Airports across the Asia-Pacific region share a number of common capacity challenges, and if they are to meet them effectively, they must work collaboratively, towards a common vision.
These challenges are, of course, not unique to the region as airports from San Francisco to Sofia and London to Lima all face rising passenger numbers and are developing different strategies to cope with rising demand.
However, for airports in Asia-Pacific (APAC), the problem is especially acute as population rises across the region are fuelling growth and more people want to fly than ever before. Indeed, IATA predicts that India’s air passenger traffic alone will triple by 2036.
While fluctuating demand during different parts of the day, week, month and, sometimes seasons, places additional strains on infrastructure.
The one obvious solution to this problem is to raise the physical capacity of today’s airports or build new ones, and many countries across the region are doing just this.
Mumbai and Sydney both have plans to construct second airports, for example, and Beijing’s new mega-hub, Daxing, will open its gates later this year.
Investment in infrastructure is a long-term goal for the region; China for instance plans to build an additional 74 airports by 2020, increasing its physical capacity by almost 40%.
But with passenger numbers on the rise, airports are faced with a separate, but related challenge. Advances in digital technology have unleashed a wave of disruption and innovation, changing the way we live and work.
As a result, today’s passengers don’t want long queues at airports and inefficient processes. They want, and expect, quick and easy travel. Airports, often saddled with legacy IT, are left playing catch up.
New Experience Travel Technologies (NEXTT) was set up in 2018 as a collaboration between ACI and IATA. The programme is largely a response to the exponential rise in global passenger numbers seen over the last decade and calls for the industry to work collaboratively to address the challenges of capacity constraints and rising passenger expectations.
In particular, the programme highlights the need for airports to focus on how the latest in digital technology can create a seamless flow through the airport and help to integrate systems and services.
The advantages of investment in digital technology will not be news to airports in APAC. Over the last few years we’ve seen a number of trials and implementations of the kind of technology advocated by NEXTT, such as biometrics and off-airport check-in services.
This is very encouraging, but there is a danger here that if individual airports develop their own siloed solutions in the short-term, a more long-term strategy will be set back.
In the US, for instance, airports rolling out biometric solutions have to conform to standards set by US Customs & Border Protection (CBP). APAC could work towards a similar standard for these emerging technologies.
While NEXTT is more of an initiative than a standard, it does offer a path towards standardisation for the industry. In this sense, all roads lead back to the passenger.
In the same fashion as innovative tech companies, airports and their stakeholders should adopt a total focus on the needs of their passengers. Whether that be better integrating systems or services, or working towards standardisation, the passenger represents a common vision for the industry.
Two of NEXTT’s concepts in particular, the ‘distributed airport’ and the ‘seamless, secure airport’ represent this passenger-centric view.
The distributed airport
For almost all their history, airports have been forced to work within the confines of their own physical infrastructure for passenger processing. But with the rise of the internet, airports are now able to leverage greater flexibility when it comes to check-in.
Passengers can check-in for flights online and print their boarding passes out at home. By facilitating this, airports are effectively outsourcing a part of passenger processing: improving capacity, helping to bring down costs and cutting down on queues.
But with constantly changing passenger numbers placing constraints on infrastructure, airports are looking for new ways that technology can help raise capacity.
One key aspect of the programme unveiled by NEXTT is the concept of the ‘distributed airport’. While the group acknowledges that the airport as a physical entity will always be a necessity, it points to the ways airports can leverage “off-airport activities” to distribute passenger processing outside the airport itself.
Off Airport Check In Solutions (OACIS) is an innovative ground handler powered by Amadeus’ Airport Common Use Service (ACUS). The company’s pop-up check-in terminals can be deployed anywhere, relieving constraints on capacity. For instance, in 2016, Sydney Airport experienced a surge in passenger numbers when seasonal demand was compounded by the arrival of passengers from two separate cruise ships. The next year, Sydney Airport rolled out the OACIS solution outside the terminal, easing congestion.
By embracing the concept of the distributed airport, airports across APAC can make off-airport a key part of their business model, significantly raising capacity and meeting rising passenger expectations.
The seamless and secure airport
By distributing the check-in process outside the terminal, existing infrastructure can be transformed into a path from the airport’s entrance to the plane door. Ensuring this process is completely seamless, is biometric technology.
Biometrics has the potential to transform the airport as we know it, delivering real and tangible benefits to the passenger. It also has the potential to improve airport security, reducing the likelihood of human error and processing information much faster and more efficiently than the human eye.
We are seeing an increasing number of exciting developments and trials across the APAC region with a number of software providers offering solutions. In late 2017, Singapore’s Changi Airport implemented its Fast and Seamless Travel (FAST) initiative for departing passengers, significantly reducing waiting times.
Similarly, last year, Hong Kong International Airport unveiled its new e-Security gates to verify the documents of departing passengers.
For now, these implementations handle only certain aspects of the airport process. Over the course of the next five years, we expect to see biometrics implemented at every stage of the passenger journey: check-in, immigration and boarding.
The technology will reduce queues and eliminate the need for physical ID checks. Physical boarding passes and passports may themselves soon become a thing of the past.
It must be stressed however, that to date, biometrics trials are siloed, with airports across the region working on their own solutions. This is not going to be sustainable. We need airports to have a common approach in order to offer travellers a seamless travel experience.
The industry should find new ways to collaborate on this emerging technology A common biometrics platform, agnostic of the technology providers airports deploy, could be a solution.
By adopting biometrics solutions, the passenger journey through the airport can be made completely seamless, free from friction points. Boarding a plane could become as easy as getting onto a bus.
The common vision
The NEXTT programme offers a path towards a common vision, to address the shared challenge of increasing demand. Currently, in the APAC region, we are seeing a number of trials and implementations of the innovative technologies highlighted by the initiative.
However, the long-term advantages of these technologies will be set back unless airports in APAC can work collaboratively towards standardisation.
Technological disruption can be used by airports to their advantage here. By maintaining a total focus on the needs of passengers, airports in APAC and their partners can position themselves well for all the challenges, and opportunities, that lie ahead.