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NEWS Last modified on December 10, 2019

BLOG: Why digitalisation is making the difference to airside operations

Airports are incredibly complex, interconnected ecosystems, whose performance is highly dependent upon hundreds of stakeholders aligning and operating in unison, writes Shell Aviation's Thomas de Boer.

On the apron, where safety requirements are some of the most stringent in the world, orchestrating seamless operations and safely moving hundreds of refuelling trucks across the globe in close proximity to large aircrafts in this ever-changing environment is no easy task.

This is particularly the case for our customers who are inevitably bounded by time: every second saved makes a huge difference to their bottom line.

Anyone who has recently travelled through the one of the world’s international hub airports will have witnessed the plethora of smart technology which plays a major role in modern air travel.

The sophistication of the technology in airport terminals now ranges from passenger-side, such as radio frequency identification baggage tags, to governmental processing, such as biometric passports at immigration.
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Not only does the application of digitalised systems allow for a smoother experience for passengers, but also helps to deliver significant benefit in terms of operational efficiencies.

However, this is in stark contrast to some airside systems, many of which have not progressed at the same speed and rely on antiquated processes and technology, slowing processes down and impacting efficiency.

In a touchscreen world, it almost seems unthinkable that aspects of a process as essential to air travel as refuelling still involve a pen and paper.

Navigating operational challenges

The aviation industry continues to grow at an incredible pace. IATA recently confirmed last year as another record for air travel, while also predicting a doubling of passenger numbers within the next two decades.

But whether it is a seasonal peak or a longer-term upward trajectory, we know that the increase in passenger demand brings huge operational challenges. As flight and passenger volumes climb, so does pressure on airlines for on-time turnarounds.

From an airline perspective, the currency of refuelling is seconds. Hence, minimising delays in aircraft turnaround times is one of the most critical aspects of maintaining profitability and delivering the level of service demanded by passengers in today’s busy world.
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In fact, flight delays cost the aviation industry $13 billion annually, including direct compensations paid to passengers, costs for missed connections, or staff costs related to underutilisation of aircrafts and airport slots.

So, when absolute operational efficiency with regards to turnaround is demanded, how can digitalisation make the difference? One aspect where we believe there is huge potential is in the refuelling process.

To deliver these benefits for our customers, Shell Aviation invested in the only industry wide, continuous audit of refuelling performance – we call it On Time Performance (OTP) Analytics.

This advanced data analytics tool enables us to track every single flight versus schedule and to understand and improve our refuelling performance and adjust where necessary.

In addition, while most of the industry assesses single-site performance using data analytics at a site level, this is an industry-first solution that tracks fuelling performance across different locations and enables benchmarking and identification of overarching trends to identify efficiency improvement opportunities for our customers.

Moreover, OTP Analytics also tracks and records how many flights which arrive late are refuelled by Shell in time to catch up and take off on schedule.

Connecting apron to office

Whether it’s face timing a loved one on the other side of the world or holding a board meeting by video conference, one of most valued ways technology continues to benefit our daily lives is through enabling communication.

And this is also the case for airside operations where there is great potential in digitalising communication between pilot and fuel operator.

That’s why we made a huge step towards Shell Aviation’s vision of fully digitised operations by introducing Shell SkyPad, connecting our operators who provide the fuel on the apron with office staff and customers throughout the fuelling process.
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Our complete and fully integrated solution links the tablet to a cloud-based computer platform, simplifying and speeding up critical aspects of the refuelling process, as well as reducing administration and human error.

Most importantly, it is safe to be used anywhere on the apron, anywhere in the world: from the most niche airports to some of the world’s largest, where multiple refuelling trucks and data sources need to be captured.

Costs associated with staff currently dealing with reconciliations and handling of invoicing errors or data accuracy issues can currently cost airlines up to $250,000 annually.

By harnessing technology at the most pivotal point of refuelling and replacing manual, paper-based systems and processes, this helps us to tap into the unlocked potential to maximise efficiency and accuracy across all aspects from refuelling to billing.

This also helps us to achieve smoother and safer operations for our airline customers, supporting their financial performance as well as helping them to keep their own customers’ happy due to flights remaining on schedule.

Supporting growth with digital tech

Whether it is improving passenger experience through a terminal or safety on the apron, digital tech has the potential to address both legacy and contemporary challenges in airport operations.

And with the rise in air passenger demand over the coming years likely to present a whole new range of considerations for airport operations, the benefits that digital technologies will deliver will only increase in tandem.

As we continue to respond to the unprecedented growth and the challenges that may come our way, we continue to see this as an opportunity for the industry, enabled by digitalisation and collaboration.

• Thomas Boer is Shell Aviation's chief operating officer.

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