The inaugural Airports Innovate conference in Oman proved to be an event to remember for the 500 delegates in attendance, writes Joe Bates.
As you would expect from an event dedicated to ‘innovation’, the inaugural Airports Innovate conference in Muscat, Oman, addressed a number of innovative ways airports, and the aviation industry, are tackling the operational, customer service and sustainability challenges of today.
Nearly 500 delegates from 40 countries across the globe attended the ACI Asia-Pacific & Middle East, ACI EUROPE and ACI World organised event, making it one of the association’s biggest since the end of the COVID pandemic.
The theme of the event was bold, ‘Dynamic Think-Tank – Reveal the Future’, and it covered some of the latest innovations that are set to transform the global aviation industry, ranging from artificial intelligence, biometrics, big data and digitalisation to electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft.
But it was not all about technology, with sessions on innovative airport design, accessibility, risk management, brand strategies, human resources and passenger trends. Hosted by Oman Airports, it was fitting that the country’s Minister of Transport, Communications and IT, His Excellency, Saeed Bin Al Maawali, and Sheikh Aimen Bin Ahmed Al Hosni, CEO of Oman Airports and chair of ACI World, gave the opening addresses.
Al Maawali, who noted that the event coincided with Oman’s 53rd National Day under the leadership of His Majesty Sultan Haitham bin Tarik, emphasised the importance of aviation to Oman and promised that the Sultanate would continue to invest in its airports and encourage innovation in the aviation sector to ensure future growth.
His words about the importance of aviation to Oman, particularly in terms of the economy and global connectivity, were echoed by Al Hosni, who revealed that Oman Airports’ commitment to innovation and collaboration had recently led it to opening its own Innovation Lab to nurture best ideas generated from a hackathon (Aerohack).
He said that Aerohack attracted over 700 of “the finest minds in aviation” and led to the emergence of more than 300 potential solutions for customer experience, airport operations, automation and sustainability issues. The Aerohack solutions currently being trialled at Oman Airports’ Innovation Lab include the use of drone technology for cleaning tyre rubber from the runways and a new Travel App.
Talking about aviation’s recovery from COVID, Al Hosni said that 8.6 billion passengers were expected to pass through the world’s airports in 2023, which is just 6% below the pre-pandemic levels achieved in 2019. He told delegates that 2024 would be “a milestone year for aviation” with the full recovery of global traffic leading to some 9.4 billion passengers passing through the world’s airports – 200 million more than were handled in 2019.
ACI’s Latin America and Caribbean region is forecast to become the first to surpass pre-pandemic levels, said Al Hosni, while Asia-Pacific is expected to see a “substantial jump in traffic”, boosted by the re-opening of the Chinese market. Some 400 million passengers are predicted to use airports in the Middle East in 2024 – just 3% less than in 2019 – while traffic in Europe in set to reach 95% of 2019’s level and, according to Al Hosni, passenger numbers in Africa and North America will not be that far behind.
“The future of the global aviation industry will be marked by innovation, resilience and transformation change,” remarked Al Hosni. Keynote addresses then followed from the director generals of ACI Asia-Pacific & Middle East (Stefano Baronci); ACI EUROPE (Olivier Jankovec); and ACI World (Luis Felipe de Oliveira).
Baronci set the tone for the event, highlighting how cutting-edge technologies are driving the travel experience and how airports are prioritising digital transformation.
He mused: “Innovation is a tool that helps humans do things better. To increase value and drive growth in a sustainable, repeatable, and substantial manner. However, as important as innovation is, getting it right is very challenging.”
Jankovec pointed out that the travel recovery has reshaped demand, the need for stringent environmental policies, and how innovation can make the industry more sustainable to ensure that airports keep their licences to operate. Europe’s airports, he said, were “transitioning from recovery to the new normal”.
“Moving forward, we see an agenda of resilience and transformation for Europe’s airports and the need to work towards a new value creation model based on three key strategy directions – sustainability, innovation and diversification,” said Jankovec.
He reminded delegates about ACI EUROPE’s establishment of an Innovation Forum earlier this year that is dedicated to propelling transformative changes within the European airport industry.
ACI World’s de Oliveira noted that the world’s airports have invested a significant $6.8 billion on the new technology this year alone, underscoring the commitment to improving their operational efficiency, performance levels and enhancing the airport experience.
