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IT Last modified on January 18, 2016

Enabling growth

SITA’s Matthys Serfontein reflects on the evolution of airport IT and considers what the future might hold for new technology at the world’s gateways.

Over the past half-century, the advent of the jet age and the relentless pace of innovation in the air transport industry that followed have truly revolutionalised the way we travel today. 

In the past 20 years alone, global passenger numbers have more than doubled. During this time technology has driven down costs while income and wealth levels around the world have steadily grown, putting airline travel within reach of an increasing number of people each year. 

IATA data shows that the real cost of air travel has fallen by 1.7% per year on average since 1970 and that the underlying rate of air traffic growth has averaged 4.4% per year. The rise in traffic led to 3.3 billion passengers using the world’s airports in 2014.

For airports, technology has been key to managing the growing number of passengers that pass through their facilities every day. As traveller numbers increased, airport operators needed smarter ways to manage everything from check-in, handling of baggage to immigration and security checks. 

Many were pioneered for the air transport community by SITA and these technologies have continued to evolve over the years to provide the IT backbone and support structure for airports today. 

Aviation IT milestones

One of the first technologies to be used at airports was a Departure Control Service, which offered a free standing system for passenger check-in, boarding pass issue and weight and balance calculations.

In 1980, another important service made its debut in airports when SITA introduced a worldwide automated baggage tracing service called BaHaMaS (Baggage Handling Management System). The system was further developed with IATA and, now known as WorldTracer, is in use at more than 2,800 airport locations around the world. 

Similarly, common-use systems, which enable airlines to share check-in desks and other infrastructure at airports were introduced in that decade and are still used in most airports around the world. 

SITA’s own Common Use Terminal Equipment (CUTE) system was launched in 1984 and has evolved significantly since then. At the time, Los Angeles used the common-use system to meet the needs of increased traffic for the Olympic Games. 

In the early 2000s, the biggest driver for adopting new technology was the downturn that hit the airline industry after September 11, 2001.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, airlines, and in turn airports, saw passenger numbers dwindle. This led to IATA launching the Simplifying the Business initiative in 2004 with the aim of using technology to improve customer convenience and reduce costs. 

This, in turn, spurred some of the most dramatic changes to the industry in the past decade. In 2008, for example, 100% e-ticketing was achieved, marking a major milestone for the industry.

E-ticketing allowed the introduction of new technologies such as self-service check-in kiosks and later on, online check in. This was a major stride forward for airports as it allowed a key travel step to be taken out of the airport to allow more optimal use of floor space in terminals. 

Other industry savings initiatives that have their roots in the IATA Simplifying the Business programme range from barcoded boarding passes and the introduction of self-service baggage tagging and bag drop.

More recently mobile technology has emerged as a key technology for airports. Over the past six years the number of available services – and their adoption by passengers – has continued to grow rapidly, allowing passengers to use their personal devices for check-in, boarding and wayfinding. 

It is evident from the above milestones that airports have become increasingly reliant on technology for passenger and baggage processing, and business and operational management. 


Looking to the future

Looking forward over the next 20 years, building bigger airports is no longer the silver bullet to managing surging passenger numbers. Technology and smart design are the real drivers of sustainable airport growth. 

SITA is an active partner in providing new technological solutions to a fast-changing industry where airports and airlines are demanding greater efficiency while passengers are increasingly seeking a more personalised experience. 

The modern passenger wants to spend as little time passing from the kerb to the gate while eliminating the stress of check-in, immigration and security check. They are also increasingly demanding that airport information be put at their fingertips, be it updates on flight delays, gate changes or baggage collection. 

At the same time airport operators are looking for smarter, more efficient ways to provide a seamless service to their passengers in the most cost-effective manner. 

These demands and expectations are changing the way airports
are designed and the technology that is required to manage the
airport of the future. 

From an architectural perspective, the airport of the future will be without many of the internal barriers we see today. It will be open plan and passengers will flow through them without seeing physical barriers such as counters and gates. 

The passenger process will be seamless without the specific touch points we have today. Passengers won’t be required to go to a counter or kiosk for check-in, or have somebody check their documents or screen them before boarding their flight at the gate. This will be done using technology with minimal interaction. 

SITA is working with airports to provide IT solutions for these modern facilities. For example, we are investigating and embracing new technologies such as business intelligence, near field communications, beacons and wearable technology, which help airports embrace tomorrow’s ‘connected traveller’.


Current IT trends

The 2015 Airport IT Trends Survey, the results of which were released in October, has shown that mobile, above all, is becoming the favoured platform and holds great promise in terms of helping improve the travel experience for passengers by ensuring
smoother end-to-end journeys. 

And, the on-the-go capability of mobile devices means it is at the airport where they can make a real difference.

According to the survey, by 2018 some 80% of airports will use beacons to provide wayfinding services and 74% to provide notifications to passengers. 

By this time, more than half of these airports are expected to have sensors in use at various points of the journey including check-in, bag drop, security, dwell time and boarding. 

Mobile services are also on the rise with 91% of airports planning to provide an app for navigating the airport and 83% for real-time notifications about day-of-travel information such as local traffic or queue times in the terminal.

The demand for more self-service functionality will drive innovation over the next few years. Today, around two out of every five passengers check-in before they arrive at the airport, and for those that haven’t the self-service kiosk is the next best thing. 

Indeed, self-service check-in kiosks are no longer something new and daunting for passengers as 90% of airports have them in place today, up from 75% in 2014.

In addition to providing more check-in kiosks, airports have been expanding the functionality of kiosks. Around 42% of today’s airports have kiosks that can print bag tags to help passengers tag their own luggage before leaving them at drop-off points, which can be much faster for the passenger than using the airport counter. 

Similarly, immigration is moving towards self-service. Automated Passport Control (APC) kiosks have become a regular feature at US airports over the past year. For example, SITA has installed more than 300 at 10 airports with hundreds more on order. Orlando International Airport is now using kiosks with facial recognition technology for arriving passengers. 


Empowering travellers

Given the pace of innovation, it is difficult to look too far into the future. However, as the technology provider uniquely owned by and dedicated to the industry, our mandate is clear. Our focus will remain on empowering travellers to manage their own journey through airports while being provided relevant and personalised information. 

We also need to provide airports with new ways to keep tabs on passengers throughout their journeys, creating a travel experience that is memorable and stress-free while keeping them engaged through commercial services that add value to the time they spend inside the airport.

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