The big tech trends shaping airports in 2020

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There are exciting times ahead for the airport sector, says Bruno Spada, executive vice president of Airport IT, Amadeus, as he highlights some of the developments we can expect.

This year set a new record for global passenger numbers, with the increase primarily driven by developing markets in Asia and the Americas. Passenger expectations are changing too. Today’s passenger is more digitally connected than ever before, more tech-savvy and more demanding. Shifting expectations are driven in large part by the evolution of the on-demand economy, as travelers become accustomed to accessing services from the likes of Amazon, Netflix and Uber, flexibly, when they want and how they want.

In response, we are witnessing a shift toward the smart airport: one that combines technology and data to drive efficiency and deliver a higher quality of service. Pioneered by leaders such as Singapore’s Changi Airport, these smart airports are becoming more experiential, offering a highly personalized service from touchpoints that are increasingly technology-enabled.

In 2020 I expect airports around the world to invest more in technology. When it comes to passenger-handling applications, for instance those used at check-in – the workhorses of the industry – we will continue to see a move toward the cloud, automation and optimization to secure greater capabilities, more efficiently. But there are also a host of emerging technologies that will begin to secure an increased share of the IT budget with the objective of delivering transformative new services.

The rise of the distributed airport
Innovation in the airport check-in process continues to be a focus, and cloud technology is a key enabler of this. The cloud provides airports with flexibility, enabling them to scale their passenger services up and down based on demand, and to transcend the limitations of fixed infrastructure at the airport terminal.

Increasingly, airports and their airline customers are moving check-in and bag-drop processes off-airport. Travelers can have their bags handled at hotels and resorts, at convention halls, major sporting events, or in the city center. This frees up more leisure time for passengers, enabling them to enjoy their day bag-free, while reducing congestion at the airport itself.

A number of airlines and airports are recognizing the value in providing off-airport services. Ground handling firm Off Airport Check In Solutions (OACIS) pioneered this approach in Australia and recently began a new pilot internationally with Air New Zealand to offer a pop-up check-in facility in downtown Queenstown, New Zealand. Similarly, Hong Kong International Airport is leveraging the cloud to offer mobile check-in kiosks at off-site locations, such as hotels and at the country’s border crossing facilities.

Now the model is thoroughly proven, I expect a rapid expansion of such projects in 2020; the first steps toward a fully distributed airport.

The end of boarding passes?
Not quite yet, but 2019 marked some key milestones in the roll-out of biometrics. By no means a new technology, biometrics have been talked about for years as an essential component in enabling frictionless travel – 2020 will be a critical year for the technology as it begins to meet its long-held potential.

Biometrics promises a faster, more efficient check-in process for passengers, reducing queues and physical touchpoints. Passengers will no longer have to repetitively present boarding passes and passports at checkpoints such as immigration and VIP lounges, and boarding will take place much faster. For instance, at a recent pilot at Fraport Slovenija Airport in Ljubljana, average boarding times were reduced by 75% per passenger using biometric systems. In this pilot, passengers registered with a ‘selfie’ taken on a smartphone. Enabling passengers to capture their biometric data and store it locally on their own smartphone means that they can be in control of their data. Passengers can share their data with airlines and airports only for the duration of the passenger handling process and then relax, confident in the knowledge that the only place their data is held permanently is on their own device.

Still, with so many solutions being rolled out across the world, there is significant fragmentation, a major source of frustration for the industry. Without a common standard, biometric systems will continue to be siloed with limited capacity for integration. Passengers will continue to be forced to register and reregister for different systems while airlines and airports will have to continually invest in complex and costly upgrades across biometric systems to match changes in technology, airline policies, and regulations such as GDPR in Europe and the US Customs and Border Protection biometric exit mandate. To alleviate this, the industry needs a common standard in biometrics, one which integrates systems, and which enables compliance with differing global regulations.

The IoT begins to deliver
It’s been a long time in the making but the Internet of Things (IoT) is now a reality, with more than three billion everyday objects connected to the internet. The value of the data that can be collected, stored and analyzed as a result of this trend is almost unfathomable.

Airports, with their complex operating environment enabled by a large number of physical assets and operational technology, are ideally placed to benefit from IoT sensors, although this opportunity still remains largely untapped today. But things are changing quickly, with the French IoT company Sigfox providing a light-infrastructure network that now reaches more than one billion people and is ideally suited for connecting up all these sensors embedded in equipment.

Last month, the company unveiled its new airport asset-tracking platform, Pinpoint. The platform provides end-to-end tracking for the industry, helping airports manage and transfer key assets such as luggage and landing gear.

Since the introduction of IATA’s Resolution 753, which mandates that baggage be tracked at key checkpoints throughout its journey, airlines and ground handlers are increasingly looking to improve their baggage handling processes. As such we can expect a much greater focus on technologies that help them achieve this as we move into 2020.

The sustainability effect
Public awareness and concern about climate change have been growing for some time, but 2019 was in many respects a breakthrough year. In November the UN’s IPCC report showed more drastic action was needed to tackle the crisis and throughout the year there have been widespread climate protests across the world.

A burgeoning no-fly movement is gaining momentum in Europe. But sustainability is influencing traveler decisions in subtler ways too, changing spending habits, destinations of choice, and the way travelers think and feel about their journey.

In 2020, we can expect airports to respond to concerns as a priority. Airports Council International (ACI) Europe recently set ambitious targets for European airports to cut total carbon emission to zero by 2050. Airports, among them London Heathrow, have also announced innovative recycling schemes.

Airports are investing in ultra-low-emission planes and green technologies. The Avinor Group for instance, which represents 44 Norwegian airports, reduced its total carbon emissions by 5,000 tons annually through investment in cloud technology. The group also unveiled groundbreaking plans for the entirety of short-haul Norwegian flights to be fully electric by 2040, and at our own annual customer conference, the group explained how it stores ice underground during winter to use for cooling in the summer. Examples like this show how the engineering mindset common in aviation can play a major role in addressing climate change.

There is no doubt that 2019 was an exciting year for our industry. In 2020 we can expect greater investment and a faster pace of innovation, as airports strive to serve their airline customers and passengers more efficiently and effectively.

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