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A row of self-service check-in machines at an airport, with a person using one in the background.

Airport technology: a snapshot of the future

Lee Ebbutt, Technical principal

Before, IT was seen as an extra cost. Now, digital technology is valued as an innovator – a source of new revenue that can improve the customer experience and optimise processes to improve the operation and business.

Here are eight technology drivers that are set to change the airport experience in the coming years.

1. Autonomy is underway

Airports are already trialling robotic parking, driverless buses and autonomous baggage trolleys. Controlled zones, either airside or in dedicated lanes from car parks, provide safe conditions for improving this technology. We’ll soon see autonomous pods within the terminal that can take passengers straight to their departure gates – a valuable service for passengers with reduced mobility.

2. Extending service beyond the airport

We’re not far from self-tagged baggage collection at home the day before you travel. Passengers will be next. Why not have central collection points where you hop on an autonomous, electric bus that takes you straight to the airport? This could provide another revenue stream to compensate the loss of car parking revenue. For smart cities in the Far East, like Singapore, where the airport is integrated within the city, there’s potential for autonomous pods that take passengers from the city centre all the way through security and immigration to their gate.

3. Security as an experience

Ineffective data integration has slowed the industry down for many years. Now, authorities and operators are recognising the benefits of sharing information that could improve a passenger’s journey through a string of airports to reach their final destination. The use of biometric tokens and sophisticated security tunnels – which screen passengers as they walk by – will make the airport experience faster and less intrusive for the passenger, while quickly identifying potential threats.

4. Boosting collaboration through blockchain

Blockchain provides the technology to transfer privileged information securely, whether to security services, or between airports and airlines, and increasingly from airport to airport. We'll potentially start seeing airports partnering as a way of competing in the market, similar to airline alliances. In these major hub alliances, passengers can choose to travel through the most seamless airports as a preferred option.

5. Cybersecurity as business culture

Cybersecurity is becoming a big issue in all sectors. It’s fascinating to see how it has moved up the agenda, from an IT concern to a business priority. Alongside identifying and protecting data, cybersecurity means responding and recovering data in case of a breach. It’s about more than just technology – cybersecurity needs to be a process, with the right culture in place for testing and checking, running throughout the whole business.

6. Space age airports?

Tomorrow’s world is getting closer. Although drones have had negative press around airports recently, they will become a core part of operations moving forward, especially for rapid response as they can quickly feed information back to the control centre or emergency services. Likewise, in peak hours or for outage resilience, an airport could fly drones to provide 5G coverage, rather than build in a high cost network. We’ll also see more robots and chatbots in the open terminal, especially for cleaning and wayfinding services.

7. Personalised journeys

It’s not hard to imagine apps linked to sensors which recognise you when you arrive at the airport then guide you via the quietest security lines or immigration lanes, before directing you to your favourite coffee shop. With artificial intelligence, the app learns more about your preferences, alerting outlets to make personalised offers. And by wearing a set of augmented reality glasses you can see all this without the need to look down at your phone all the time. Data will also be flowed back to the airport, allowing management staff to better manage the flow of people. Better technology will enable a more customer-focused airport experience.

8. Smart Data

Although data has been available at airports for many years, the value of this data as a tool to improve and optimise, while also driving revenue growth is now being recognised, and airports are seeing this as the driver for transformational change. The industry continues to improve and develop common standards for information exchange and data collaboration is being widely recognised as the way forwards. The ability to proactively analyse data and identify key trends will allow operators to truly improve the passenger experience through seamless travel, and in addition allow for better management of their assets to provide high levels of availability and reduce their management costs. The use of smart data and integration through smart integrated airport management platforms will see airports implementing or improving operational control centres to help them achieve their visions.

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