How can technology help airports get passengers on the move again?

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Going into the pandemic, Heathrow was operating at close to 99% capacity, all the time, with a plane taking off or landing every 45 seconds. And the number of passengers using the airport was projected to rise from 74 million a year in 2019 to 109 million by 2030 and 135 million by 2050.

Processing this number of passengers safely and efficiently through existing real estate was always going to be a challenge, particularly with a third runway now delayed until 2030.

But now Covid-19 has piled on even more pressure. Passenger numbers are down, for now. Revenue has also dropped by 51%. And at the same time, the airport has had to deal with the queues caused by social-distancing requirements, even opening a terminal specifically for high-risk travelers.

What Heathrow is going through is a microcosm of what the air travel industry – particularly airports – is experiencing. Long-term trends of rising passenger numbers, which had placed infrastructure under increasing pressure with no easy solution in sight, have now been replaced by the difficulties of falling revenues and social distancing.

In response to this situation, airports are looking at ways to return to recovery post-Covid. Due to the extremely dynamic market conditions, how this looks in 2022 will likely vary depending on geography, with a full market recovery taking several years. The good news is that the pandemic has given airports the chance to reflect on how they operate and what they could do to improve in the future.

Most airports don’t just want to return to pre-2020 levels of profitability. They are now also actively looking for ways to respond to the growing climate change emergency, particularly in light of the recently published IPCC climate change report, which warns that aviation must pursue ‘highly ambitious efficiency improvements and use of low-carbon fuels’ if the sector is to meet its decarbonization goals.

Digital technology, supported by adaptive and agile working practices, can help airports do just this. With the right systems in place, airports can optimize everything, from the flow of passengers through the airport to the efficiency with which managers can extract value from individual assets.

So, what tech innovations are benefiting aviation right now?

Using digital twins to maximize lifetime value

A digital twin is an exact digital copy of an asset, such as a terminal. The twin not only captures a virtual 3D model of the structure but also records all the materials, and the tolerances of those materials, that go into each part of the structure. It captures actions taken by those working on the asset and it makes all this available in real time to anyone managing it.

So, when you use digital twins in your construction and other programs, the plans you get are not a static set of drawings. They are living, digital, interactive documents. And more importantly, they are valuable assets in their own right.

A digital twin can help you more efficiently manage, use and dynamically repurpose your asset for maximum return on investment (ROI). By continually gathering data on the efficiency of structures and systems and comparing that with historical trends, it can also help administrators instantly spot when energy efficiency and other environmental externalities are trending away from optimum and then fix the problem at speed.

We employed digital twins in our work with Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport and New York’s JFK Airport. In both cases, digital twins have helped simplify the construction process and create a valuable digital asset that will help maximize the ROI on the new structures, which is more important now than it has ever been.

Using a digital project-management office to reduce red tape

In the past, when airports were undertaking new capital investments, they often used a very traditional project-management technique. Typically, this involved a project-leadership team and then different teams to handle the design, project controls, construction management, testing, and so on. Often, the project team could be up to 100 strong.

This was a formidable overhead. It also had the potential to introduce delays and complexity. However, by implementing digital project management and digital twinning, a smaller core team can oversee and track even complex projects.

Rather than have a permanent staff of hundreds of specialists, the core team can bring in experts as contractors as and when they’re needed. Because the digital twin and other relevant systems capture all the actions and inputs of these specialists, making them instantly and permanently available to all other stakeholders in the project, the need for continuous collaboration across disciplines is reduced.

The technology, in this case digital twinning, enables collaboration over time, even between teams and functions that don’t work on the project at the same time. This allows for a leaner project team. But because information is always up to date, accurate and instantly available, it also improves the quality and speed of decision making, helping to hit milestones faster and cutting emissions associated with the project.

Remote check-ins to improve customer experience and profitability

An airport is essentially a passenger-processing facility. If you can process passengers more quickly, without investing in new and expensive buildings and infrastructure, your profits will go up.

Working with airport management, the Atkins team at Heathrow has already found a range of ways to achieve this goal. Often, this is relatively simple. For instance, by shifting most passengers onto remote check-ins via a dedicated check-in app, the airport eliminates the need to maintain large and expensive check-in areas. This space can then be repurposed in other ways, to facilitate the faster movement of more passengers through the airport.

Reimagining airports as living spaces

Using digital twinning and digital project management systems, airports have the intelligence and versatility to repurpose and reconfigure spaces as required, in short order. Reusing and adapting spaces to meet evolving needs means new-builds and extensive refits are often less necessary than they would have been. This not only cuts costs but also helps reduce emissions and energy use over the lifespan of a structure.

We’ve already seen how this can be used to eliminate check-in spaces that are no longer needed and turn them to other purposes that help increase passenger throughput. By using a digital twin as a continually and dynamically updated record, recording every input used in and every alteration made to a structure, airports can maximize the value they derive from that structure throughout its life.

No matter the challenges facing airports in their post-Covid recovery plans – whether around capacity, passenger processing, border patrol or operations, or something else entirely – by combining industry knowledge with innovative new technology, we can ensure that our airport services remain fit for purpose in the months and years ahead.

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About Author

With nearly 25 years of transportation industry experience, Justin offers extensive experience in the planning, design and delivery of capital projects, including multibillion-dollar programs for new international airport terminals and rail transit systems.

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