Airport managers around the world are dealing with a seemingly impossible problem. The number of passengers travelling through their airports is rising exponentially, with hundreds of thousands more people passing through the World’s airports every year. As a consequence, many airports are at - or beyond - their current capacity.
The obvious solution would be to invest in airport expansion to meet this demand. However, that’s unlikely to happen for a range of political and environmental reasons, as our CEO Bertrand Kientz explained in this recent interview. While more people want to fly, no one wants a noisy airport built near their home.
How can this problem be addressed while avoiding airport expansion? A number of innovative solutions have been proposed to help deal with this issue.
Here are five ways airports could manage increased demand without expanding physically.
Parking is a significant revenue source for many airports, and passengers enjoy the convenience of being able to drive directly from their homes to the terminal. However, with more people in need of parking space than ever, airports are under pressure to fit all those cars in their existing lots. This is where companies like Stanley Robotics could make a difference - the French business has so far deployed its autonomous parking robots at airports in Paris and Lyon.
Here’s how it works. A customer drops off their car near the terminal, then the robot takes over. ‘Stanley’ picks up cars then shifts them into extremely tight blocks in the parking lot - allowing up to 50% more vehicles to be stored in the same amount of space. Even more impressively, the robot’s system is linked to the passenger’s flight number, so it can retrieve a car and return it to the terminal entrance just as the passenger is landing. This also saves time for the customer because they don’t have to navigate enormous car parks, trying to remember where they left their vehicle.
In this recent interview, Bertrand Kientz argued that there is a huge opportunity for airports to use data to discover better ways of managing airport customer flows and avoid airport expansion. One example here would be baggage management.
Mr Kientz argues that airports could rethink the baggage check-in process by using data more intelligently. For instance, rather than expecting customers to come to the airport and physically check-in their own bags, airlines could use smart data management to organise pre-flight luggage collection from the passenger’s home, before carrying out weighing and security checks independently. This kind of innovation would save a huge amount of time – and would also drastically cut back on space requirements in airport check-in halls.
In many ways, airports have not drastically changed their processes for decades. However, digital transformation and new technologies can and should be used to make improvements throughout the passenger journey within airports.
One example here is the use of thermal image sensors around check-in desks. Engineering firm Arup explains that they are in the process of installing thermal sensing technology close to check in desks at an airport in the Middle East. The thermal sensors would be able to tell if queues are building up close to the desks. If there was a significant increase in the number of people waiting to be served, the technology could then alert more check-in staff to come to that desk in particular.
This kind of technology could be used in other areas of airports too – be that passport control or around gates. By having access to data that shows where people are in the airport at any moment, operations managers could make real-time decisions to reduce congestion.
A significant amount of congestion in airports comes from passengers who are lost looking for their flight or are simply bored while waiting. To deal with this issue, a number of approaches could be developed to improve ‘way finding’ around airports.
In some cases, this might be apps, which provide personalised routes through large airports to help people find the kind of restaurant they want to go to or to locate their gate. Further down the line, we might expect to see augmented reality headsets which passengers wear and that show them the fastest route to where their plane is waiting, and alerts about timing or delays.
At some point every passenger has been held up and searched at airport security because a watch, necklace or button on their jeans set off metal detector alarms. However, new artificial intelligence body scanners may drastically speed up this process.
A trial conducted in the UK last year used a new kind of scanner that passengers walk through. Using artificial intelligence, it was able to distinguish between non-threatening items, such as phones, watches and coins, and dangerous items such as guns or knives. This could cut queues as security and minimise time spent unnecessarily scanning perfectly safe items.
It’s great news for airports and the aviation industry as a whole that passenger numbers are set to keep on rising. However, given the unpopularity of major new airport projects in many parts of the world, the industry will have to innovate to support this increased demand. But, as the five ideas listed here show, researchers and businesses around the world are tackling this problem with smarter data management and innovative technology.