Revolutionizing Passenger Experience and Airport Efficiency Through Digital Transformation
By Mohamad El-Hinnawi
There is no doubt that the experience of living with Covid-19 will change the way we experience life for a long time to come. It is very likely that the health security measures will remain even after the world returns to some semblance of normality, but this has also been a period of incredible innovation which could spark a period of immense change.
The concerns around human interaction have accelerated the need for fully functional automation, self-service, and socially distant interaction, as well as increased efficiency. One of the most hit industries has been travel and tourism, with airports brought to a near-standstill for a prolonged period of time.
What will the landscape look like when widespread commercial air travel returns? Instead of waiting to find out, companies have been attempting to shape the future by experimenting with new technologies, but the after-effects of the pandemic should see a wider rollout of AI, biometric security, and a new generation of self-service kiosks. In fact, many of these innovations are closer to becoming the norm than we may realize.
China’s Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport
China’s Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport has worked to reconceptualize the entire airport space with the goal of providing a seamless end-to-end journey for passengers, baggage, and cargo.
The airport has used a variety of operational data sources combined with AI, which has improved the allocation of stands and, consequentially, the efficiency across the airport.
The key findings so far show AI at SBX has:
- Reduced the likelihood of an aircraft ground taxing collision by increasing allocation plan precision and visualizing the allocation result to make it easier to check
- Increased air bridge usage, maximising the airport’s resource utilisation
- Decreased the associated operating costs
- Improved the travel experience of passengers
- Used AI-enabled allocation mechanisms to reduce the strong dependence on staff
- Reduced the manual workload
- Significantly improved the airport’s aircraft automation level.
After this intelligent system was deployed, the airbridge usage has increased by nearly 5%, and the airbridge turnover has been added by about 0.6 aircraft per day compared with the original software-aided manual allocation mode. This means that at least 30 more aircraft and 5,000 more passengers can use airbridges for boarding or disembarking each day, which will reduce the use of a minimum of 24,000 shuttle buses for a year.
This improvement effectively increased Shenzhen Airport’s utilization of aircraft parking space and other related airport operations, optimized the passenger experience, and also reduced the airport’s carbon emissions.
Paphos and Larnaca airports in Cyprus
Following SBX, both Paphos and Larnaca airports in Cyprus may have become the de-facto example for others to follow. In 2018, 74 kiosks using BORDERXPRESS self-service, biometric-enabled kiosks were installed. It is a two-step process designed to expedite border clearance, and findings show these measures have reduced passenger wait times by more than 60%.
AI Travel Solutions Influenced by Covid-19
The pandemic became both a blessing and a curse for the adoption of AI. On one hand, it proved the need for greater adoption, but on the other hand, it cut income and travel so dramatically that the impetus to invest in new technology may well have been lost.
However, that doesn’t mean the desire to develop the tech has been lost with it. And, if anything, the development of new ways to improve the traveler’s experience has increased.
Etihad Airways x Elenium
Etihad Airways and automation technology solutions provider Elenium have already demonstrated how the newly developed voice-activated self-service kiosk, bag drop, and boarding gate facility can revolutionize the travel experience by taking facial recognition technology to the next level.
Passengers are able to register their biometric data on their mobile devices before arriving at the airport, which means they won’t have to queue at the airport. Then, using AI, the new baggage-drop terminals scan and memorize each suitcase placed on the belt through a unique camera system, removing the human interaction and potentially even removing the need for tagged luggage. The same biometric data can also be used to offer passengers a personalized duty-free shopping experience through an interactive display with integrated voice technology. This also means check-in gates are always open to those registered.
Japanese electronics giant Panasonic has also entered the biometrics space and shown how they feel it will transform the passenger experience. Their ‘One ID’ solution proposes a fully automated curb-to-gate airport service powered by facial recognition technology, which includes check-in and immigration screening, robot assistants to provide directions to boarding gates similar to Customer Information desks already in operation throughout Japan, digital signage providing personalized flight information, and self-boarding gates. While the automated check-in and security tracking solutions are already in use at airports in Asia and Europe, the full end-to-end One ID solution is yet to be implemented.
Another innovator, OneBagTag, has developed E-tags, or permanent electronic bag tags, which include a global tracker, a built-in weight scale, an on-demand alert ringer, and a 30-day battery life with USB-C rapid charging. This allows passengers to check-in on their airline’s app, as usual, receive a PDF of their luggage tag along with their boarding pass, and then sync this digital tag with the OneBagTag E-Ink display via Bluetooth.
The rollout of next-gen AI and digital implementation should be accelerated due to the current circumstances. It should be an opportunity to usher in a new era for travel. The example Shenzhen has set proves the potential of the concept, but we may need to wait until passenger traffic grows again to see for sure.
We know it will be crucial for airports to future-proof their facilities and we know there are innovators in this space working on new additions to the airport experience. Currently, some airports have added specific features to cater to the growing trend, but far more have not, and very few have committed fully. Perhaps we should expect a rush to modernize, based on the success of the few, as soon as passenger levels demand it and airport management needs to balance safety protocol and efficiency, but wholesale adoption may still be several years away yet.