He also reminded the audience about the importance of co-operation and collaboration with partners both within and outside the aviation industry. “There is no airline without an airport, and there is no airport without an airline, but there is no industry without customers,” commented de Oliviera.
On innovation, he stated: “We have to look at how we use innovation and different processes to improve the services we bring to our customers. The future is very positive with passenger traffic set to double over the next 20 years, although accommodating this growth will not be simple.
“We have workforce [recruitment] issues, and will clearly not be able to double the size of our airports or airline operations to meet demand. So, we basically need technology to play a key role in the future, especially in areas of the airport where people can be elsewhere and use their expertise to better serve our guests.”
The first panel session of the day was a good one. Billed as ‘Innovation Ready Leaders – How to Develop a Corporate Culture with Embedded Innovation’, we got to hear a little about the innovation building strategies of VINCI Airports, IGA Istanbul Airport, and Milan airport operator, SEA.
Addressing the topic for VINCI Airports, area director for the USA, Europe and South East Asia, and president of ACI Asia-Pacific and Middle East, Emmanuel Menanteau, stated that the global airport operator relied on its staff as well as technology to provide innovation across its network of 72 airports.
One of the ways it does this, he said, is to use an open innovation platform to allow the sharing of ideas, with innovation prizes offered as an incentive to staff to contribute. In addition, VINCI has created a ‘Centre of Excellence’ at London Gatwick, Lisbon and Lyon airports specifically to generate new ideas to help the group’s airports become smarter, faster, more automated, paperless, bottleneck free and offer a better customer/user experience.
Menanteau, who declared that “innovation drives the world to change”, said the VINCI group believes in a collaborative approach to innovation, so works with a lot of start-ups, third parties and different stakeholders in developing ideas as it “doesn’t make things in-house”.
In terms of the big picture, Menanteau suggested that innovation was crucial to supporting the decarbonisation of the aviation industry and would help the sector reach its Net Zero by 2050 target.
SEA CEO and president of ACI EUROPE, Armando Brunini, was another to argue that co-operation with others was key to driving innovation. SEA, for example, already works closely with many different suppliers and stakeholders to enhance its operations as well as with Airbus and different energy companies as it looks to lower carbon emissions at Milan’s airports.
He also stated that risk taking sometimes meant failure, that communication from management was vital when it came to getting staff onboard with new innovations, and divulged that SEA was currently reviewing around 170 ideas collected from staff in an innovation challenge, from which they would probably select one or two to develop.
IGA Istanbul Airport’s new CEO, Selahattin Bilgen, revealed that three major sources of innovation at the Turkish gateway were its Innovation Department, its IGA Hub entrepeneurship programme – in partnership with ITU ARI Teknokent – and collaboration with Plug and Play. Next up was a presentation about the smart airport enabling benefits of 5G Wi-Fi networks from Lei Xinghua, Huawei’s vice president of enterprise optical business domain, followed by a session about the increasing levels of collaborating between airports and tech giants, and another dedicated to the eVTOL phenomenon.
The tech giants panel, entitled ‘Meet the Giants: A New Journey Towards The Future’ featured representatives from Amazon Web Services; Idemia; Cisco; Google Cloud and Huawei. Arguably, key takeaways from the session are that predictive analysis, paperless travel, virtual interactions, and robust cyber security are the potential game-changers driving the ongoing transformation of the airport industry.
The launch of the first commercial eVTOL flights in Paris next summer to coincide with the city hosting the 2024 Olympic Games means that eVTOL aircraft and vertiports are now firmly on the radar of the world’s airports. The session, ‘EVTOL – A New Way to Fly’ featured some of the airport operators that are set to become early adopters of the new technology.
Houston Airports’ chief external affairs officer, Saba Abashawl, noted that the airport operator would incorporate eVTOLs into its new masterplan and was still evaluating whether new infrastructure would be needed to accommodate them or if they could be handled in existing facilities at either Hobby, Bush Intercontinental or Ellington.
United Airlines has told HAS that it will start using eVTOLs at the end of 2026 and has already invested over $1 billion with eVTOL manufacturer Archer Aviation to make sure that it is one of the first commercial airlines in the world to embrace eVTOL taxi services.
