Gatwick Airport’s head of IT commercial and innovation, Abhi Chacko revealed 12 technology projects the airport is focusing on in 2019 in order to improve operational performance and passenger experience. The projects were revealed during Chacko’s presentation at Passenger Terminal Conference in London, UK.
Gatwick is building on a number of successful innovations it has developed, including GatwickConnects – a flight booking service specifically designed to help passengers book flights which connect via Gatwick Airport; the Community app, which is a digital platform for people and companies working at the airport to communicate with each other; and the world’s first cloud-based FIDS system.
“When looking at technological innovation, we take a whole campus approach,” said Chacko. “We don’t just look at passenger experience digital innovations, we also look at engaging ground handlers, airlines, etc, to ensure efficiency is improved throughout the entire airport.”
Here are the 12 digital innovation projects Gatwick is working on over the next year.
Machine learning for aircraft departure
We obviously want all our flights to depart on time. At the moment we cannot predict flight departures that accurately – in fact only 50% of our predictions are correct. We have now started using machine learning to predict when an aircraft is going to push back from the stand. The machine learning technology looks at a number of things including passengers, baggage, aircraft type, historical performance, destination and airfield condition, to better predict when the aircraft is going to depart. The target is for 75% accuracy. Currently we are getting about 65-70%, which is a significant improvement. As we add more parameters hopefully the accuracy levels will improve.
Digital aircraft turnaround
One of the most fragmented and critical functions within the airport is the aircraft turnaround process. It is done on paper and using radios. The idea behind this innovation is to bring the stakeholders related to the turnaround process together under a single digital platform so that they can interact in real time. We hope that this will make the whole operation run more efficiently. We can also use this platform to look at the history of aircraft turnaround to identify how processes can be improved. This platform will have two components – one on a smartphone and the other on a smartwatch. We also are looking at using computer vision to monitor aircraft turn events automatically.
Digital aircraft maintenance monitoring
When it comes to an aircraft’s light maintenance activities at an airport, communication between all the involved stakeholders is fragmented and disconnected. We are looking at digitising this process so the whole experience becomes much smoother and more efficient. This may not seem like a task for an airport, but our interest lies in making sure the aircraft turnaround happens on time and operations run efficiently, and if we don’t see that happening with the maintenance activities then we can step in and help. This service is provided on a commercial basis, but the real intention is not revenue generation, but instead ensuring operations run as efficiently as possible.
Alternative flight plans
European airspace is congested and sometimes our flights get held on the ground for 20-30 minutes because of Eurocontrol restrictions. But Europe has free route airspace meaning an aircraft can fly like a bird, avoiding the congested airspace. The problem is airlines are used to working with legacy systems, which are not flexible enough to utilise free route airspace. What is our role in this area? We are not going to file flight plans for the airlines, however we can encourage them to look at alternative options. If an aircraft is stuck on the ground due to restrictions then we can show them information on a different flight plan utilising free route airspace.
Community platform for London
Our Community app already shares real-time information about the Gatwick campus. We now have a joint initiative with Heathrow to extend the use of the platform to all London airports. This is being trialled at the moment. It will be useful to compare multiple airports to figure out how they are performing compared to the entire region. If the trial is successful we will look at rolling this out permanently.
Chatbots and voice assistance
We already use the Alexa Skill to respond to flight enquiries from passengers. The next stage is to deploy a chatbot, which will respond to queries coming from Facebook messenger and WhatsApp. In the future this solution will also be able to handle e-commerce.
Car parking tracking
Car parking is a large part of our business. We want to create a solution to track exactly how a car is managed while it is in our custody and also to make this transparent to the passengers. This solution may be a few years off yet, but the ultimate aim is to be able to hand over a care report to the passenger regarding their car. We believe this will improve our parking offering significantly, and it will increase the trust passengers have in us.
If you are waiting for a delayed flight or if your flight is cancelled, you are given a meal voucher. Often passengers have to stand in a long queue to claim this voucher. We are looking at making their boarding pass the voucher so they can go straight to F&B to collect their meal. This will make the whole process very efficient.
Managing carry-on luggage
Airlines are struggling to handle the number of carry-on bags passengers are bringing onto the aircraft. To help them handle this, we are looking at a solution to detect how many bags and what size they are early on, such as at security, and then inform the airline in advance so they can better prepare.
During the aircraft boarding process passengers often get stuck on the jet bridge or in the aisle of the aircraft waiting for their seat. We are looking at how to simplify that process to reduce queuing. One idea we are looking at is passengers boarding the aircraft one by one, from back to front and from window to middle and then aisle. Of course, this wouldn’t work for everyone, such as families. But we are experimenting to see how it could work.
Remote network capabilities
At remote locations at the airport, such as at a car park or a stand, airports have to spend a lot of money to provide network capabilities. We are working on a solution which will run on solar power to display information on e-ink devices and provide wi-fi capabilities. That will drastically reduce the cost of providing connectivity in some of these locations.
We plan to introduce a weekly podcast for the entire airport community. This is to improve the community spirit of the people who are working on campus. It could be five minutes on a Monday morning as they come to work, so it helps them to switch from the weekend to the week day, and it will talk about what has happened in the last week and what is happening in the following week. It is another way to improve employee engagement and increase staff morale.