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Andrew O’Connor, vice president of SITA’s airport division, speaks to Passenger Terminal World about the biggest trends of 2016 and what we can expect in the year ahead

What were the biggest developments for airports in 2016?

There was a huge focus on bags, biometrics and business intelligence (BI), and while some of the best technology is only at early stages of deployment, we believe these areas are set to play an integral role in the passenger journey of the future.


In 2016, SITA saw increased investment at airports in self-service baggage solutions. Today check-in kiosks are at 90% of the world’s airports so investment is now moving to self-service bag drop.

The second area of change and development for baggage in 2016 has been radio frequency identification (RFID) technology for baggage handling. Using it for bag tracking has the potential to cut mishandling rates more than ever before – in fact by a further 25%. SITA and IATA calculated that this could save the industry up to US$3bn.

Clearly RFID is not a new technology. Hong Kong International Airport in China and McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Nevada, have been using it very successfully for several years. The difference in 2016 was that a major international airline committed to RFID – Delta Airlines announced a US$50m investment in RFID at 344 stations around the globe, to track the 120 million bags it manages each year.

The IATA Resolution 753, which mandates airlines to keep track of every item of baggage from start to finish, comes into place in June 2018 and this will also require airports to have IT systems and infrastructure in place to support airline compliance. Airlines and airports have already started working together during 2016 and this will continue over the next eighteen months.


During this year, we have seen the development of biometrics and the acceptance in how this technology can improve passenger security and facilitation at airports. Electronic passports, which are now in wide circulation, can be used with biometric technology to get passengers through border and other airport checkpoints smoothly and securely.

2016 was the year that this smooth secure journey could be implemented on common-use infrastructure at the world’s airports, while also being fully integrated with government border management solutions. This was a big development because integration with standard common-use, self-service equipment already in use across the industry – such as check-in kiosks, bag-drop units, and gates for secure access, boarding and automated border control – makes rapid deployment easy and cost-effective. SITA calls it Smart Path.

This new Smart Path technology enables passengers to move through the airport and board the aircraft simply by presenting themselves for a biometric check. Once verified, there is no need for the passenger to present a boarding pass, a passport or travel documents again.

With SITA Smart Path, the passenger’s biometric details are captured through a facial scan at the first touchpoint in the journey. The record is checked against the passenger’s travel documents, typically the passport, and a secure single token is created. Then, at each step of the journey – from check-in, to aircraft boarding or border control – passengers gain access simply with a facial scan and without having to show their passport or boarding pass.

Business intelligence

Knowledge is power and airports can now transform data into actionable information to improve the passenger experience and airport operations. Airports are beginning to exploit the potential of BI to improve efficiency and they are investing in the capabilities of working with partners to integrate data and use intelligently.

Passenger flow intelligence sits high on the revenue-generation agenda. An often-cited statistic is that an extra 10 minutes in security reduces an average passenger’s retail spend by 30%. That’s significant when multiplied by thousands of passengers each day. In addition to passenger flow, BI helps improve operations and deploy staff and assets more effectively.

There can also be real benefits for passengers along with airports and airlines. Last year saw a rise in the use of BI for efficient queue management, in particular across the USA, where earlier in the year major passenger congestion at airports hit the news headlines.

SITA has worked with many US airports to meet the agencies’ security needs while moving passengers through checkpoints as quickly as possible. These include Orlando, Miami, Denver and Phoenix Sky Harbor international airports, which are using SITA QueueAnalyzer to predict and manage passenger flow. Here Bluetooth and wi-fi sensors, cameras, and airport and airline systems analysis, all come together with highly sophisticated algorithms to predict queue times at choke points throughout the airport.

All this translates to shorter wait times for passengers. Now you can walk into the airport and know how long it will take to get through the various checkpoints. Real-time or predictive information can also be sent to passengers’ phones, and displayed on websites and screens. Technology is bringing that sense of certainty and letting passengers choose the quickest route through the airport.