Explaining more about United’s eVTOL plans, Abashawl said: “They want to start in 2026 with four aircraft moving about 26,000 passengers a year. This kind of scares me as we are not quite ready for that. “In Phase 2, in 2028, United want to go to 16 aircraft handling some 251,000 passengers per year, and at full ramp up soon after that they want 32 aircraft making 650 flights a day to handle 661,000 passengers yearly. This gives you an idea about what kind of planning the City of Houston and HAS have to do to accommodate eVTOLs. There are lots of challenges on my table.”
Talking about Groupe ADP’s strategy on eVTOLs, deputy director of business development, Joyce Abou Moussa, said she had no doubt that eVTOLs will bring huge benefits for customers whose journey time is precious, but felt that it would be 10 to 15 years before they would have a significant impact on airports or the way the majority of people travel.
Korean Airports Corporation (KAC), which manages and operates 14 airports across South Korea, is preparing for eVTOL operations – in partnership with a number of Korean conglomoratres – to ensure that it is ready for the new mode of transport, according to the company’s senior manager of the advanced air mobility office, Hyung-Kyu Woo.
Daniel O’Neill of Skyports, which is developing ground infrastructure for flying taxis, noted that his company built the world’s first prototype vertiport for eVTOL aircraft in Singapore in 2019 and is currently working to deliver four vertiports in Dubai by 2026, including one at Dubai International Airport (DXB).
Immediately after the panel, ACI EUROPE’s director of airport capacity and operations, Aidan Flanagan, called for all vertiport operators to join the association as full members.
The afternoon of Day 1 was made up of a series of short presentations before ending in a panel discussion about how artificial intelligence is transforming the passenger experience at airports.
Among those making presentations during the busy afternoon were Airbus’ head of external affairs, Laurent Boisson, who in his speech about innovation for net zero aviation revealed that the aircraft manufacturer is currently looking at three different concepts for a hydrogen powered aircraft – a 1,000 nautical mile range turboprop aircraft, a 2,000nm range jet aircraft the size of the A320, and a revoltionary new 2,000nm plus range blended wing body.
A decision on what hydrogen powered aircraft it will develop will be made in 2027 with the most likely outcome at this stage being the 100-passenger capacity regional aircraft, with a provisonal date of 2035 set for it entering into service.
He noted that current Airbus aircraft were capable of carrying up to a 50% blend of SAF and traditional jet fuel and that it was working on certification for 100% SAF solution, although the issue today isn’t so much about the fuel as its availability to the aviation industry.
Boisson was followed by Alfio Faro, a senior partner at Studio Fuksas, who spoke about some pioneering airport design projects in China and Saudi Arabia, and Incheon International Airport Corporation senior researcher, Seokhyun Son, who gave a presenation about ‘Aviation in the Metaverse’, and revealed that his gateway had spent years and invested upwards of $1.3 million on developing the gateway’s virtual reality service, Incheon XR Metaverse.
Son said: “The metaverse is capable of bridging the gap between virtual and real-world experiences. Through using the Incheon metaverse passengers are able to better enjoy the airport.”
Safdie Architects’ senior partner, Charu Kokate, then provided a fascinating insight into how Singapore Changi created a green and tropical oasis inside its Jewel Changi development courtesy of 2,500 trees, over 100,000 shrubs and, of course, its famous 40 metre high Rain Vortex, the world’s largest and tallest indoor waterfall.
The penultimate single presentation of the day was given by Hisham Dekmak, TAV Technologies’ sales and business development manager, who explained how technology developed by the company, such as its next generation airport management solution, Total Airport Management Suite (TAMS), is now being sold to other airports across the globe.
SITA’s Jihad Boueri then moderated the day’s final panel session called ‘How Artificial Intelligence is Transforming Future Passenger Experience at Airports’ with a panel of experts that included Heathrow Airport’s head of technology, design and innovation, Steve Armitage.
Talking about how Heathrow is dealing with innovation, Armitage admitted that he personally had to be innovative and adapt and evolve in recent years as the business had changed since the pandemic.
“Before the pandemic we were focusing on some fairly transformational stuff with more long-term outcomes,” said Armitage. “I was doing some experiments with autonomous vehicles airside, robotics and, having quite a lot of fun. Then the pandemic came, and along with everyone else, our priorities changed to focus on COVID.
“Since then we have been focused on recovery, and now, finally, we are starting to look futher forward again, which I am very pleased about. Recent innovations at Heathrow include the time slot trial for airport security [passengers can now pre-book slots] we just announced, and trials of a mobile electric vehicle solution, which is effectively a battery on wheels.”
