of emerging technologies.
New passenger services
Airlines are keen to roll out new passenger services at the airport so that check-in and self-service infrastructure can do more than simply administer the basics. One such example is being able to accept a wide variety of payment methods at check-in and bag drop, which caters to passenger needs and helps airlines drive ancillary revenues.
Biometrics are coming
It is likely that the use of biometrics will gradually expand across every passenger touchpoint from kerb-to-gate. This means hundreds or possibly thousands of cameras embedded at check-in desks, kiosks, auto bag drop units, security, e-gates, lounges and boarding gates.
These cameras all need to be connected to the Identity Management Platforms (IMP) that use algorithms to match the image captured at the airport to the traveller’s identity, typically held by the airline.
Now consider that there are likely to be many different ‘Identity Providers’, such as the Star Alliance or Amadeus’ own Traveler ID programme that offer travellers a permanent digital identity, which can be re-used at different airports.
These systems will all need to be integrated to the IMPs and airport hardware too, so permanent digital identities that travellers choose to store can be matched.
For a single airline deployment, it might be feasible to manage this spaghetti of links, but the promise of biometrics is a common shared infrastructure that works for multiple airlines. So, each carrier needs to be integrated to each Identity Management Platform, each Identity Provider and ultimately to all the hardware at the terminal.
That’s a lot of systems integration for airports and airlines and in our experience, it will be a major barrier to success.
Bringing airlines and airports together with the cloud
Of course, there is another way for airports to organise and structure their IT. Like most other industries, airports have a tremendous opportunity to move forward to a new generation of cloud technology that removes the day-to-day complexity from technology, speeds up innovation and allows the airport to focus on delivering new services and growing revenues.
Moving to a cloud model means all the various applications an airport needs are hosted on the same flexible infrastructure so data can flow more easily between them. Integrating these applications becomes standardised, much less time consuming and is a task that sits with the specialist cloud provider, rather than the airport.
This set-up frees airports from running a core room, monitoring application performance and other routine IT functions whilst enabling a much smoother passenger experience.
At first glance this may not seem like a major change, after all it’s still IT, just in another place, right? Well actually it’s more fundamental than that. With the cloud, new applications like biometrics can be rolled-out far more quickly and cost effectively.
Terminals can be mothballed or restarted quickly because airlines and ground handlers can begin offering passenger services from any location on or off-airport, simply by opening a mobile device and connecting to the cloud.
By moving away from lots of core rooms containing servers and workstations that compute locally, airports also have a chance to reduce carbon emissions. A specialist cloud provider has the skills to deliver energy efficient IT by using the latest generation of hardware, optimising usage of that hardware and the cooling of the data centres.
The cloud provides a foundation upon which many innovations in biometrics, information exchange, and high-performance computing rely.
It is evident that information needs to be shared more widely across stakeholders, and that a more standardised approach to biometrics, identification, and health and immunity passports is needed.
It is a priority that technology deployment be accelerated, scaled up, and adapted quickly to changing circumstances.
Legacy and proprietary systems hold back progress in each of these areas. Whether it is airlines building more personalised retailing platforms; airports rolling out biometric check-in, boarding and immigration; or hotels implementing modern property management systems, the cloud offers potential for faster and more dynamic implementation.
In March 2021 we launched Amadeus Flow, the industry’s only fully integrated digital cloud platform for passenger servicing and data-driven airport operations.
This pre-packaged integration means airport systems are interoperable as standard, that data flows more reliably to where it is needed and that airports no longer face the cost and complexity of being a systems integrator. Airports and airlines should be free to focus on serving passengers.