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Airports 2019: ready for take off

Investments in technology are accelerating as airports around the world attempt to address what IATA is calling a capacity crisis. Sally White reports

There are an awful lot of dollars targeting airports. President Trump has them high on his $1 trillion US infrastructure investment list. Internationally, over $1 trillion is aiming at upgrades, market intelligence group CAPA Centre for Aviation believes, and in Asia government announcements of new runways, terminals and airports seem to be on a roll.

With soaring air traveller numbers expected to double to 7.6bn by 2036, International Air Transport Association (IATA) chief Alexandre de Juniac has told its members: "We are in a capacity crisis. And we don't see the required airport infrastructure investment to solve it." Airports have been pulling in all the help they can from technology to keep travellers moving and the pace will step up in 2019.

Spending is mounting, with major investors around the world liking the look of key travel infrastructure. CAPA has a cost figure of around $500bn for Asian airport investment for upgrading and new-build, with a fifth terminal planned at Singapore’s Changi Airport, Hong Kong adding a third runway and South Korea’s Incheon International adding a second terminal. That compares to $200bn for Europe and around $150bn for the Middle East. Globally new mega airports set to open within months include Beijing Daxing International and (a bit late) one for Istanbul.

Airports in Numbers 
 

$1 trillion aimed at aircraft upgrades

7.6bn the number of people expected to be travelling by 2036

$500bn to be spent in Asia

95% are planning major R&D programmes in cybersecurity by 2021

86% have plans for business intelligence programmes

85% of airports are investing in cloud services

77% of airports are planning major programmes or R&D in biometric ID management over the next three years

5% of revenue spent on IT

That is still not enough, according de Juniac. Additionally, he gave a warning this summer about cash-strapped governments increasingly turning to private firms to boost airport capacity. (Of the 100 largest airport groups, 40 are either fully or partially privatised.)  Privatised airports have "not lived up to airline expectations", many carriers had had "far too many bitter experiences” and privatised airports were “definitely more expensive”. Indeed, five of the top six airports that even travellers preferred were state-owned.

 “We have yet to see an airport privatisation that has, in the long term, delivered on the promised benefits of greater efficiency for airlines and a better experience for our customers. Our members are very frustrated with the state of privatised airports. By all means, invite private sector expertise to bring commercial discipline and a customer service focus to airport management. But our view is that the ownership is best left in public hands,” he said. IATA has attacked the French government’s plan to privatise Groupe ADP, the Paris airports owner.  

While de Juniac is supported by Lufthansa’s CEO Carsten Spohr, ACI World, which represents the world’s airports, has pointed out that the need is urgent and with governments strapped for cash, money has to come from somewhere!

Mounting pressure

The pressure is on. By 2040 in Europe alone 16 airports will be operating very close to capacity, up from the current six, according to the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation (EUROCONTROL.) Yet, even though those soaring traveller numbers are widening the gap between demand and capacity (cause of 45% of European flight delays in 2018 and the loss of millions of flights), EUROCONTROL says congestion is not the top priority for airport technology. What comes first is security.

Overall, IT spend at airports is put at $10bn in 2018, up from 2017’s $8.6bn, according to Belgium-based aviation communications consultants Société Internationale de Télécommunications Aéronautiques (SITA). In 2019 the figure is forecast to be higher again. Airports have been spending around five per cent of their revenue on IT.

 “Cybersecurity and then self-service processes are top of the list with a massive 95% of airports planning major programmes/R&D in these areas by 2021. Along with this, 86% have plans for business intelligence programmes and 85% for applications for mobile services and common-use infrastructure programs,” SITA vice president Elbson Quadros told a Miami conference last month.

By 2040 in Europe alone 16 airports will be operating very close to capacity, Source: EUROCONTROL

In particular, they were implementing intelligent technologies to manage wait times as effectively as possible, he added, referring to a survey carried out by SITA with the Airports Council International (AIC), the global airport authorities’ representative body.  In addition: “…. self-service continues to reduce passenger processing times at the airport. Passenger processing at off-airport locations is another element in the tech-savvy airport’s toolkit. By 2021 nearly half (46%) plan to have off-airport services.” SITA’s insights show that in 2018, check-in kiosks “are the norm with 88% of airports having them in place today and 95% expecting to do so over the next three years. Self-service for baggage is also common-place with more than half having assisted bag drop today and 84% planning to offer it by 2021, and by then 78% plan to have unassisted bag drop.”

Biometrics and blockchain revolution

Biometrics are playing a key part in both speeding up processes and in security. “Over the next three years, 77% of airports are planning major programmes or R&D in biometric ID management,” says SITA. Most travellers do not seem to mind sharing their biometric information, an IATA survey found, if it ensures a smoother journey.

However, airports are saying, according to SITA, that meeting government and legislative requirements are a major challenge. Blockchain is being explored for passenger identity management, with 36% of airports surveyed saying that they believed it could help them streamline the need for multiple identity checks. 

36% of airports surveyed say believe blockchain could help them streamline the need for multiple identity checks

Travellers through Heathrow will experience a biometric revolution next summer when there are plans for a full-scale rollout of new services. The airport is set to have the world’s largest deployment of biometrically enabled products in a £50m project that includes check-in, bag drops, security lanes and boarding gates.

Cloud services are another airport investment priority, with 85% of airports planning to invest over the next three years, says SITA. This is to enable better passenger flow through real-time wait monitoring systems and accessibility to staff services via mobiles. Airports are also looking at ways to provide extra self-service options to passengers.

It is the Asian airports that are winning the traveller plaudits, and not only because of the money spent on them.  Top three in last year’s Skytrax World Airport Awards were Singapore’s Changi, Tokyo‘s Haneda and Seoul’s Incheon.

Travel website StuckAtTheAirport points to the amenities that they are offering – these top ones are destinations in their own right, with swimming pools, green spaces, hotels, amusements, lots of shopping and restaurants and a focus on technology. Incheon airport, for example, offers fun with a fleet of robots to help travellers navigate the airport, scan boarding passes and provide an escort to gates – and doing so in Korean, English, Mandarin and Japanese! While more and more airports are bringing in robots, they have not (yet anyway) gone as far as Seoul, which even has a robot that clears away litter!

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