Also on the panel were Basim Allawati, vice president of infrastructure and security at Oman Airports; Federico Cabrera, operations and passenger experience manager at Montevideo–Carrasco International Airport (MVD) for Aeropuertos Uruguay; and Kazumi Hiraoka, general manager at the DX development and planning department in the corporate planning division at Narita International Airport Corporation. Allawati took the opportunity to share his experiences about Oman’s Innovation Lab and how the airport is trialling multiple AI tools to enhance the passenger experience, baggage screening and operations on the apron.
Hiraoka mentioned Tokyo Narita’s pioneering Face Express facial recognition system and the role AI has played in ongoing experiments with autonomous vehicles, and the development of the chatbot the airport uses to communicate with passengers. While Cabrera discussed MVD’s use of AI to analyse its quarterly ASQ results to allow it to improve services for passengers, and the trial of a tool to detect forbidden agricultural products being brought into Uruguay.
But the day wasn’t quite yet done as in the early evening a fleet of coaches transferred delegates into downtown Muscat to enjoy a fabulous outdoor Gala Dinner in the grounds of the Crowne Plaza hotel overlooking the beach and the Gulf of Oman.
Brand strategy and innovation; airport innovation hubs; and data sharing were all on the agenda in the opening sessions of the second day of Airports Innovate.
The morning began with an interesting discussion about the innovative marketing and branding concepts being embraced by airports to reflect their ever-evolving offerings and business models.
Shalini Rao, chief marketing officer at Benguluru’s Kempegowda International Airport, explained how the newly opened Terminal 2 had created a dynamic new facility for the gateway that, in addition to its operational benefits, provided a spectacular showcase for local art and culture as well as many new opportunities to boost non-aeronautical related revenue.
Talking about Fraport’s brand philosophy for Frankfurt Airport and its global airport network, the company’s vice president of corporate strategy and digitialisation, Claus Grunow, explained how the company is repositioning its brand to reflect the passenger journey, its staff, and connecting the world. Qualities Fraport hopes will make it easier to recruit new talent around the globe.
Also on the panel, moderated by JCDecaux’s marketing and business development director, Jérôme Lepage, was Yousif Al Bulushi, founder and CEO of AWJ Innovation.
Arguably the highlight of the conference followed, a lively and highly enganging panel discussion about Airport Innovation Labs, expertly moderated by ACI World’s senior vice president for programmes and commercial services, Antoine Rostworowski.
The session effectively covered the relatively new concept of Airport Innovation Labs and how an ever increasing number of airports are establishing their own on-site facilities to test and develop new technologies that they benefit from directly and could potentially sell
One of the early adopters of an Innovation Lab is Hyderabad International Airport, whose executive director, SKG Kishore, told delegates that the potential benefits that they offer meant that he now considered them to be a “must have, and not a nice to have facility” for any airport.
Talking about innovation in general, Kishore said he viewed it as a transformation process and culture rather than just about technology, which he referred to as simply the tool to help you achieve the transformation.
He noted: “There is no definitive destination for innovation. It is all about context and bringing change to the company culture and creating an open platform [the GMR Innovation Exhange or Innovex in the case of GMR] that will enable each and every indiviudal in the organisation to think differently, giving them the freedom to experiment and taking away the fear of failure.”
Giulio Ranucci, head of innovation and digital at Aeroporti di Roma (AdR), noted that over the last three years the Italian airport operator had worked with a number of start-ups from across the world on potential solutions for its Rome airports.
Oman Airports’ digital transformation director, Rashid Hamood Al Busaidi, was as equally enthusiastic about the worth of airport innovation labs, even though his company only launched its own facility in Q4 this year.
In answer to a question about the company’s general approach to innovation, he said that Oman Airports is focused on fostering an innovation culture in the mindset of its staff, follows a clear and well defined innovation strategy, and uses events such as the recent hackathon to encourage out of the box thinking.
Also on the ‘Airport Innovation Hubs: Playground for Transformation’ panel were Pablo Lopez Loeches, head of ideation and entrepeneurship at global airport operator, Aena, and Benjamin Kloss, director of Plug and Play Abu Dhabi.
All agreed that being innovative and forward thinking would prove key to their future success as well as providing potential new sources of revenue through the solutions developed at their innovation labs.