And that’s just one side of the coin. The other side is that airports can use all this data to manage resources. When the system predicts long security wait times, for example, more security staff can be deployed.

How will technology transform airports in 2017?

The further deployment of the three technologies already mentioned will have a transformative effect on travel in the coming 12 months, and beyond.

In 2017, airports will examine their baggage infrastructure as they work with airlines to help them meet the IATA resolution. As RFID becomes more widely adopted, passengers arriving at their destination will have to worry less about their bags.

Departing passengers will also have a better baggage experience. Increasingly, they can quickly print and attach the tag and drop off their bags on their own. Self-service is fast and with more airports offering the service fewer passengers will need to wait for an agent’s help. This year is set to see the number of self-service bag-drop areas really increasing, and SITA’s research shows that up to 72% of airports plan to have it by the end of 2019.

Biometrics will become more commonplace at airports in 2017 and with SITA Smart Path a fast, secure and seamless walkthrough experience is within reach of passengers today. 2017 will be the year that passengers get to experience it. Trials are already underway and we expect to see airports rolling out this common-use solution during 2017.

From a passenger point of view, airports using BI will increase efficiencies supporting better passenger flows and faster aircraft turnarounds. We will see in 2017 the digital transformation at airports as systems increasingly become integrated and big data has a layer of intelligence added to enable predictive analysis.

Rising passenger numbers continue to put pressure on the world’s airports and congestion and flight disruptions create constant challenges. To manage the situation, airports are investing in centralized control centers. Today just over half of airports (52%) have one and this will rise to nearly 80% over the next three years. One-third of airports have local Collaborative Decision Making (CDM) and within three years, 71% will, while more than half (55%) will have fully integrated it with ATM systems. These investments reflect the airports’ priorities of focusing on efficient aircraft turnaround and on-time departures.

What part will SITA play in developing these technologies?

SITA plays an integral role in developing, deploying and maintaining IT and technology solutions throughout the air transport industry. Our technology helps more than 1,000 airports worldwide deliver a hassle-free passenger journey. Our future-proof solutions are helping transform airports and improve the passenger experience around the world.

In the three examples of bags, biometrics and business intelligence, SITA has taken the lead as a supplier but we also have a wider industry role.

For bags, SITA provides the most advanced, comprehensive and flexible baggage solution ever developed delivering greater efficiencies, reduced costs and happier passengers. In fact, SITA is the only single-source vendor covering all areas of baggage management. We’ve been the recognized leader in bag tracking and tracing for more than 20 years and our systems are in every major airport in the world.

Looking ahead we are working closely with IATA to help meet the target of end-to-end baggage tracking by June 2018 and supporting airports to ensure they have the solutions and infrastructure to meet the needs of their airline partners.

Our automated border solution optimizes the processing of travelers without compromising security. We are using our expertise in the areas of border management, airport and airline operations to explore technologies for enhanced security and passenger flow. Biometrics is a key area that we are developing and our Smart Path solution uniquely works in common-use situations. Looking further into the future we have invested in research to explore single token travel across borders.

In 2017, SITA Lab, the technology research team, will continue examining how to use virtual or digital passports in the form of a single secure token on mobile and wearable devices. This could reduce complexity, cost and liability around document checks during the passenger journey.

One area of SITA Lab’s research is blockchain technology. This offers the potential to provide a new way of using biometrics. It could enable biometrics to be used across borders, and at all airports, without the passenger’s details being stored by the various authorities. SITA Lab is investigating a versatile and secure system to make the single travel token work globally, across all borders, to allow us to reach the perfect balance of convenience and security.

This research into the ‘Travel Identity of the Future’ is part of SITA’s ongoing investment in research for the benefit of the entire air transport community. It is one of the five community research programs that SITA has launched to address some of the industry’s most pressing challenges. (The others are new baggage tracking capabilities to meet IATA’s Resolution 753; the facilitation of IATA’s New Distribution Capability (NDC); an industry-wide disruption warning system; and enhancing cyber security across the industry.)

