Emerging Smart Airports: Passenger experience and ease of future travel

By Sonal Mishra, Managing Director and Lead (Aviation), PwC India

Technology has enabled numerous advan­ces in many sectors, including aviation. Today, there are airports that have integrated internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, biometrics, advanced tele­communications and other state-of-the-art te­ch­nologies within the core airport infrastructu­re in order to efficiently manage, control and pl­an operations in a digital environment. They have emerged as smart airports.

Today, airport operations have become pa­ss­enger-centric; hence, there is a need to provide a smooth traveller experience from parking, check-in, security and baggage handling, all the way to boarding. However, there is a bigger problem. The steeply increasing number of passengers is not just going to drive airports to improve their operational efficiency; it is also going to challenge airports to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Hence, there is a symbiotic relationship between adopting smart technology for operational efficiency, and sustainability.

In this regard, smart airports have emer­g­ed to solve the operational and strategic needs of modern airports, making the overall passenger journey safe, sustainable and smart.

Smart airports redefining the passenger journey

Over the years, airports have inherited a set of legacy operational processes that exist even when technological improvements have made them outdated. In order to simplify the passenger journey, smart airports are overhauling op­erations and processes and eliminating certain bottlenecks.

For example, queuing for check-in (and baggage drop) security and boarding are the most tedious processes for a passenger. Beijing airport in China completely transformed the entire passenger journey using SITA technology – reducing the time from check-in (and bag-drop), security, immigration to finally bo­arding. Passengers only need to enroll once du­ring check-in, aided by facial recognition, and then experience a smooth journey through the airport. The technology has already establish­ed that it can significantly ramp up passenger processing at the airport, processing over 400 passengers boarding in an aircraft such as the Airbus A380 in less than 20 minutes.

Similarly, removing electronic items from cabin baggage during security checks is a hassle for a passenger. Amsterdam Airport Schi­ph­ol has become one of the first major airports to switch to unique CT scan machines, which allow passengers passing through security checkpoints to leave their electronics and liquids in their carry-on bags. The 4,000 cameras ins­tall­ed employ intelligent algorithms that ha­n­dle se­cu­rity tasks at the airport. With this, passengers can better spend this precious time shopping and dining; increasing the likelihood of growth in non-aeronautical revenue at the airport.

Further, in order to improve passenger ex­pe­rien­ce in certain ancillary services, Hong Kong airport has equipped itself with smart washrooms and smart parking. Leveraging IoT-enabled devices, these facilities indicate real-time cubicle/parking occupancy. There are oth­er examples. Detroit airport has enab­led parallel reality technology, where passengers can see only their own flight information on the display board. Incheon airport has introduced cart robots to carry cabin baggage for elderly passengers. Such initiatives have not only made passenger journeys comfortable and seamless but these smart airports are pioneers in addressing many pain points of passengers, beyond the airport premises.

Smart airports are solving passengers’ pain points beyond airport premises

Two decades ago, Hong Kong airport led the way by building in-town check-in terminals, whe­re passengers can drop their baggage and get a boarding pass. A few other cities such as Vienna and Seoul have followed the practice. Dropping the baggage early in the journey creates ease for the passenger. Research conducted by several travel experts suggests that there is a higher likelihood of passengers without baggage shopping at the airport. Accor­din­gly, smart airports are collaborating with ride-hailing companies, placing bag-tag printers in the cab itself.

Smart airports at the forefront in adopting sustainable practices

Smart airports are not just focusing on technology integration for efficient processes but are also moving towards responsibly consuming en­ergy. Changi airport in Singapore has ins­talled more than 150,000 sensors, which mea­sure the temperature, humidity and movement of passengers. Based on that, it optimally utilises its air conditioning, lighting and the ov­er­all energy management system. At Oslo airport in Nor­way, snow is stored in a de­pot and covered by sawdust for insulation. In summer, the airport optimises meltwater to cool down the airport premises, which reduces the amount of energy consumed during high traffic hours.

Not just energy consumption, airports are also switching to renewable energy sources. Cochin airport in India is the first in the world that functions entirely on solar energy. It has around 46,000 solar panels spread across 45 acres, producing 50,000 to 60,000 units of electricity per day. The airport not only takes care of its energy needs but now also has a po­wer surplus. Similarly, Denver airport install­ed solar panels that span more than 140 acres of land and is one of the largest hosts of solar en­ergy among all airports in the world.

Other airports have undertaken initiatives such as integrated environmental control systems, and giant skylights to reduce the need for arti­ficial lighting and rainwater harvesting, ca­tering to the water needs of the airport. These efforts towards sustainability have certainly paid off in terms of energy as well as cost savings, directing airports towards the path of net zero by 2050.

Cost-benefit analysis is a must: Indian  context

In an advanced economy, where wages are relatively higher compared to developing econo­mi­es, investing in new technology can significantly reduce staffing costs. But in the case of developing economies such as India, where wages are relatively lower, airports need to undertake cost-benefit analysis before deploying a new technology with high capital investment. It is also dep­en­dent on the respective airports’ passenger profile. If significant traffic contribution com­es from infrequent travellers who have a low level of technical literacy and are unfamiliar with technologies/processes such as biometrics or self-check-in, they will need a lot of support from the ground staff; which, in turn, would diminish the sole purpose and benefit of investing in cutting-edge technology.

Airports should conduct proper due diligence to understand whether the high capital expenditure is justified or if there is another alternative that is not expensive; whether the technology would enable a useful amenity that will enhance the customer (albeit based on respective airports’ passenger profile) experience; whether the technology would be intimidating to a large segment of travellers; what would be the payback period for this new technology to deliver tangible benefits; whether the interface of the technology is user-friendly or will it make the process difficult for passengers and employees to adapt to; and what the chan­ce is of that particular technology becoming obsolete in the near future. The right ans­wers to these questions would lead to decision-making before procuring new technology.

In a nutshell, adopting new technologies th­at deliver a clear benefit over capital expenditure is the most critical aspect that makes an airport smart.

Sudipta Kumar Saha, Manager -Capital Projects and Infrastructure, PwC India also contributed to this article