Thomas Romig, ACI World’s senior vice president for safety, security and operations, then took to the stage to update delegates about the launch of ACI’s new data sharing platform (AirportShare), stressing that in today’s always connected world, “data is the new gold”.
The concept – developed in partnership with ACI World Business Partner (WBP) Rockport Software – effectively uses the common language Airport Community Recommended Information Services (ACRIS) platform to share data that can be used by airports to manage operations, improve the customer experience and bolster revenues.
Six months on from the official launch, Romig said that AirportShare had a growing airport community that includes early adopter Rome Fiumicino and most recently IGA Istanbul Airport. It also have three data consumers – Beontra, Roadify and Mappedin – all connected directly to the platform.
When ACI World completes the proof of concept for AirportShare early next year, it plans building it into a more comprehensive platform by adding additional levels of data from activities such as airport parking.
“So, once we build this up, in essence we will have a universe where we can connect all of the different airports across ACI’s network, or even wider, and data consumers will be able to leverage that date for the benefit of their customers, for the benefit of consumers and for the benefit of the community at large,” enthused Romig.
A quick 15-minute presentation by Amazon Web Services’ chief technology officer, Shivagami Gugan, about ‘Aviation In The Metaverse 2.0’ followed, who in turn was followed by Stine Marsal, Copenhagen Airport’s former service excellence director, who gave an enthusiastic and passionate presentation about the importance of inclusion, citing the success of the airport’s launch of Sunflower Lanyards for people with hidden disabilities.
Next up was an engaging panel discussion featuring industry experts, risk management professionals, and insurance specialists who delved into the critical intersection of risk management, sustainability and resilience in the airport business. Indeed, delegates learnt how sustainable practices such as utilising renewable energy, water conservation, and waste reduction can effectively mitigate risks and enhance the resilience of airports.
Some key takeaways included the need for airports to have a robust business continuity plan; a robust emergency framework will enable airports to mitigate black swan events; pragmatic dialogues with partners and stakeholders can help mitigate risks; A strong risk management policy can enhance the reputation of the airport.
On stage were KJ Devasia, assistant vice president and head of enterprise risk and corporate resiliance at Bangalore International Airport Limited (BIAL); Stefan Rüter, senior vice president for controlling and financial planning at Fraport; and Sara Sabt, Gulf Air’s director for risk management.
There followed a quich change of tack when Rana Nawas, a partner for transportation and logistics at Oliver Wyman, launched the new White Paper, Financing The Airports of Tomorrow: A Green Transition Toolkit.
Produced in collaboration with the World Economic Forum and ACI World, it is designed to help airports determine the most efficient and effective ways to finance their green transformation to enable the decarbonisation of the aviation industry.
The carbon footprint of baggage and how it needs to be reduced during aviation’s decarbonisation journey was the subject of a thought provoking presentation by NACO’s airport digitalisation lead, Clive McNabb.
He actually raised a few eyebrows by suggesting that one way to do this would be to ban all hold luggage on flights, and even though he himself accepted that this would never win the approval of passengers or indeed the airlines which make considerable amounts of revenue from baggage, his case study for doing so was quite compelling.
McNabb claimed that by NACO calculations, if all hold baggage was banned on KLM flights out of Amsterdam Schiphol for one year, the airline would save around $110 million in fuel costs per annum and reduce emissions by 3% per flight.
More realistically, perhaps, he suggested that today’s baggage allowance could be reduced to help the planet and believed that there was much the industry could do to make the baggage handling process more efficient and lower CO2 emissions.
These included making the loading/unloading process more efficient, optimising the use of baggage handling systems – which he claimed on average account for 10% of an airport’s electricity useage – and doing a better job of transporting luggage, arguing that the number of mishandled bags in 2022 was equivalent to the emissions from 6,500 flights.
With the conference end fast approaching there was just time for two more panel discussions, firstly one about ‘New Paths to Accessibility For People with Disabilities’, followed by ‘The Future of Us: The Evolution of the Airport Workforce’.
It was right that the event should end with two human resources focused panels as it is often easy to lose sight of the key role people play in not only making everything work but in fostering innovation and, of course, looking after the billions of us that travel by air each year.
The first of these sessions covered ways we can make airports even more accessible for travellers and staff with physical and hidden disabilities, and the latter addressed today’s workforce shortages and how airports can retain, develop and upskill their workforces to hold on to them and increase their appeal to future generations.