David Beare, Principal account leader
There’s a lot more to digital transformation than using the latest technology. Airports must first consider information management, societal behaviour change and market forces.
The difference between good airports and the best airports is less about the technology, and more about how they manage their data. This allows them to understand the needs of passengers, as well as their relative strengths in the market. To get the best out of technology it should be used in a targeted way to support the business plan.
Consider the end-to-end journey
Surface transport has a major effect on passengers’ perceptions of the overall airport experience. Even if the terminal infrastructure is excellent, an airport’s reputation can suffer because the journey to and from the site is unpredictable or stressful. Because of this, airports often get blamed for poor performance of transport infrastructure which is outside their direct control.
Added to this is the introduction of a number of disruptors which have the potential to affect both the journey to and from the airport and the fundamentals of the airport business plan. One such disruptor of late has been the arrival of Uber, which has increased the affordability of taxi rides but brings with it the added complication of behaving as a private car. Some airports have been slow to react to this changing travel mode, which is more than manageable through better use of technology.
Society is also changing. Fewer younger people are learning to drive, and subscription-based car sharing is becoming more popular. So what happens if people decide to travel to the airport in a different way? Airports need to accommodate and adjust to these changes through a flexible business plan. The traditional pattern of ‘predict and provide’ for car parking has to change to reflect passenger and staff attitudes to travel (as well as government policy).
Airports must become destinations in themselves
It isn’t just the surface access journey that is potentially exposed when it comes to digital transformation. As all airport managers know, relaxed passengers spend more when they reach airside retail, and improvements in processing technologies are undoubtedly going to help improve the propensity of passengers to spend in the shops.
However, there is a competing dynamic. When passengers become more confident in the predictability of the surface access journey, they will choose to arrive 45 minutes before their flight rather than two hours, leaving less time to shop. In this context, with car parking and non-aeronautical income such as retail contributing over half the revenue streams at some airports, this raises the question of how the airport business model will respond.
Vigilance of changing habits will enable airport managers to stay ahead of the curve, while more airports are developing offerings which make themselves destinations in their own right in order to compete. For example, Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport has partnered with the city’s renowned Rijksmuseum to exhibit 10 Dutch artworks in the airport’s leisure zone while Heathrow has, amongst other things, focused on providing the best shopping experience in the market.
Design for flexibility
In this fast-changing world there is a real risk of ‘betting on Betamax’ by backing the wrong technology or building outdated or inflexible infrastructure. We can no longer just follow a ‘predict and provide’ approach, and by understanding the changing needs and behaviours of passengers, airports can be designed in a way that repurposes space as the market evolves. This requires a business plan that accommodates wider societal change, rather than using technology to paper over the cracks in yesterday’s world.
See the unseen with smart infrastructure
In the past, information was split between different business units and stakeholders, but we are gaining valuable new insights through increased use of data analytics and digital twins.
These new developments allow airports to improve operations while optimising and driving new revenue streams. We can also start to predict previously unforeseen events, manage assets to improve safety and whole-life costs, and ensure the uptime and availability of critical assets for better passenger flow and experience. Through the application of technologies it opens the possibility of no-build solutions that result in significant capex savings.
An important first step before investing in technology is to examine the fundamental basics of why you’re capturing data in the first instance and how it supports governance and enterprise performance. A robust information management strategy is the cornerstone for airport expansion design that meets current needs and creates value for the future. With this strong business plan in place, technology can then allow you to differentiate successfully.