Striving for excellence
In this exclusive Q&A, Hamad International Airport’s senior vice president for technology and innovation, Suhail Kadri, discusses his gateway’s IT strategy.
What is the philosophy/strategy of Hamad International Airport (HIA) when it comes to new technology?
Our goal is to be the best airport in the world and this ambition ensures that we have harnessed the power of digital innovation and technology since opening to deliver a unique airport experience for our passengers and the type of operations you would expect from a true airport of the future.
HIA has been relentless in terms of trialling and introducing innovative solutions that provide passengers with a holistic, smooth, and effortless airport experience; and helped transform daily operations.
Any new technology HIA trials has to first and foremost be a candidate for addressing a specific business opportunity or a challenge that has been identified by our organisation in order to meet our tactical or strategic objectives. It is then trialled methodically to ensure that it delivers the desired business outcome and value. Our approach, and dedication, has allowed us to set numerous benchmarks for the aviation industry.
Where are the world’s airports going in terms of new technology?
The global trend is that passengers want a more streamlined and automated airport experience. We will undoubtedly see the role of biometrics, cloud and touchless technologies rising in the future and become the basis of new experiences that will also include wearables, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.
In Q4 of 2019, IATA presented the results of its Global Passenger Survey, which showed that passengers are looking to technology to improve their travel experience, although many were concerned about the security of their personal data.
Biometrics are set to play a key part in creating seamless passenger experiences in the future. The aviation industry and governments are working together to understand and address privacy implications to ensure that biometric programmes respect passengers’ privacy and protect their data. Therefore, when we speak of biometric technology, usually blockchain follows.
We expect that blockchain will eventually be used to change the way the different stakeholders in the aviation landscape use and exchange passengers’ identity and health information. Blockchain’s inherent architecture is designed to protect against the risk of unauthorised data update and use making it ideal to mitigate fraud and theft of critical identity data.
In due course biometrics and blockchain will completely revolutionise the travel experience as we know it and hopefully replace paper based identity and travel/heath credentials.
Can you provide some examples of IT innovation at HIA?
The foundations for biometric enabled country-exit checks that were subsequently adopted around the world were laid at HIA in 2016, in collaboration with one of our strategic partners.
HIA was also the first major hub to trial and advocate end-to-end journeys with a single biometric token; and contributed to several think-tanks in the initial stages to advance the solutions and define transition approach. We were also the first to extend this capability to voluntary touchpoints such as using facial recognition technology to identify passengers at wayfinding screens, whom we could then direct to their gates without them needing to touch anything. I believe that initiatives like this have helped create a wow experience at HIA.
HIA has also worked with Google and Apple in the early stages of their Street View and Indoor Positioning propositions, respectively, and we are very grateful for the support and strong partnership from the industry disruptors that have allowed HIA to lead some of these efforts in the industry.
I would also be amiss not to mention the value of our close collaboration with other leading digital airports across the globe with whom we often exchange ideas and help each either at a bilateral level or through industry fora.
Without doubt there is a vibrant ecosystem within our industry that enables and encourages digital innovation, and we are grateful to have received many industry and Qatar government awards and recognitions for our efforts.
Has COVID-19 proved the catalyst for even greater IT innovation at HIA?
HIA has made great strides in adapting to the ‘new normal’ shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic through the implementation of a variety of measures focusing on detection, prevention, and sanitisation.
To immediately help curb the risk of spreading the disease, for example, HIA worked with its partner organisation that provides cabin baggage X-ray screening systems to develop a prototype for UV-C disinfection of baggage trays that would seamlessly fit in with the existing tray return system. This is a great example of co- innovation with our partners in the industry supply chain, which we value very much.
We also went a step further to ensure everyone’s wellbeing by investing in disinfectant robots, which are fully autonomous mobile devices emitting concentrated UV light, effective in eliminating the majority of
On the detection front, HIA swiftly acquired thermal imaging cameras and placed them at all passenger and staff entry points at the airport to detect elevated body temperature and manage as per defined protocols.
Going one step further, we also acquired Smart Screening Helmets for random monitoring. This is a portable, safe, and effective tool that enables contactless temperature measurements through use of infrared thermal imaging, artificial intelligence, and augmented reality.
Given that the pandemic is affecting different areas of the world with varying intensities, we have also been focusing on how best to prevent the propagation of the virus as travellers from around the world come across each other and our employees at HIA.
As a result, the airport has introduced a face mask detection system which utilises artificial intelligence and computer vision technologies to automatically detect if passengers/staff are wearing masks at key entry points. This innovative solution was developed and deployed fully in-house within four weeks before commercial products appeared on the market.
Our C2 security screening technology, mentioned earlier, also brings our passengers the peace of mind needed through the current unprecedented times. Deploying such technology, especially at the transfers security checkpoint, has assured our passengers that our airport experience is safe and secure to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Do you think the pandemic will inevitably change customer facing technology at the world’s airports?
While the pandemic has undoubtedly accelerated the digital transformation of some airports, the industry as a whole has been on an upward trajectory for years in terms of becoming faster, more operationally efficient, contactless and paperless. Biometric, and touchless technologies will certainly play a more prominent role in the future. Originally seen as a means for ensuring a better and more efficient airport experience, these technologies now have the added dimension of enabling health and safety requirements.