The Airport of the Future Takes Flight

The Airport of the Future Takes Flight

What will the airport of the future look like and what are some of the challenges that it will face?

The airport of the future will be very big, very complex. Maneuvering through airports will be a challenge, and wayfinding will be very important.

Let’s take it 10 years down the road, in 2030. That is the time when Terminal 5 will be operational, and Singapore Changi Airport will double the number of passengers it is currently handling to about 130 million a year.

As income rises in this part of the world, there will be a huge increase in the number of leisure travelers, and demand for regional low-cost carriers will grow. The airport terminals and airfields will be handling more passengers and flights than today.

Manpower constraints will be a major concern. Airport operations are very labour intensive – the loading of cargo and baggage onto the aircraft, operating the check-in counters, for example. We still need people to manage these processes.

Today, the airport probably employs tens of thousands of people across Terminals 1 to 4. With the doubling of capacity by 2030, how can we manage with the same or slightly more number of people?

Automation can help by freeing up people from the counter so that they become ambassadors and help to provide directions, wayfinding advice. The nature of jobs in the airport will change to higher value work – using data to plan, analyse and predict passenger flow and optimise the use of resources to improve the passenger experience.

Revenue generation will continue to be a challenge. Today, majority of the airport’s revenue comes from retail, F&B and the car park, so retail is very important to the airport business.

With competition from the likes of Amazon, the retail experience in the airport will take on a different look and feel. New airports will feature a different kind of shopping experience. There could be walk-in virtual shops with augmented reality and virtual checkouts. The delivery could be made direct to the gate or to the destination. So retail will have to take a different form, and airports will need to be ready for the transformation.

How can NCS’ Smart Airport Vision address these challenges and prepare airports for the future?

NCS’ Smart Airport Vision is not only about addressing the needs of the airport itself but also its ecosystem of retailers, ground handling companies, regulators, operators, airlines, maintenance and repair overhaul companies, customs and immigration.

Four key sets of business needs to address across this ecosystem

Efficient Airport Operations

We see advanced data analytics being used in this area for planning, trending and prediction to help manage operations better and to anticipate incidents before they happen.

With analytics, airports will be able to manage congestions better. Video sensors and people-counting technologies like CCTV images, Lidar and BluFi can be deployed to help determine the number of people in a taxi queue on a particular night.

If the system picks up that it is going to be a long queue, it can do a broadcast to taxi operators to activate more taxis to come to the airport. We no longer have to depend on human beings to make a judgement call. The system will analyse and alert operators as and when the need arises.   And data will be available for trending and profiling to help improve the supply of taxis in the future.

To better manage queues at immigration or check-in counters, data analytics can be used to predict if, for example, more counters will have to be opened up within the next two hours. This helps enhance the passenger experience by ensuring that they do not have to wait too long in a queue.

Bots such as virtual assistant bots and service bots will also come in in a big way to enhance airport operations. With a mega terminal, there will be more passengers asking for help, and bots can come in to augment human capabilities. For example, ground staff will be able to rove and bots will deliver the information that they need to their mobile devices so that they can service customers better.

Optimise Resource Utilisation

Examples of fixed resources include equipment, gates, parking bays and people. These have to be optimised especially during the peak periods, using data analytics to optimise scheduling and resource allocation with available resources

For example, the whole airport could be structured to optimise the use of autonomous vehicles on the ground – buses to transport people from one terminal to another instead of taking the skytrain, tractors to tow cargo from one place to another, loaders to load aircraft, and the use of autonomous cleaning machines.

We also see airports starting to provide services on a subscription basis to stakeholders such as airlines, ground handlers, maintenance and repair overhaul companies, etc. This presents new opportunities for revenue generation while optimising resource utilisation and delivering greater cost efficiencies across the airport ecosystem.

Take, for example, infrastructure as a subscription. Today when an aircraft is parked on the tarmac, we have different ground companies providing utilities such as electricity and water to the aircraft. In the future, if the airport invests in fixed ground services, it will be able to provide all these from the airport infrastructure.

Another example is Wifi as a service. The operator can wire up the whole airport and the shared infrastructure can benefit the entire ecosystem. For example, it will allow different stakeholders to buy Wifi services and encourage the adoption of more mobile apps and IOT sensors. With the airport investing and owning the infrastructure, it can provide higher QoS to stakeholders than if they were to rely on public telecommunications. This would be a win-win for the airport and stakeholders.

There are other services that can be made available on a subscription basis. For example, ambassadors hired by the airport can help man lounges for airport customers, or assist with delivery services at the gate for customers so retailers don’t have to invest in their own services. The ecosystem wins because costs will come down.

Today, these services are very fragmented. The airport operator can come in and earn revenue from it, and at the same time reduce the cost for the ecosystem. This means it is a win-win for both the airport operator and the rest of the ecosystem.

Safety and Security

This includes people safety, security, as well as cyber and physical security. For example, video analytics can be used to detect foreign objects on the ground. When the aircraft is coming in, we will be able to detect if the area is clear for parking.   Today drones also affect the security of the airport, so that is something that we will also need to address.

Enhancing Customer Experience

We want to make sure that the passenger has a good experience when going to the airport. Wayfinding is one aspect of this. For example, passengers can make use of a mobile application to locate where they are, and also have points of interest highlighted to them along the way. Or the app could help them to spend time well in the airport if they have a long layover.

How do we work towards the Smart Airport vision?

Our Smart Airport vision is about using technology to support these four sets of business needs, and the enterprise architecture (EA) plays a very important role in ensuring that this is done well.

The EA defines your IT picture. It helps you plan better when you want to introduce new systems or equipment into your IT landscape, and also to identify opportunities for consolidation.

Without the architecture, it is very difficult to understand the current landscape and help the airport to move forward. At many airports, the systems are very standalone. They come from different partners, so it is very piecemeal.

At the end of the day, you have to ask whether you have an effective architecture that will bring everything together. Along the way, the need for information will grow, and you will need to know if you have the data sources to address this need. The EA allows us to see potential sources of data and draw pictures for trending, for improvement, for future planning.

Another thing that airports can do is to carry out proofs of concept (POCs).  Do a POC before you implement the solution especially in the new technology world where the technology may not be so mature. If it works then carry on. For example, everyone thinks facial recognition is magic, but you need to think about lighting, backlight. So instead of deploying thousands of cameras, you try it out in a small area and see whether it meets the needs. If the concept works then we start to do a full deployment.

From a product portfolio perspective, we need to start creating products that will address the needs of passengers in a smart airport. We have to identify partners that we can work with because we cannot build everything. And most important of all, we need to engage our customers and appreciate their challenges, so we can see how we can help them in their digital journey.