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Airports of the Future: Digital Transformation from Vision to Reality

posted on Jun 30, 2017

Execlusive by: Alaa ElShimy, Managing Director & Vice President, Huawei Enterprise Business, Middle East

Airports of the Future: Digital Transformation from Vision to Reality

The rise of digital isn’t simply changing the way customers see businesses, but as EasyJet’s CEO, Carolyn McCall said herself, it’s changing the way they see themselves. The chief exec of the low-cost airline referred to EasyJet as an “e-commerce platform” when it came to digital. That alone should give you an indication of the weight of such a trend.

A technological evolution so disruptive that it alters top-level thinking across most industries is seldom seen in a CEO’s lifetime. But the inexorable rise of digital has done just that. It’s caused aviation giants to look in the mirror and question the nature of their business. It cannot be ignored. 

However, such speak might force one into thinking that the future is overcast for the chiefs of flight. But that’s not the case. As with all new beginnings, opportunity beckons for those willing to trail blaze.

According to Accenture, the aviation sector has been one of the earliest proponents of the opportunities for integrated digital technology – and thankfully so. The global economy relies on a healthy, democratized airline industry. And they’ve obliged. Since 2000, increased efficiencies have helped airlines reduce the price of airfares by 40 percent. The rise of the low-cost carriers (LCC) has also opened up the market to first-time flyers, allowing more movement of international currencies. None of this could be possible without the aviation industry’s alacrity to disrupt its own market. 

Arguably, the resistance here has come from the ground. Airport operators have been slow to adapt to this airfare trend, and often find themselves servicing a higher, outdated market. Today, both on-ground and in-flight sides of aviation need to attack the digital transformation and truly revolutionize the aviation industry for businesses, customers, and international economies. 

So, what are the opportunities for both front-end and back-end improvements in the face of disruption? One word: data. The collection of data, even prior to digital, has been paramount to business success. Having information about your customers, partners, and operations is key to improvement, prediction, and perfection. Thanks to the digital transformation, we are way beyond collection. Today, businesses have the necessary tools available to them to analyze and understand the very nature of the people that engage with their business in any way. 

This isn’t just purely from a sales perspective, either. Though McCall’s quote about becoming an e-commerce platform is accurate and interesting, there are other areas of this industry that stand to benefit.

Firstly, for airports, there are increased measures in security. It goes without saying that security is a fundamental concern for the aviation industry – not just from a day-to-day perspective, but also from a profitability perspective. 

While aviation security is typically viewed as an inconvenience, adaptation of modern technology to integrate and streamline security procedures increases efficiency while reducing the effects on traveler experience. Good examples of this adaptation are biometrics, such as facial recognition, IoT, crowd analytics and video monitoring via artificial intelligence, full-body scanners, multi-view X-rays, and automated target recognition.

It was a target of Huawei’s to build a wide portfolio of ICT solutions for these exact issues – and we continue to innovate. One such creation is the Intelligent Video Surveillance Solution. It is a platform that automatically monitors airport activities with the objective of ensuring a high level of airport security using intelligent detection. This could pave the way for the increased effectiveness and efficiency of security checks inside airports. 

To implement this, airports, airlines and governments need to adopt a data-rich and risk-based approach, utilizing technology, increased collaboration and standardization.

Airports across the world are placing increasing importance on ICT to improve operations and performance. According to a survey of 225 airports conducted by SITA, a transport communications and IT solutions provider, over the next three years, 80 percent of airports will have a centralized control center to coordinate airport operations (up from 52 percent currently). Sixty-six percent plan to deploy sensors at security check points, and 54 percent will install them at boarding gates, helping to better manage traffic and reduce transaction time.

In addition to safety and improved operational standards, ICT technologies and integration between physical and digital assets are crucial to improving the traveler experience.

Airports, airlines and even travel agencies have been striving to digitize many aspects of the traveler journey to enhance the traveler experience and improve operational efficiency as much as possible. Online check-in, the introduction of e-Visas, and the installation of e-Gate systems in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, for instance, are just few examples of this.

These technologies lead to seamless customer journeys like reduced waiting and transfer times, personalized services, and optimized rerouting. The introduction of these technologies serves as a win-win because it optimizes the customer experience, while increasing security effectiveness. Huawei’s Broadband LTE Solution is tailored to meet this objective. Professional multimedia trunking, video surveillance, IoT real-time monitoring data, are operated on a single network that covers both indoor and outdoor working areas that improve the airports' operation efficiency and enhance passenger experience.

IT solutions also play a great role in enhancing and personalizing customer experience. Airlines and airports would need to collect large amounts of data to be able to effectively study traveler behavior. However, this is not limited to just understanding customer habits, but also using that information to enhance customers personalization. For example, if data suggests that a passenger is air sick, the airline can perhaps provide a few extra amenities to easy his journey. Providing personalized inflight meals and entertainment are further examples of this. That being said, relevant data needs to be collected in a way that passengers don’t feel like their privacy is being compromised – they need to see a clear proposition. 

The final example is the back-end systems. Emirates President, Sir Tim Clarke, recently stated that back-end distribution systems were a focal point when it comes to digital. Distribution systems are critical for ticketing purposes, and the ratio between premium and cheaper seats are key when it comes to profitability for airlines.

Emirates’ operating profit plummeted 82 percent in the last year, and Clarke knows each dollar is crucial when it comes to ticketing. In preparation for this, Clarke started a new digital disruption team that is aiming to increase efficiency by up to 50 percent across the back-end. Secondary to this, he alluded to the use of blockchain technology in the future.

The key theme here is the increasing pressure on airlines and airports to disrupt their own market before others do. The opportunities, when tied in with the right partners, are rich. But the key to unlocking them will be speed and risk. Those that dare will be flying high in a digital world. 



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