Tech it for granted… airports are improving
When air transport IT specialist SITA held its annual summit in Spain to showcase the latest trends in travel technologies, it was clear to see that airport operators in the Middle East are getting smarter at every step. Keith Mwanalushi reports from Barcelona.
A number of airports, airlines, government agencies and ground handlers in the Middle East have recognised the importance of using technology, whether to make their operations more efficient or to improve the passenger experience.
This is not surprising considering the scale at which new airports today are embracing savvy new solutions.
As revealed at the Airports Show in Dubai earlier this year, facilities in the region are investing millions of dollars in technology and system upgrades to ensure a seamless and secure passenger experience.
From smart gates, beacon technology, mobile devices to navigate the airports and face recognition systems, to air traffic management, baggage and check-in management, IP-based security monitoring, communications, ticketing, and information systems, airports are actively adopting new technologies.
According to a study by research organisation Technavio, the global market for smart airports is estimated to reach $13 billion by 2019, at a combined annual growth rate of 6%.
In addition, SITA’s 2016 passenger IT trends survey shows the benefit of technology to provide a better travel experience. It revealed that passengers across the globe are so comfortable with technology today that they are choosing to use it rather than interacting with people. Out of every 100 passengers, 85 had a positive travel experience using technology, up from 80 last year.
“SITA has worked with several airports and airlines in the region to introduce new technologies that help improve the passenger journey through the airport,” said Paul Murphy, the company’s vice president sales.
For example, SITA is working to trial ‘smart path’ a new technology that allows passengers to move through the airport and board the aircraft simply by presenting themselves for a biometric check. “Once verified there is no need for the passenger to present a boarding pass, a passport or travel documents again,” said Murphy.
He explained that smart path works by having the passenger’s biometric details captured through a facial scan at the first touch point in the journey. The record is checked against the passenger’s travel documents, typically the passport, and a secure single token is created. Then, at each step of the journey – from check-in, to aircraft boarding or border control – passengers gain access simply with a facial scan and without having to show their passport or boarding pass.
“By capturing passengers’ biometrics and travel information into a single digital record, travellers will soon be able to use this token as identification at each step along their journey,” Murphy explained. “It will also provide the ability to combine some travel steps into a single interaction, vastly speeding up the time needed to complete these formalities.”
Fast growing airports such as Abu Dhabi International (AUH) are implementing a number of smart airport technologies.
Ahmad Al Haddabi, chief operations officer at Abu Dhabi Airports said the airport had recently inaugurated the smart travel system. He explained: “The pioneering system consists of self-check-in and baggage drop facilities, automated passport control gates equipped with biometric verification functions and facial recognition technology, and smart boarding gates, allowing passengers to check-in and move through immigration and security, interacting only with innovative technology.”
The smart travel process at AUH involves five-steps: self check-in, self-baggage drop, e-registration, e-gate, and self-boarding with signage across the airport’s terminals identifying each step.
Haddabi said: “These processes will enhance passenger experience by decreasing processing times within the airport by up to 70%, meaning less time in queues for travellers and more time to enjoy the airport’s retail, leisure and food and beverage facilities.”
Abu Dhabi Airports is currently installing 25 e-registration stands, 58 e-gates, and 76 self-boarding gates distributed at arrivals and departures over the airport’s two terminals, with full implementation being complete this summer. Additionally, the airport is already operating 10 self-check-in kiosks and two self-baggage drops.
Investing in more efficient baggage systems will also be crucial as airports in the region gear up to handle increasing passenger numbers.
SITA is also working with Abu Dhabi Airports to implement smart solutions at the midfield terminal building (MTB), which is due for completion in the fourth quarter of 2017. This will be the largest building in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi.
The MTB will be 700,000sqm and visible from more than 1.5km away. It’s being designed with sustainability in mind. The form, shape, materials used and sophisticated energy and water monitoring systems, have all contributed to the terminal building’s status as an outstanding three-pearl design rating from the Estidama (sustainability) pearl building rating system (PBRS).
SITA has also recognised that further improvements in baggage handling will require a step change. Bag tracking is highlighted as an initiative that will be in the spotlight in the coming years. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) resolution 753 will require airlines to track each bag on to the aircraft, into arrival areas and even transfer systems, and must be implemented by June 2018.
Murphy said SITA continues to work with partners across the region to streamline and improve baggage handling. Most recently, Sharjah Aviation Services introduced a new automated baggage management system at Sharjah International Airport, the SITA ‘bag manager’. “With more than 4.5 million departing bags handled at UAE’s third busiest airport each year, the new system will provide the airport’s ground handler with the latest baggage reconciliation services and full visibility and tracking capabilities within the airport,” Murphy stated.
Similarly, Abu Dhabi International has also implemented the same bag solution to help streamline its processes.
Looking forward, SITA is geared to play an important role in assisting airlines in implementing new technologies to meet the requirements of IATA Resolution 753 – “in other words to keep tabs on every item of baggage from start to finish,” added Murphy.
This new requirement demands intelligent tracking capabilities such as those offered by SITA’s ‘bag journey’. “This provides a precise picture of a bag’s current location, no matter how many airlines or airports handle it. SITA is therefore well positioned to continue assisting Middle Eastern airlines in the coming months,” said Murphy.
Self-service kiosks have proven to be an extremely versatile interface for a wide range of airport functions and services, and they are now installed at airports globally. These technologies have now been around for a while and it’s imperative that they continue to adapt to meet changes in travel patterns and incorporate new technologies.
Bahrain International Airport will soon be using SITA’s new self-service kiosks. Murphy confirmed that the kiosks installed at Bahrain International were aimed primarily at meeting a specific need for increased self-service check-in options at the airport.
“They are the latest generation of SITA kiosks,” he said, and added that they were powered by the SITA air transport industry (ATI) cloud, which allows passengers to complete a range of other travel tasks including bag-tagging, as well as make payments for additional services.
SITA’s new-generation kiosks around the globe are increasingly being used to complete various travel steps and, more recently, to download entertainment while on the move.
The company recently began trialling a new kiosk at London’s Heathrow airport, where passengers departing from Terminal 5 are able to access recent Hollywood movie releases on their iPhones or iPads from Heathrow’s ‘entertain me’ kiosks.
“What started out more than a decade ago as a quick and efficient platform to check-in for a flight has evolved to include numerous functions across the airport journey, increasingly completed in from a single kiosk,” concluded Murphy.