Many airports across Europe are seeing passenger numbers rise close to pre-pandemic levels, with ACI EUROPE, the European airport trade body, reporting a 69% year-on-year increase in January 2023.
The increase in passenger numbers is undoubtedly being welcomed by the aviation industry, which was deeply impacted by the pandemic. But it also risks exacerbating some of the operational challenges that many airports have recently experienced during peak periods, from lost luggage to delayed flights. All of which come at a cost to the passenger experience.
These challenges are another hangover from the pandemic. While many industries saw rapid digitization as working patterns shifted, airports had to slash their budgets as air travel came to a standstill. This stalled transformation within the sector and the reliance on legacy infrastructure and software is exacerbating many of the operational challenges airports face in meeting this rising demand.
Hardware that can only be updated by a vendor engineer with a USB stick; software that is only accessible from certain desktops; operational data periodically analyzed in Excel reports; and security wait times monitored with a stopwatch and a clipboard – this is the reality for many airports that have struggled to keep pace with the digital transformation seen across other sectors.
To deliver a seamless experience as passenger volumes increase, airports need to democratize data across the organization, so operations leaders can take proactive and reactive steps to reduce friction from curb to gate.
Acting in the moment
Many airports are reliant on legacy technology and manual processes to manage their operations. This means when there’s an issue, airport operations leaders will only find out after the fact and after passengers have been negatively impacted.
For example, if there are insufficient team members at security to accommodate a new wave of passengers, and stakeholders aren’t aware in real time, it would be impossible for them to intervene before a bottleneck occurs. This delay not only impacts the passenger experience as they wait in security but also reduces the time spent in duty-free and concessions where they may make purchases that generate revenue for the airport.
For European and British airports that are heavily reliant on passengers making purchases to drive revenue, the ability to take in-the-moment decisions that support a more seamless flow to increase the dwell time in duty-free, café, shops, and bars is critical.
This requires the ability to track how long it is taking passengers to move through an airport in real-time, which can be enabled by computer vision technology that anonymously monitors the journey of passengers from curb to gate, before feeding that data into an airport management platform that can offer proactive alerts to prompt a response and resolution.
Putting data in more hands
Communication and coordination are essential for the smooth running of any airport, regardless of its size. However, it is not uncommon for operational data and software to be solely accessible via a desktop computer or for stakeholders to only receive operational reports periodically. Not to mention that traditional licensing models often mean access to the software is limited to a certain number of individuals.
The efficiency of an airport’s operations relies on diverse teams interacting seamlessly with each other, yet many do not have a single version of the truth that enables them to understand and react to the immediate situation. This means that opportunities to work more efficiently and collaboratively are lost, in turn, adding friction to an airport’s operations and the experience of those traveling through it.
This is where the airport sector must catch up with one of the biggest digital transformation trends of the pandemic; the cloud. Airports must seize the potential for SaaS applications to provide access to accurate, real-time information to anyone, anywhere.
The power of patterns
Cloud-based applications offer real-time insights into an airport’s operations that critically enables it to respond to issues that are impacting the passenger experience at the moment. But the real holy grail for airports is when this data not only tells them what is happening in the here and now, but what patterns can be identified and harnessed to make longer-lasting improvements to the passenger flow through the airport.
Applying artificial intelligence to operational data enables airports to spot trends, draw learnings and predict future scenarios. This means airport leaders are not only able to use data to better respond to immediate operational issues, but they can take pre-emptive steps that will reduce the likelihood of them occurring entirely.
It’s time for transformation
While welcome, the rise in passenger volumes will undoubtedly be keeping many operations leaders awake at night as they worry about how they can provide a smooth experience through the airport and help generate much-needed revenue after a few difficult years.
So, with a brighter future for the aviation industry on the horizon, it is critical that airport leaders look forward and consider how they can catch up on the digital advantage that many other industries seized during the pandemic. Because embracing new technologies and democratizing access to data will enable the informed decision-making needed to deliver a truly frictionless airport experience.
About the Author
Ian Forde-Smith is AeroCloud’s sharp and perceptive CTO and has been in the aviation industry for 30 years.
He combines cutting-edge software skills with deep industry experience and is the lead architect behind AeroCloud System’s world-class SaaS-based technology platform. He is passionate about the application of AI and machine learning to solve real problems faced by airports. Smith has previously built and sold businesses in the airport operations sector. He was a Co-founder of FS Walker Hughes, where he led the development of its Chroma Suite technology, acquired by Amor Group in 2011.