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ECONOMICS Last modified on August 21, 2019

Transformational technology

Collins Aerospace’s Tony Chapman explains how new technology will help airports meet growing passenger expectations and boost their bottom lines.

High-end boutiques, five-star restaurants, cinemas, golf courses, even indoor parks and waterfalls … no longer the sole domain of luxury destinations, these are just a few of the amenities you’ll find in modern airports around the world.

More and more, airports are transforming from traditional centres for air transit to integrated hubs for shopping, dining, entertainment and recreation. Oh, and travel.

By all indications, passengers love this evolution. In fact, some will go out of their way to spend time in an airport that has more of these special features and, conversely, steer clear of the ones that don’t. And, as passengers acquire a taste for the little luxuries of a modern airport, they also expect a better overall travel experience.

These gleaming venues set the tone for high passenger expectations, and when an airport falls short, the world knows about it in minutes through social media.

For airport operators, this new business model means dealing with massive complexity. They’re supporting all the technical processes and functions of an airport combined with the business operations of a shopping mall.

When they do it right, the rewards can be significant: These airports attract more passengers (and even non-passengers), they draw revenue from more sources, and they enjoy a stronger brand and reputational benefits.

But how do you manage all this complexity? With global air travel expected to double within the next ten years, how do you meet passengers’ sky-high expectations and give them a consistently positive experience? And most importantly, how do you stay profitable?

The answer to these questions, in large part, is technology. The newest information technology systems, properly applied and managed, can knit together all the component parts of the modern airport to deliver both an exceptionally positive experience for passengers and an exceptionally easy-to-manage airport operation.

Biometrics: A transformational technology

One of the technologies at the heart of this transformation is biometrics. Utilising facial recognition and other biometric information to identify passengers reduces or eliminates many of the pain points associated with air travel.

Just about every passenger survey ever conducted indicates that Pain Point No.1 is waiting in line – at ticket counters, baggage drop, security, at border control and the gate.

Infusing biometrics into these check points is like straightening out the kinks in a garden hose: suddenly, the processes flow like water. Transportation security agents no longer stop passengers one-by-one, checking their photo IDs by hand. Baggage check-in is self-administered. No stops are required at the gate. Even entry into another country becomes a quick walk through Customs.

Some biometric solutions even allow airport visitors to link their profile to a credit or debit card, enabling purchases at the duty-free shops, restaurants or other airport facilities with a simple verbal confirmation.

And imagine what this improved flow does for the airport’s revenue. When passengers are moving faster through the check points, they’re free to spend more time and money in other parts of the airport.

Simply put, lines are lost revenue. In addition to increasing efficiency, biometric systems reduce risk and cost. Drawing from government data and using highly sophisticated algorithms, these systems can quickly identify problematic individuals or unusual activities, helping security personnel narrow their focus to potential threats.

It’s all about the flow

Just as biometric solutions improve the flow of people through the airport, the integration of IT systems amps up the flow of information. Bringing together all the back-end IT that supports the passenger journey into a cohesive cloud-computing environment speeds the transfer of data to the people and systems that depend on it.

Among other benefits, that translates to faster and more informed decision-making by airport personnel and better communications with passengers.

If, for instance, a major storm disrupts operations, the information is channelled to all stakeholders immediately and simultaneously. This enables faster adjustments to flight schedules, quicker re-booking of flights, a speedier return to normal operations, and, of course, happier passengers.

In addition, managing a fully networked, cloud-based IT infrastructure requires far less manpower than a warehouse full of local servers. The right solution can provide airport operators with an IT ‘dashboard’ from which they can view, assess and control every aspect of the airport ecosystem.

Obviously, this robust infrastructure must be continuously protected with the most aggressive cyber security solutions available.

Here again, the inter-connectivity helps. A unified network can be protected through a single, holistic approach to cyber security instead of separate, disjointed solutions for individual networks throughout the enterprise. A single solution needs less monitoring, less manpower, less money.

Collins Aerospace’s concept of the ideal airport envisages a fully connected airport ecosystem running in a cloud environment with ironclad cybersecurity, and robust identity management through our biometric solution, ‘SelfPass’.

Some of the world’s largest airports and airlines have already recognised the value of this approach and have started making major investments. For instance, SelfPass is now being used with fully integrated self-boarding gates by a major airline, reducing passenger boarding time to a matter of seconds.

Partnering for profitability

Another example of smart investing is Dublin Airport, Ireland’s busiest airport. To accommodate an ever-increasing number of passengers, the airport authority had planned a terminal expansion to include more physical facilities – more ticket counters and baggage drops.

However, this all changed when they recognised that technology would be a smarter investment. Rather than expanding facilities, they decided to invest in ways to make the existing facilities more efficient.

If you can smooth the path for passengers every step along the way, they reasoned, you can move more people through the airport faster and free them up to enjoy – and spend – on all those amenities.

Working with Collins Aerospace, Dublin Airport added 64 self-service bag drop kiosks, primarily for Ryanair and Aer Lingus, reducing passenger check-in times by 60%. The implementation took just five months with no disruption in service. At Aer Lingus, the transaction time is now three to four times faster than it would be at an agent’s desk, so the airport floor is clear and there are no queues.

The technology allowed the airline to increase throughput without capital expenditure on building and facilities. And passengers are more satisfied as well. Because the solutions are self-service, agents who were typically working behind a check-in desk are now able to provide additional assistance to passengers.

The kiosks are just one step toward making Dublin Airport more efficient, more passenger friendly and more profitable.

The airport’s vice president, programme management office, Frances O’Brien, said: “We see self-service as a platform that we can use to sell our own services, like lounge access or our FastTrack passenger programme where passengers can purchase access to shorter queues in security.

“The technology also gets passengers through to security and to retail much faster, which obviously gives them the opportunity to spend more time in our award-winning retail areas.”

Dublin, like many of the world’s biggest and most complex airports, has recognised that an investment in the infrastructure and processes to enable a fully connected airport ecosystem that make air travel more efficient and enjoyable for passengers, also boosts revenue.

With an IT company as their trusted partner, these airports are positioning for the explosive growth in air travel expected in the years ahead – and profiting from it.

About the author

Tony Chapman is director for global product management and strategy at Collins Aerospace’s Information Management Services division.

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