Digital transformation enhances airport operations

24 September 2020
Connected Internet of Things systems will enhance airport operations and drive customer experience, says Solace's chief technology solutions officer

Airports have been pioneering digital transformation projects for years. Whether it is through biometric scanners or automated check-in processes, airports around the world are embracing digitisation. However, when it comes to Internet of Things (IoT) infrastructures, the majority of airports are not yet implementing full-scale connected systems.

In fact, Deloitte’s 2019 survey of the industry revealed only 12 per cent of airport representatives reported that their organisations are well prepared to benefit from IoT applications. Either because of a lack of awareness or limited resources, implementation of comprehensive IoT systems in airports is still in its infancy.

However, once up and running, these systems hold significant potential to drive efficiency, improve the customer experience, and deliver return on investment (ROI).

Operational efficiencies

Airport ground operations are a complex web of interdependent moving parts, with much room for optimisation. These operations cover everything from air traffic control and aircraft maintenance to loading passengers and cargo. 

Connected luggage trolleys are one example of how IoT systems can drive efficiencies in this area. Including feature sensors allows airport workers to track the location of trolleys and enables optimimal placing of trolleys according to passenger footfall.  

IoT technology can also be used to track luggage and high-value assets. Reusable baggage tags and proximity sensors enable airports to monitor luggage and prevent damage or loss with real-time information about potential anomalies.

Qantas Australia recently partnered with Blackhawk IoT to incorporate asset tracking devices at airports across Australia, which will track “below the wing” assets such as buses, baggage tugs, vans and belt loaders. The data collected will be critical to maintaining airport security and safety, optimising maintenance schedules and boosting cost and time efficiencies.

Driverless vehicles and baggage carts could also provide a way for airports to save on costs and maximise output. When integrated with other airport data such as schedules and gate numbers, autonomous vehicles will be able to deliver baggage, transport passengers and complete other tasks more quickly and safely than human workers.

Passenger journey

The passenger’s journey through an airport features several touchpoints with technology. These need to be made straightforward and efficient to enhance the customer experience.

Airport ground operations are a complex web of interdependent moving parts, with much room for optimisation

For example, digital beacons placed throughout the airport can provide real-time updates on things such as parking availability, shuttle bus schedules or restaurant wait times. Such beacons could also help passengers get to the right gate in time and avoid missing flights.

Abu Dhabi airport has already announced that it will be integrating a flow monitoring solution to improve passenger wait-times in areas such as check-in, security, immigration and baggage claim. Making the passenger journey more seamless and will boost the overall experience and free up traveller time to explore airport stores and restaurants.

Driving retail results

The airport is not just a travel experience, it is a retail experience. Coresight Research, an advisory firm for retailers, estimates airport retail sales reached $44 billion in 2019, up 20 per cent compared to five years earlier.

IoT presents opportunities to generate more revenue and further boost these types of experiences. For example, IoT integration into point-of-sale systems means that data from purchases can be correlated with foot traffic and used to optimise promotional advertising and product positioning within airport stores. In addition, Wi-Fi access points can measure how people move around an airport, so that relevant information and advertisements can be positioned in the right spots for the right people. 

Integrated systems

Ultimately, all of these IoT applications will be limited in their impact without proper integration. Many airports have begun to adopt individual IoT projects, but have yet to realise that comprehensive architecture is required to maximise their potential. Data from IoT systems must be integrated and correlated in such an architecture to drive maximum efficiencies and ROI. 

Airports should have the ability to obtain real-time streams of events from various systems – from ground operations to retail and from passenger operations to airlines – and then correlate them with analytics and insights for real-time and strategic decisions and improvements across individual systems. 

This level of integration relies on the existence of a common backbone: an event mesh. At Hong Kong International airport, IoT system integration is powered by an event mesh technology that enables “the collection, filtration and flow of real-time data between IoT devices and backend systems”. Without the ability to send real-time IoT data between devices and systems, many of the high-level, efficiency-driving insights are lost.

Airports that quickly recognise the value of complete IoT systems in all parts of their operations will demonstrate their commitment to not only digital transformation, but also to the experiences of their passengers

Given the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on airlines and airports, the adoption of IoT systems might not be a top investment priority for all airport managers. If resources allow, however, now could be the right time to adopt new technologies: with fewer passengers taking flights at present, airports could take the opportunity to experiment with new systems.

According to data from Verified Market Research, the global IoT market was valued at $212.1bn in 2018 and is expected to grow 25.68 per cent in 2019-26 to reach $1,319.08bn by 2026. Airports that quickly recognise the value of complete IoT systems in all parts of their operations and move to implement a full-scale architecture will demonstrate their commitment to not only digital transformation, but also to the experiences of their passengers and staff.

About the author

Sumeet Puri is chief technology solutions officer at software company Solace

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