Insight, Opinion

Op Ed: Time for airports to embrace digitalisation

Alaa Elshimy, MD & SVP, Huawei Enterprise Business Group, Middle East, explains why airports needs to embrace digitalisation in order to build a smart ecosystem required to take the aviation sector to the next level.

airports digitalisation
Alaa Elshimy, MD, SVP Huawei Enterprise Business Group Middle East

The evolving digital world requires digitally-enabled airports. Travel today is more accessible than ever before, with 4.4 billion worldwide passenger journeys in 2018, and an estimated 4.5 billion journeys in 2019.

While things may have slowed down so far in 2020 as a result of the global COVID-19 outbreak, airports will still need to consider how best to embrace digital technologies in order to build the smart ecosystem that tomorrow’s aviation industry will require.

Technology has had a transformative impact on every aspect of the travel industry, from aircrafts to passenger bookings, to check-in, and the way we manage our personal itineraries. Passengers today expect a seamless experience from start to finish.

Many are eager to embrace the way convenience that technology brings to their travel experience, such as there no longer being a risk of losing paper travel tickets or boarding passes as – for most major airlines – everything is now available on a mobile app, or the fact that online check-in and the ability to make, change, and personalise bookings through a website or app empowers them to take control.

Airlines have clearly embraced the digital passenger experience, so why should airport technology lag behind?

A smart airport is one that adopts technology into its very core. Applications driven by artificial intelligence (AI), big data, and soon 5G will enable then to not only provide a better experience for passengers and airlines, but to enhance overall operations.

Technology gimmicks are nice to have, such as hologram greeters, talking robots, and interactive tablets or displays, but these are just surface solutions that have little impact on the overall efficiency of an airport, even if they do contribute somewhat to the passenger experience.

When selecting smart solutions as part of an airport’s digital transformation journey, it is important to look at several key factors. These will vary depending on the individual requirements of each facility, but generally speaking, there are three main considerations: return on investment, contribution to operational efficiency, and the impact on airport staff, airlines and passengers.

The latter – impact on passengers – is perhaps the more simple consideration to address. It is expected that any journey through an airport, whether departing, arriving, or transiting through, is seamless from start to finish.

Solutions that introduce efficiency in processes, such as check-in or security scans, increase satisfaction and lower stress levels. Self-service solutions are winners here. Unmanned check-in and bag-drop services are one example here, cutting down queuing time for passengers – or allowing them to skip the queues altogether.

AI-enabled biometric scanning at immigration check points and e-gates are also beneficial for efficiency, especially as high resolution imaging, coupled with powerful data processing technology, makes it possible to identify individuals even in crowded conditions.

In terms of airlines, the impact of smart solutions can mean anything from minutes saved to increased safety. AI-enabled solutions can run gate logistics more quickly than a human, assigning aircraft to the most logical option in order to offer the best possible experience for disembarking passengers by reducing the walk time to immigration.

In terms of safety, smart technology has been successfully implemented in numerous air traffic control towers around the world. There are currently several remote or ‘virtual’ control towers in operation, which takes the entire control team to an off-airport site using a high-speed network of cameras, sensors, AI and big data to safely guide aircraft on-ground and in the air.

This is possible at present on 4G networks – imagine the immense potential for advancement once 5G, with its lower latency and faster connectivity, becomes more prevalent.

Both aspects explored above contribute significantly to airport staff experience. Making the shift to become a digitally-enabled environment typically benefits employees by making their life easier. AI can step in and assist in the completion of certain tasks. Big data can help to predict patterns and aid in decision-making. Cloud computing will enable easier, faster access to all data, from anywhere.

Naturally, these all feed into overall operational efficiency, as well. But, in addition to making an airport run more smoothly, smart technology can also be used to make it more environmentally efficient, by helping to reduce emissions and lower energy consumption, for example. In a building that is functional 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, this is especially important to lessen carbon footprint.

With so many benefits, return on investment for an intelligently designed digitalisation initiative become obvious.

And the above examples are only scratching the surface of what is possible, with the practically limitless applications of technology’s big-hitters – 5G, AI, big data, and cloud computing. Any airport, anywhere, can benefit from embracing smart solutions… all it takes is the right technology partner, with proven capabilities and a passion for innovation, to make it happen

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