What these examples show is that while SITA provides the technology products and services that airlines and airports need to transform air travel, it goes beyond that by serving the industry in many other ways. This is possible because SITA is owned by the industry so has a strong community role.

What challenges does the industry face in the coming years?

IATA expects a near doubling of passengers, to 7.2 billion, by 2035. While this growth creates the biggest set of opportunities for the air transport industry, it also entails the most significant challenges.

More passengers, more flights, and more aircraft must be managed, often with the same infrastructure and limited resources. As passenger volumes increase faster than new airports or terminals can be built, airports need to use what they have and focus on efficiency for the complex decisions they make all day, every day. Costs must be controlled as productivity is improved and security enhanced. At the same time, the industry must juggle passengers’ expectations for smooth, efficient services, which enable a hassle-free, secure journey.

How can airports prepare for these challenges? What should they be investing in?

Airports need to make smart investments to ensure they are able to handle this growth. In many cases, technology is the answer. For example using the latest technology to harness valuable data, and using sophisticated BI solutions to make sure resources are being used in the most efficient way. In fact, BI is a ‘must-have’ for airports looking to cope with the demands of such massive growth.

BI solutions available today use data from both passengers and business operations to boost decision making for more efficient and passenger-focused services; we’ve already discussed some major US airports. On top of that, the 2016 SITA Airport IT Trends Survey revealed that half of airports worldwide are planning major BI initiatives over the next three years.

Today’s BI solutions enable extensive data sourcing, understanding of the relationships between data sets, and the analyzing and establishing of context. This helps identify areas for change and improvement while providing the reasoning to underpin decisions.

To deliver the best results, the solutions leverage the widest range of data sources, including wi-fi, Bluetooth, video, airport operational database, common-use systems, baggage systems and customer satisfaction monitoring systems and consolidate the data into one single dashboard. They also provide reporting that is fully device agnostic.

Looking at some real-life examples shows how getting smart with data can deliver immediate improvements. A busy airport in the US is using SITA’s technology for data analysis of passenger movements to improve airport revenues. It found that 94% of passengers passing through the retail and security areas of the main terminal went directly to the main security checkpoint, bypassing and ignoring the retail area.

This meant that the retail locations within the checkpoint area were fighting for just 6% of passenger traffic. Deeper analysis of the data revealed that the situation was even more challenging. Of that 6%, more than half were going straight to a pre-security checkpoint, meaning only 2% of the total passengers visited the retail area. Today the airport is redesigning its layout and passenger flow to maximize the retail offering to deliver real revenue opportunities.

Adelaide Airport, Australia’s fastest-growing international airport, is another example. It is using technology to effectively manage the allocation of shared resources. A business intelligence portal provides end-to-end visibility of what’s happening in the airport, at both strategic and operational levels. Data is pulled from all common-use infrastructure to analyze, report and benchmark passenger movements, providing a deep understanding of relevant activities and providing intelligent reporting to optimize shared resource allocation. The increased focus on using data to enhance operations will allow Adelaide Airport to be proactive and predict and identify imminent adverse conditions before they actually happen.

What will airports look like in 2020?

We envisage airports being able to offer passengers the option of a 100% self-service journey, where human interaction is eliminated thanks to the implementation of automated, self-service technology at every single step of the journey. Staff will be able to focus on providing excellent customer service without needing to perform basic operational processes.

Automation and efficiency will go hand-in-hand, with the technology allowing air travelers to walk through every process at the airport, from the door of their taxi to their seats on the plane. We will get to the stage where processes no longer dominate the airport journey and passengers have more freedom to do what they want at the airport, whether that’s working, eating, shopping or just boarding the plane.

In turn, this will lead to a proliferation in consumer-grade experiences at airports around the world, as operators compete based on who can best create the second golden age of travel.

January 16, 2017

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About Author


Kirstie joined the team in early 2017 and brings writing, communications and client experience with her. Now an assistant editor, she produces content for our magazines and websites. Away from the office, you will find her blogging on her lifestyle website or searching the internet for photos of sausage dogs.

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