IT systems are an essential investment, but which are the most prudent for airports to buy into and how are they impacting customer satisfaction levels?
Airports are perhaps the most connected public places in the world. This is obvious to passengers, as they use smartphones at every stage of their journey, but much more technology is working behind the scenes. Airports continually invest in IT to ensure their decision making is robust and coordinated, and that they have everything in place to help make the passenger journey as smooth as possible. New systems are constantly being developed and it takes time to implement them, so airports always need to look to the future and plan their investments accordingly.
According to SITA’s Air Transport IT Trends Insights 2017, airports around the world are increasing the proportion of revenue they spend on IT to over 5% this year, investing an estimated total of US$8.4bn. It is money well spent, however, because IT underpins and manages operations throughout every airport. Investing in IT is of course both a risk and an opportunity. Get it right and it will make the airport run smoothly, providing a great passenger experience; get it wrong and there could be any number of problems.
Passengers are using technology more to travel by car and rail and the expectation is that they should be able to use it throughout their air travel, too. SITA’s survey asked passengers to rate their satisfaction at every step of the journey. The results paint a picture of technology users who are more satisfied with the experience than those using face-to-face services – 9 out of 10 people book their flight online and three-quarters of passengers want flight and gate alerts sent to their phones. Nearly 60% would choose to use biometrics instead of passports or boarding passes. These are only three stages of the journey, but they illustrate the majority of passengers’ willingness to embrace technology.
Both the behind-the-scenes and passenger-facing technologies are changing how airports are run and how passengers move through the airport. This trend that will continue, provided airports persist in prioritizing their investment.
The first priority that is vital for any business, particularly one as finely balanced as an airport, is to have robust IT networks underpinning the entire operation. A good network must have redundancy, backups and the connectivity necessary to ensure that all the diverse players in the ecosystem can interact easily and efficiently.
To ensure efficiency, the operator must join up the IT and communication activities of the many players involved, from its own to those of air traffic controllers, security agencies, airlines and ground handlers. Everyone has different requirements and systems, which can lead to disjointed decision making. It is essential to remember that what matters most is the airport’s smooth operation and a good passenger experience.
Take the unfortunate example of passengers, bags and aircraft starting to stack up at the airport due to disruption. This is when response teams need to work fast. Ideally, that means having simultaneous access to as much information as possible, but when that information is held by multiple organizations, in multiple locations, teams waste critical minutes trying to coordinate between the involved parties – time that should be spent executing
a well-drilled recovery plan.As a result, airports are increasingly looking at the integration of all key operations into a single, integrated command and control center.
It is much more efficient to have the right people, processes and data sources working together in the same room, contributing to and working off a single comprehensive view of the airport’s operations. This inevitably speeds up the airport’s decision making and its emergency response capabilities.
Look to the cloud
Balancing the need for robust and resilient IT with the limited resources that are available is a challenge for all airports. However, the availability of cloud services provides more flexibility in terms of on-demand IT services.
For example, applications and software specifically designed for airports of all sizes, based on workplace needs, are available from SITA. This removes the need for IT replication across multiple airports, providing real and valuable savings.
Common-use infrastructure is also important. As traffic numbers increase but the size of terminals remains the same, airports need to be smarter about how they use their real estate. Common-use desks, kiosks, bag drop and boarding gates can all provide big efficiency gains.
It isn’t always the newest technology that is important – the common-use concept has been around for many years – but there are always developments. SITA has recently introduced the first multimerchant single payment solution, enabling airlines to accept payments at common-use check-in desks, kiosks and bag-drop areas for baggage fees, upgrades and other ancillary charges, so passengers do not need to go elsewhere in the terminal to make payments.
Investment in baggage systems is essential for every airport. By the middle of 2018 all airlines are expected to have met the requirements of IATA Resolution 753, which stipulates that all baggage should be tracked throughout the journey. On top of that, passengers increasingly expect to be able to track their bags in the same way as they can follow the progress of parcels being sent to them at home.
