Digitization in airports: evolution or revolution?

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Both passenger and flight volumes are growing. To remain competitive, airport operators can choose to move in one of several directions – by physically expanding their airports, deploying digital solutions, or selecting a path somewhere between the two. Marius Gelžinis, CEO of Lithuanian Airports, shares his thoughts on the matter.

Airports have been experiencing a slow but steady digital revolution for decades. The truth about whether it is slow could be debated: on the one hand, aviation, unlike other businesses, does not accept errors. Experimenting with untested and not fully reliable digital technology deployment is not justified. We are open to innovation, but safety is key – we need to test the performance of any system, to ensure its functionality, and that takes time and experience.

On the other hand, digital technology has been making its presence felt in airports for decades: the first electronic airline tickets were introduced only 25 years ago and today, along with global aviation leaders, we are already developing a vision of autonomous, self-service airports.

In Europe, the spectrum of digital services at airports is becoming colorful. London Heathrow Airport is launching the deployment of computed tomography security scanners (3D scanners) which, by year 2022, will make it easier and faster to move through security screening. These sophisticated scanners will effectively and reliably check passengers’ hand luggage without having to unload liquids and electronics.

A self-contained RFID luggage tagging system at Berlin Tegel and Schenefeld in Germany, and at Schiphol Amsterdam in the Netherlands, is equipped with devices that enable passengers to check in their luggage and print an RFID tag on their luggage themselves. Until now, such labels had barcodes that had to be manually scanned by staff loading the luggage onto aircraft. RFID readers can scan up to 1,000 pieces of luggage tagged with this technology at the same time.

It is estimated that last year global passengers lost 24.8 million pieces of luggage, 1,000 passengers losing an average of almost six pieces of luggage each, causing US$2.4bn worth of damage for aviation entities.

Almost half of the unaccounted luggage was lost on connecting flights. With the introduction of mobile tracking technology, passengers will be able to see where their luggage was held up and to report it immediately. Such technology could become a preventive measure for almost 83% of lost luggage cases.

In addition, airports have long been more than take-off and landing stations. Today they are places where passengers want and plan to spend time, go shopping, work, and use business area services. As a result, digitization advancements need to be accessible not only to airport workers, but to every passenger, which is why apps are being developed that could provide real-time flight information, gate number, boarding information, access a variety of VIP lounge services in airports, provide airport maps, and help with travel to or from an airport.

The aim is to improve the passenger experience as much as possible. One of the largest airports in Europe, Frankfurt, has even started using artificial intelligence – the FRAnny robot – to interact with airport passengers, answer their questions, help them orientate, and, hopefully, increase the airport’s appeal.

Lithuanian Airports will take the digitization path as appropriate. All three of our airports are already featured in a mobile application that connects nearly 1,000 global gates, and we will continue to look for solutions to bring us closer to every airport visitor and to ensure they are fully informed, at the right time, in a convenient way.

Kaunas Airport plans to implement a self-service luggage check-in system that will help passengers skip check-in queues. In the long run, we will implement such systems across other Lithuanian airports, further increasing their throughput and improving the passenger experience.

The impact of our biggest digitization improvement this year has already been felt at Vilnius Airport, where biometric readers came into operation in May 2019. These are the 10 gates of the ABC (Automated Border Control) Smart Check System, which are used for passport and face recognition at border checkpoints. The person scans the document first and then their face is scanned immediately afterwards. If the biometrics match, the system instantly opens the gate and releases the passenger from the checkpoint. Travelers no longer have to wait in line at the border control officer’s window. This smart system has also helped us streamline and optimize airport operations.

These examples of digitization are just the beginning. Lithuanian Airports, like the rest of the world, does not intend to stop – we plan to expand the application of digital devices in airport processes.

The changing aviation background will also oblige us to do so: Airports Council International forecasts show that by 2034 the number of passengers at airports worldwide will have doubled. Digitization will become a way for Lithuanian Airports to further strengthen its value and profitability, the World Economic Forum having estimated that aviation, travel and tourism industries will generate more than US$305bn from digitization solutions between 2016 and 2025.

See the latest issue of Passenger Terminal World for an interview with Marius Gelžinis.

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