Big data and how it can transform infrastructure planning

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When passenger volumes bounce back after the pandemic, airport operators will be looking at many ways to rebuild their shattered balance sheets. Increasing productivity from the airport infrastructure will be front and center in many airport’s recovery strategies. Simply put, this means delivering higher passenger volumes from the same space, reducing opex per passenger, re-prioritizing capex plans, and encouraging greater commercial spend, while having a relentless focus on improving service and experience levels.


To achieve this nirvana requires a collaborative effort across the many business partners and service providers that deliver airport operations. However, if there is one key enabler it will be access to high-quality operational data. The aircraft and bag journey through the airport is often recorded with many time stamps, but there is a sporadic understanding of the passenger’s journey from home to aircraft door (and vice-versa).

Sourcing accurate operational data is the starting point to enable high-quality planning decisions. Sampling surveys have been the traditional approach where staff with stopwatches, clipboards and questionnaires laboriously collect observations. More recently, beacon technology has been used to measure passenger flow as well as providing other wayfinding and commercial information to passengers. Today, we are seeing the roll-out of sensors and cameras that measure occupancy and queue lengths with real-time monitoring and response by teams collocated in operational centers. This progress is encouraging but these will not help achieve a deep understanding of passenger behavior in an airport or across the passengers’ whole end-to-end journey.

Imagine if for every flight we were able to map everyone’s journey that day: where they started, what transportation mode they took to the airport, how long it took to get them to the front door of the terminal, their speed through the terminal, how they used the space, their dwell time and location, their age, gender and so on. And over time, we could understand how the behaviors change by time of day, across the week, months and seasons. This is the opportunity that cell phone data can unlock for airport operators.

O2 Motion provides a powerful alternative to traditional data capture methods. It uses all the mobile events that O2 UK captures 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Each device has a unique identifier although it is aggregated and anonymized for reporting. This information is then extrapolated to represent the national population. Recent investment to measure activity levels during the pandemic has improved the latency significantly and is very close to near-time reporting. Smart cells complement this data by providing additional granularity, sharpening the focus from 100m all the way down to 5m. Using this data along with demographic data, O2 can show which types of people are where and when. The information can be broken down by age, gender, home locations and affluence bracket, for example.

Combined with other automated airport data bases such as boarding card scans and aircraft gating plans, the potential to understand the detailed experience for passengers on the day and how they use airport infrastructure is transformational. And with these deeper insights, value can be unlocked. For instance, improving the accuracy of the passenger reporting profile by say 5% into labor intensive operations such as check-in or security could provide significant resource management benefits and therefore opex savings. Or identify missed opportunities to convert landside forecourt activity into car parking growth. Or identify where wasted time can be taken out of the airport ecosystem to improve the overall efficiency and experience for users.

The potential of cell phone data has always been known. The pandemic accelerated the development of this capability and now airport managers can take advantage in creating the next generation of truly smart, efficient and resilient airports.


About the authors

Richard Hartshorn is aviation technical director at Atkins and ex-head of masterplanning and capacity at Heathrow Airport; and Ian Burrows is senior digital insights director at O2 Motion, Telefonica UK

*The authors would like to stress that all O2 data is anonymized and aggregated in uses such as those mentioned in this article.


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