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Many of the world’s leading airports are using digital services to improve passenger experience and airport operations, but to avoid costly mistakes they need to place ‘user experience’ front and centre of digitalisation.
Airport digitisation timeline - Crédits : Egis
Passengers can now receive accurate information on inbound/outbound flights directly to their mobile phone. They can also enjoy tailored guidance around the airport terminal, from car park to boarding gate. And once inside the terminal, targeted retail information and services are possible.
From the operational point of view, digitalisation has enabled information sharing and supported Airport Collaborative Decision Making (CDM) to improve on time performance. It has formed a building block of the Airport Operations Centre (APOC) where all the key players involved in managing passenger, aircraft and baggage processes can sit alongside each other looking at the same data. Digitalisation has improved operational efficiency through increased situational awareness, helping to release bottlenecks, enable paperless processing and facilitate improved flow management. And when it comes to infrastructure building and running costs, digitalisation offers further benefits, optimizing energy consumption for example.
While not all airports are at the same point on their ‘digital journey’, the opportunities and challenges are common to many of them. The ACI, in its Airport Digital Transformation Guide shows the many technologies involved in becoming a digital ready airport – although the sequence of implementation will surely vary (redrawn here for the purposes of this blog).
Source: ACI Airport Digital Transformation (redrawn)
These new technologies are enabled by wireless communication, increased storage and mass information processing. Today, with greater computing power, data capture opportunities and machine learning capabilities, digital technologies can give us real time and predictive insights into airport users, their movements and behaviours both landside and airside. But who are these ‘users’?
From a digital perspective ‘users’ are the people responsible for running the airport, the pilots who fly into it, the security staff, the baggage handlers, the tower controllers, the bus drivers, the check-in staff, not forgetting the passengers and the non-travelling public. The airport is a ‘city’ of digital users, each relying on timely, accurate, and clear information and services. The challenge is not only implementation, it is integration with existing technologies or mindsets.
The difficulty airport executives face in meeting the needs of users is that each group has differing requirements and priorities. To effectively digitalise, airports must put people at the heart of the system and capture those needs. The aim is to formalise requirements capture, identify the contributions of digital solutions, but also measure the impact on the current situation and address the issue of change. Digital transformation will involve substantial change and therefore requires a proper implementation strategy.
As my colleague Simone Rozzi recently wrote: “Lessons learnt from [other] aviation system implementations show that despite an initial operational focus, attention may easily drift towards a technology-centered solution. This may be due to inexperience in how to involve operational experts, leading to fixation on solutions rather than operational needs; on current working methods rather than future ones; and putting too much trust in the technical solutions provided by the manufacturer. These issues are best mitigated by the integration of a Human Factors specialist in the initial concept definition phase, before the decision to buy a specific system has been taken.”
Requirements capture is further enhanced by an understanding of user behaviour in the airport area. Every user provides a unique context with different needs and interests, for example adapting the route to the specific airline lounge or gate according to the passenger’s membership status.
One airport invested millions in digital interactive kiosks that today are barely used because most passengers prefer to receive information and guidance direct to their mobile phones. This experience highlights the challenges of digital transformation, where user habits and preferences evolve faster than the planned technology implementation.
The opportunity for airports beginning their digitalisation journey is to target initial digitalisation projects that will help capture data on user behaviours as well as delivering a value-added or operationally beneficial service. This would need to be done carefully, respecting best practice on privacy and data security. With the benefit of a ‘quick win’ on data and service airports can proceed to profile other user groups and embark upon requirements capture. The idea is to leverage technology to meet business objectives.
The challenge today is no longer technological (many of the solutions are mature) but operational. It is a matter of making informed choices to support and accompany the airport's growth. The success of the digital plan depends on people and organizations. So, at the heart of the planning should be the airport's trusted partners such as the regulator, ANSP, the main airlines, handling companies, etc. Representatives from these stakeholders should form a "core team" of the digitalisation project.
It’s only once people are put front and centre of the digitalisation process that airports will reap the full benefits.