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Improving communication and operations through democratised data can have huge benefits for airports, writes Uri Guterman, vice president of product at AeroCloud.

Airports are busy places, with the world’s busiest hubs regularly handling over 100,000 passengers per day and daily operations supported by many different stakeholders.

And the intricate workings of terminals can present significant challenges, particularly in the case of communication and operational efficiency.

In fact, according to AeroCloud’s recent Getting on the Runway to Growth report, poor communication was cited by nearly half (48%) of global airport leaders as a key barrier to growth.

The complexity of airport communication

Airports are complex ecosystems. From check-in personnel and ground handlers, to cleaning crews and retail staff, these different moving parts all play their own important role to provide the best possible passenger experience as they journey through the airport. For this to be seamless, teams need to communicate effectively with management, between themselves and with customers.

For larger airports, communication problems are even more rife. Leaders who say communication is a significant operational challenge rise to 62% in airports that gross more than £1 billion per year.

Not only does physical size add a layer of complexity to communicating in airports, but they are also highly dynamic environments. Adjustments at short notice are often required. From bad weather and tech malfunctions, to flight delays and cancellations – the latter of which have become ‘the norm’ in the post-pandemic world.

This can send airports into a spin if the storing and sharing of information is through manual methods or using outdated systems. That’s because there is no single source of truth across an airport and information accuracy diminishes quickly, leading to disjointed collaboration between stakeholders.

The state of airports

While technology is transforming other sectors, airports are slow on the uptake. Our research reveals that a shocking two-fifths (40%) of leaders are still reliant on programmes such as Word and Excel to store and manage critical operational information such as gate management and remain overnights (RONs).

Critical, complicated information becomes out of date as soon as any small change occurs, and a significant margin for human error is introduced when storing, managing and sharing operational information is approached in this fashion.

In addition, outdated tools present a risk of miscommunication or missed communication if airport staff or personnel from across the broader ecosystem are unable to access the information they need when they require it. Employees whose jobs are based away from desks can particularly struggle with a lack of information visibility if it can only be accessed from desktops and not mobile devices.

Rapid digital transformation in recent years means that passengers themselves have higher expectations when it comes to tech-facilitated experiences. Timely, accurate information, whether on flight information display screens (FIDS) or through mobile phone push notifications, is a minimum requirement. This is especially so when monitoring for changing flight information.

Overcoming stormy days

Technological trailblazers will be able to reap the benefits every day, but investing in technology proves itself to be particularly impactful when there are major disruptions that lie outside of airports’ control. Extreme weather events, which are becoming more prevalent due to global warming, are an example of this.

In the summer of 2021, many airports in the Florida region in the US had to divert and cancel flights amid Tropical Storm Elsa, which brought heavy rain and flooding to the area.

Sarasota Bradenton International Airport (SRQ) was one of these airports, and with an average of 450 inbound flights to the airport each day, the weather presented what could have been an intense operational challenge as flight diversions and cancellations needed to be tracked and communicated internally and with passengers.

However, the airport had recently invested in cloud-based management software, which automatically received all scheduling changes as flights began to be cancelled in and out of SRQ. This made it easier to track the most recent updates and communicate this with passengers, which is one of the most challenging pre-storm issues faced by airports.

Cloud-based data democratisation

Communication is key in responding to disruption and for smooth day-to-day operations, but there is an apparent misalignment between the scale of communication problems reported by airport leaders and awareness of how to overcome them.

Three in five acknowledge that failing to invest in technology will significantly hinder the airport’s future growth, but only three in 10 say that cloud-based operations management software could significantly improve operations. There is a limited number of proven cloud-based airport operations platforms on the market, which is potentially the reason for this knowledge gap.

Cloud-based platforms are the most effective way to create a single source of truth; fed by live data that can be accessed by all stakeholders, including baggage handlers, check-in desks, gate planners, FBOs, retail concessions, security staff and airlines.

Through such platforms, the airport workforce can access real-time information from any device, anywhere in the airport, receive instant updates such as flight statuses or long security queues and effectively communicate between themselves.

Monitoring passenger flow through a subset of AI, computer vision, for example, allows bottlenecks to be proactively solved and for passengers to pass through to concessions faster – and importantly, encourage spending.

This technology can utilise airports’ existing CCTV infrastructure to track passengers anonymously and intelligently, notifying personnel in real-time if dwell time exceeds their defined parameters, which could indicate issues at security, for example.

When combined with data analytics platforms, this data fuels predictive insights for better operational and commercial decision-making.

Immediate alerts to irregular operations and diversions are a game-changer for airport staff. Without a cloud-native operations platform, tenants and ground operators may only find out about scheduling changes when shown on FIDS, putting them on the back foot when mitigating the impacts of changes and communicating with passengers.

Centralised processes through cloud-based technologies offer a viable solution for airports that facilitate data sharing in real-time, with permissions that can extend as far as external contractors.

Acting as the ‘brain’ of the airport, cloud-native hubs store vital details of gate management, flight scheduling and more, and put this at the fingertips of employees, whoever or wherever they are. In addition, better decision-making processes using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) technology are supported through shared live dashboards.

With the agility and foresight offered by cloud-native management systems, airport leaders can co-ordinate teams to plan and adapt. They can ensure the right number of staff are stationed in the right place at the right time and subsequently boost passenger journeys while managing costs more effectively.

In conclusion

The modernisation of airport operations through cloud-based data democratisation offers a transformative solution to the persistent challenges experienced by many airports.

Airport leaders who leverage such innovation, rather than overlook the technology, will benefit from prompt, effective, data-driven responses to dynamic changes – be it flight delays, gate scheduling adjustments or unexpected disruptions such as extreme weather events.

Success stories from airports such as SRQ demonstrate how investing in advanced airport management systems that give all employees easy access to accurate, real-time data can mitigate operational challenges and boost resilience, as well as improve overall passenger experiences.

With ongoing challenges in air travel, such as aircraft shortages and prevalent flight delays and cancellations, airports must enter an era of rapid digital transformation to meet the growing expectations of passengers and stakeholders alike.

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