AI and the Internet of Things will have a huge impact on customer experience at airports, says Russell Poole, UK MD at Equinix
In the first quarter of this year, passenger traffic at Europe’s airports grew by an average 7.6%. Passenger traffic at London’s Heathrow airport meanwhile grew by just 3.1%, despite being Europe’s busiest airport.
This slow growth – blamed largely on the fact that Heathrow is already operating at 98% capacity – is one of the key reasons that MPs gave the third Heathrow runway the green light earlier this year. The expansion will bring the airport’s capacity to 130 million passengers; two-thirds more than the 78 million who passed through Heathrow last year and almost 30 million more than world’s current busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
But as the UK aviation industry prepares for one of the biggest expansions of physical infrastructure in living memory, it must consider the implications for its digital infrastructure too. Will Heathrow have the right technology in place to support a huge increase in passengers and their rapidly growing and changing data demands?
Changing expectations of air travel
Consumer expectations are changing rapidly when it comes to air travel. Where delayed flights and long queues at immigration or security once felt like the unavoidable cost of getting to our favourite destinations, travellers are increasingly expecting a slicker, more streamlined experience at every stage of their journey. And much of this improved experience is being delivered digitally.
A recent worldwide survey by The International Air Transport Association (IATA) showed that more than 50% of travellers now believe that an acceptable queuing time at immigration is no more than just five to 10 minutes. Meanwhile, 64% of passengers would prefer to board aircraft using electronic boarding passes on their mobile phones, while 39% of passengers prefer electronic bag tags and 61% expect to track their baggage throughout their journey. Passengers also want airlines and airports to offer them a more customised travel experience, with 85% willing to provide more personal data to make this happen.
Airports are therefore facing rapidly increasing connectivity requirements. Systems that process passenger, security, customs, retail, freight, hotel, and other service data all need to link with one another, and there is a huge increase in the amount of data being created.
This digitally-driven revolution demands an overhaul of the technological infrastructure that supports airports and airlines. To deliver on customer experience, convenience and safety demands, ambitious aviation industry players must travel to the digital edge.
Bringing airports to the edge
Some companies are already using digital transformation to adapt to how airlines and airports serve customers. The use of facial-recognition technology at electronic gates has already reduced the average amount of time people spend passing through Customs from four minutes to 23 seconds.
Sydney Airport in Australia is currently using digital technology and data to smooth the customer experience and improve passenger safety. The airport’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection is trialling the use of biometric technology that will enable customers to be processed by biometric recognition of the face, iris and fingerprints, matched to existing data. Passengers will be able to pass through the six steps of check-in, bag drop, border processing, security screening, airport lounge and boarding gate, after showing their passport just once for initial verification.
Sydney’s second airport, Western Sydney Airport, is set to open in 2026. It aims to be a fully smart airport, and have the right technology in place to enhance the passenger experience and customer flow in previously unimaginable ways. The airport will use advanced technologies to cut processing times for passengers significantly and reduce the length of time it takes to turnaround aircraft at terminal gates. This data-driven optimisation of traditional processes works not only to improve passengers’ safety, boarding time and security, but also deliver economic efficiencies for business.
This is just the start. Soon, artificial intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) technology will have a huge impact on customer experience at airports. At the 2018 Winter Olympics in Korea for example, a team of 85 robots – including AI-powered machines that spoke Chinese, English, Korean and Japanese – took passengers at Seoul’s Incheon Airport to their gates and offered them flight information. LG showcased three “concept robots” at CES this year, including one that delivers food and drinks to customers at airports, and another that handles check-in and check-out services at hotels whilst carrying luggage to customers’ rooms.
While it is early days for widespread rollout of this AI and IoT technology, what is clear is that these technologies will require heavy data demands from airports and encourage them to further integrate edge computing technology.
Real-time data processing
Operating at the digital edge is not just about the ability to handle the quantity of data involved, but also the speed at which data can be processed. In an always-on airport, huge volumes of data are generated and require real-time information exchange between an increasing number of systems. If biometric matching is to verify identity for security purposes, for example, the system must be equipped to analyse and cross-check biometric information, ticket information, criminal records and travel history to detect and raise red flags without undue lag.
Dubai International Airport – the world’s busiest airport for international passengers – is meeting the challenge of real-time data processing by opening an enormous on-site modular data centre for the airport and its aviation partners. The airport knows that it needs the highest levels of availability, maintainability, resiliency and business continuity to continually improve its customer experience. It also knows that when data must be analysed as it is captured, it is best done locally.
The edge computing opportunity for airports
At Equinix, we are seeing increased demand for airlines, airports and many other companies that form part of the aviation ecosystem looking to tap into the power of keeping data closer. By processing data at the edge of the network, near its source, edge computing is reducing pressure on the network core and helping to optimise cloud computing. It is powering more reliable, real-time gathering, analysis and sharing of data and insights and creating opportunities for earlier threat detection.
Equinix’s research with IDC revealed that edge computing will help organisations achieve £1.5 trillion in extra benefits over the next five years. Edge computing has the potential to be hugely valuable in the aviation sector, which has ever-growing data dependencies. As Heathrow’s expansion takes off, aviation and airline players must ensure that the correct digital infrastructure is in place to deliver on the customer experience that the new generation of passengers deserve.