How technology can spruce up airport operations

Singapore, October 6, 2016

How technology can spruce up airport operations


STEP into any major airport around the world, and there’s a good chance you’ll see long queues at check-in counters and a buzz of activity all around the passenger terminals. On the tarmac, loaders and tractors are hauling cargo and baggage.
Amidst the hustle and bustle are different teams of airport staff working together with the sole aim of delivering a pleasant experience for travellers. But with growing passenger volumes, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, and heightened risks of terrorism, it is increasingly challenging for airport operators, airlines and other industry players to enhance operational efficiency, productivity and security.
In this Q&A segment, we spoke with Mr. Lee Siew Kit, Director, Smart and Safe City, NCS Group, to find out how technology can help airport operators, airlines, ground handlers, inflight caterers, engineers and others address these challenges.

Q: With air travel expected to double over the next 20 years, airports, airlines, and others will face increasing pressure to innovate and improve the travel experience while ensuring the security of passengers. What’s being done to address this challenge?

A: For several years now, many airports have been encouraging passengers to check in using their mobile devices or self-service kiosks, alleviating the need to open or add more service counters. Once passengers have checked in, they can just drop their bags at bag drop counters and proceed to security checkpoints. This seamless passenger experience does not necessarily mean a compromise in security. Some airports such as Singapore's Changi Airport, for instance, will be experimenting with end-to-end self-service – from check-in to boarding – at their new terminal. To verify the identity of a self-boarding passenger, separate photos of him or her at various check points will be taken and matched. Advanced checks against various databases and sources of information can also be carried out so that passengers can go through immigration and security checks faster. US Customs and Borders Protection are already trying out these new ways, leveraging on technology, at several major US airports.
Q: What are the implications of such measures from a manpower perspective?

A: We can expect manpower reductions since fewer check-in and gate staff would be needed. That said, there will still be people manning counters for premium passengers as well as those requiring assistance. Existing counter staff would also have more opportunities to upsell services, such as seat upgrades. Others could be trained to become service ambassadors, who can be empowered with knowledge of the airline and airport to help passengers in need.

Q: Airport operations, especially those related to passenger/cargo security can be complex and multi-faceted. How can technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT), wearables and video analytics help?

A: Frankly, wearables are not new in the aviation industry. For many years, ground handlers have been using wearables to send and receive information hands-free during their course of work. Technology has progressed from the days of proprietary and expensive wearables to today’s more commercially driven and cheaper wearables, thereby making wearables more attractive for adoption.

Today, more airport operators are looking at ways to manage equipment on the ground using IoT technologies, such as sensors that track and identify available assets for use. This helps to improve the productivity of staff who no longer need to go around searching for available assets. Also, with full visibility of their inventory, companies would not need to spend money each year to buy new equipment, when existing equipment could be located somewhere in the airport.
As for physical security, airport operators today run integrated Command and Control Centres (C2) to monitor all aspects of airport operations, including security. However, security officers are still needed to keep an eye on video surveillance feeds. These officers work long hours, and may not be able to pick up every security breach. That’s where technologies such as video analytics come in handy. Video analytics can be used to pick up suspicious activities and unattended items automatically, and then display alerts on monitors for immediate follow up. New generation C2 also offer real-time situational information on the ground that’s useful and important to all parties. This enables airports to proactively manage a potential situation or crisis before it affects passengers and operations.
Another area where technology can help is picking up foreign object debris (FOD) on taxi ways and runways. FOD is detrimental to aircraft safety, but picking them up requires ground staff to comb the ground. Technology like video analytics can help to identify FOD to some extent, but a more efficient solution would be to deploy ground drones, or autonomous robots, to take over the menial but crucial task. That said, it may take some time before we see an actual deployment as such drones have not been developed to date. While ground drones are useful in airport operations, those of the aerial variety could pose a safety risk to aircraft. Though we’re still far away from having the ability to intercept drones, we should think of ways to detect drones that are approaching a runway, and automatically alert air traffic controllers and the authorities.
Q: What are the key challenges and risks in adopting these technologies, and what can airports/airlines do to overcome them?

A: No single technology solution will meet all the needs of airlines and airports. As such, they will need to develop a clear implementation plan, and roll out the right systems at the right time that meet their needs. As technology implementations may result in job displacement in some cases, employee resistance will be high, especially among older staff. Airport operators and airlines will need to develop change management plans, and work with staff unions to help re skill workers. Also, with the high cost of new technologies, airlines and airports could consider co-creation and partnerships to fund their technology projects.

Q: Based on your experience, which airports are leading the charge in implementing the technologies you’ve described to streamline airport operations?

A: The airports in the United States and European countries are ahead of the world, due to the large number of flights they handle. Examples include the Netherlands and Denmark, both of which are very advanced in implementing new technologies. In the Asia-Pacific region, Singapore and Hong Kong are ahead of the pack in adopting technology with greater urgency due to labour shortages, as compared to countries like Indonesia and India.
Q: Aviation/airport control systems are considered critical information infrastructures that can have detrimental effects on a country’s reputation and economy when compromised. What can airport operators do to mitigate potential cyber threats?

A: It’s almost a given that cyber attacks will happen, so it’s up to airport operators to design their systems to reduce the impact of an attack and recover quickly. The IT infrastructure of mission critical systems, for example, should not be shared with systems that may be more susceptible to cyber threats. Also, operators have to ensure backup systems and networks will kick in to keep things humming along when things turn awry. Just as important are crisis communication plans to keep travellers and the public updated on latest developments during and after a cyber security incident. All these should be part of a business continuity/disaster recovery plan, undergirded by policies, rules and governance processes that all stakeholders, including airport management, staff and incident response teams, should rehearse regularly and be familiar with. Importantly, all members of the airport ecosystem must collaborate, share information and work together when such attacks happen, to ensure airport operations and passengers’ lives are least impacted, and to restore the original state of things quickly.