Many airports are rolling out self-service kiosks where passengers can print out tags to attach to their luggage. In fact nearly half – 47% – of all passengers took advantage of a self-service tagging option on their most recent trip, which is a healthy increase from 31% in 2016.
While many passengers are willing to tag their own bags and use self-service bag drop, most continue to drop off their bag with an airline agent at a check-in desk. Use of this face-to-face service is decreasing slowly, down to 82% from 85% in 2016, with 18% using a self-service bag drop during their most recent trip, up from 14% last year.
However, passengers may be more willing to use self-service bag drop than the current adoption level suggests, as 43% say they would use it on their next flight. Lack of availability is an obvious element holding back widespread adoption. As self-service bag-drop stations are not available at all airports, there is a limit on the percentage of travelers who can use the service.
Despite this, as the air transport industry continues to roll out the technology, it is also evolving to become more user-friendly, requiring minimal input from passengers. The latest bag-drop stations, for example, automatically detect and scan bag tags and dispatch luggage into the baggage handling system. The combination of greater availability and increasing usability should lead to much higher levels of adoption over the next few years.
Security has long been a pain point for passengers. The balance between the stress on the passenger and the importance of effective security is always delicate. Today, airports are increasingly using biometrics to make the security process smoother. To help them incorporate biometrics into their existing infrastructure, SITA developed Smart Path for the common-use environment.
Using a biometric as a single travel token can make a real difference. With Smart Path, airports can capture a passenger’s biometric details through a facial scan at the first touchpoint in the journey. Once checked against the passenger’s travel documents, a secure single token is created. Then, at every step in the journey – whether during self-bag drop, at border control or during aircraft boarding – facial scanning replaces the need to show a passport or boarding card. This improves both security oversight and standards and speeds up passenger processing. It is a good example of how technology can have a very positive impact on the passenger journey.
While passenger security checks are a major element of air travel, airports must also focus their attention on cybersecurity. SITA’s survey shows that 96% of airports plan to invest in major cybersecurity programs or R&D over the next three years. It is something that must underpin every aspect of any business’s IT, particularly in the highly interconnected air transport industry.
Technological innovations continue to drive the digital transformation at airports, and some of them are motivated by passenger expectations and demands. For example, social media is an increasingly important tool for airports in communicating with passengers. It can be used to help passengers plan their journey, to provide information about any disruption, and as a customer relationship management tool. The fact that nearly three-quarters of airports are investing in social media passenger service programs shows how seriously it is being taken.
Artificial intelligence (AI) can also be used to support customer service – a key area is disruption management, both for passengers and for the business. In the near future, AI will be at the heart of the airport’s infrastructure, being used to analyze video in real time for a range of issues, including security, biometric screening and boarding systems. AI can also be used to examine the benefits of various scenarios, using big data analytics to assist in complex operational decision making, particularly during disruptions. The predictions can be much prompter and more accurate than a human could achieve, enabling them to better support the airport’s decision-making process and helping tackle disruption more quickly.
Beyond that, AI is involved in the use of chatbots to help passengers, moving customer relationship management to the next level. Today, 9% of airports use chatbots. There is a healthy appetite among chief information officers to embrace this technology and over the next three years 42% of airports plan to adopt AI-driven chatbot services.
A key development in 2017 is the increase in self-service and personalization. Check-in kiosks are now standard and bag-drop kiosks are also becoming so, but airports need to continue investing in self-service infrastructure as it adds efficiency and is welcomed by passengers. The ultimate aim is to have the right technology in place so that people can walk into the airport and, if they so choose, go all the way to the gate without breaking stride.
The near future is all about ensuring that the right IT infrastructures are in place, from integrated command centers to biometrics, baggage systems and self-service. Looking further ahead, AI, personalization and mobile services will play an increasingly important role in airports. Meanwhile, as the survey results indicate, a key investment priority for IT will remain to be cybersecurity.
Written by Sebastien Fabre, VP airport Solutions, SITA
To view the Annual Showcase version of the article, click here.
Further details of SITA’s Air Transport IT Trends Insights 2017 can be found by clicking here.