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Digital Transformation is a term used extensively, across industries, to describe the pace of technological advancement transforming processes, products, services and operations. Digital transformation is synonymous with IT investment and disruptive innovation, though it is a much broader and all-encompassing term that also describes changes in business models, corporate cultures and people. For the majority of aviation end-users, digital transformation enables customer satisfaction and drives implementation of new technologies and innovation programs. In the airport environment, the typical digital transformation projects fall under 5 main categories (or workstreams):

  1. ‍Data Visualization and Analysis
  2. ‍Infrastructure
  3. ‍Passenger and Bag Journey
  4. ‍Airside Operations
  5. ‍Administration and Asset Management


Data Visualization and Analysis

Under Data Visualization and Analysis, airports place projects related to data discovery, data exchange, data integration and analytics, which are all typical functions of an IoT (Internet of Things) environment, aiming to improve situational awareness.

The largest, and most impactful, project in this workstream is the Operations Control Room (OCC), which is the command centre of the airport. Investments focus on expanding the role of the OCC, beyond security, and integrating new data sources to enable the concept of Total Airport Management.

Beyond data integration and enhanced visualization, new technologies that are being explored include artificial intelligence (AI), with applications focused on predicting KPI performance, and the use of digital twins to manage big (and real-time) data. A welcomed outcome of digital transformation is that airports move beyond their reactionary “day of operations” mindset and are now able to plan well ahead, running multiple scenarios and adjusting forecasts with real-time data, thereby becoming more resilient. Indeed, disruption management begins in the OCC.



Under Infrastructure, airports consider projects related to data storage, whether cloud or on premise. However, the biggest impact project in this workstream is cybersecurity, as airports rely less on IT suppliers and more on their own resources to safeguard systems and data.

AI, Edge Analytics and Blockchain are some of the most promising technologies in this workstream.


Passenger and Bag Journey

Passenger and bag journey projects assume most publicity and are a major investment area for an airport. Focus is on increasing passenger and bag throughput capacity through automation and improving customer satisfaction through the enablement of a friction-free passenger experience, from curb to gate.

Impactful projects relate to advanced baggage handling systems, self-service passenger touchpoints and enhanced passenger and baggage screening at security checkpoints.

Most industry initiatives, including ACI’s and IATA’s New Experience in Travel and Technologies (NEXTT) program, focus in this area too. Biometrics, AI and Robotics are increasingly sought-after technologies in this workstream.


Airside Operations

The Airside Operations workstream includes all projects that aim to improve airside efficiency, capacity and safety. Airside investments are focused on five key areas: Gate and Apron, Airfield, Tower, Operations Management and Safety and Security.

Collaboration is key in airside operations and is another focus area for industry-wide initiatives as evident by A-CDM and ACI’s Airport Community Recommended Information Services (ACRIS).

Airside will also be the biggest implementation area for AI and Autonomous operations, being a controlled area with pre-defined routes and roles for staff, motorized and non-motorized equipment.


Administration and Asset Management

Administration includes internal operations management and all aspects of asset and facilities management. Projects focus on improving energy and waste management, as well as asset utilization and predictive maintenance. As with all other workstreams. AI is to play an important role in this workstream, as a key enabling technology.


Key Frost & Sullivan’s Digital Transformation in Aviation Research Findings

Insights from our research in airport Digital Transformation can be summarized below:

‍1. Global Airport spending on Airside Digital Transformation, will increase from $4.58 billion in 2018, to $5.6 billion by 2023; the highest growth segment is Operations Management, which will grow from $960 million to $1,180 million in the same period. Investments are centered on A-SMGCS, VDGS, approach optimization and flow management systems, ALCMS, A-CDM, AOCC and analytics-based forecasting systems.

‍2. Global Airport spending on Landside Digital Transformation, will increase from $3.9 billion in 2018, to $4.6 billion by 2023; the highest growth DT segment is self-service systems, which will triple from $220 million to $660 million in the same period. Investments are centered on common use platforms, cloud data storage, smart security and passenger flow management.

‍3. Digital Transformation programs are designed and managed by Airport IT departments, aim to enhance customer experience and last an average of 5 years. The DT vision entails implementation of projects to improve the passenger experience and operational efficiency, while moving from a process driven to a customer focused business environment.

4‍. The future airport will be built on data. Over 90% of data captured by airports today are not being put in use, other than featuring in visualization applications. There is substantial potential for optimization through big data analytics and use of Artificial Intelligence. Eventually, airports will migrate to an ecosystem where data collaboration among stakeholders will be efficient, systems will be interoperable, and passengers will have greater control over their journey through personalization.

‍5. Disruption Management offers most potential for both airport operators and technology vendors, as there are no airport wide solutions available today in the market. The customer satisfaction, cost savings and cost avoidance associated with effective disruption prediction, management and recovery, are substantial.

‍6. The major reasons for delays in implementation of Digital Transformation programs, as well as overall airport innovation, are resistance to change, cost of implementation and weak business case development.




Furthermore, among the global airports were interviewed, it can be concluded that for most airports (68%) DT programs are still in progress. Below are some of the key projects invested in landside and airside.

Landside Digital Projects

Typical Landside DT projects that have already been implemented, include:

  • Digital Display systems (96% airports have implemented)
  • Baggage tracking and reconciliation (82%)
  • Passenger Flow Management (76%)
  • Common Use platforms (72%)

Among Landside DT projects that have yet to be completed by airports, the following are priorities for the next 12 months:

  • Biometrics / Smart Security Gates (42% of airports will be implementing)
  • Cloud Data Platforms (37%)
  • Advanced Security Screening Systems (36%)
  • Smart Parking solutions (36%)
  • Ground Mobility Platforms (32%)

Airside Digital Projects

Typical Airside DT projects that have already been implemented, include:

  • Gate and Stand Management (88% airports have implemented)
  • Automated Lighting Systems (88%)
  • Aircraft Visual Docking Guidance System (A-VDGS) (82%)

Among Airside DT projects that have yet to be completed by airports, the following are priorities for the next 12 months:

  • Drone Management system (46% of airports will be implementing)
  • A-CDM (38%)
  • Aircraft and vehicle detection system (30%)


What digital innovations are taking place at international airports?

More than most sectors, aviation has embraced digital transformation. The future will be one which is increasingly digital, hi tech and connected. Everywhere you look, airports are turning to connected technologies such as the internet of things (IoT), AI, cloud computing and many others.

SITA’s Air Transport Trends for 2017 report found that more than half of all those airports surveyed were planning significant investment in AI over the next few years. Among the technologies being investigated are self-check-ins which use facial recognition data as is being used by Air Asia.

Hong King International Airport, for example, aims to take facial recognition data and allow passengers to use it as a single token for their entire journey. Cameras would scan the face as they arrive and this would allow them to move more quickly through the terminal and onto their flight.

Other airports are tracking the movement of passengers through terminals to help them reduce overcrowding. These can provide details of crowd movements, highlighting potential areas of bottlenecks and allowing the airport to make adjustments to infrastructure and to allocate staff as and when needed to reduce delays.

Heathrow, meanwhile, is using smart boarding cards which are embedded with all the information about a passengers flight and boarding gate. It can track them as they pass through the terminal and spot when they are in danger of being late. Using big screens, they can issue instructions to hurry up and not to dawdle at the duty-free shops. If a passenger arrives at airport security too late, they can be sent back to the check in. The Airport hopes this could reduce the 50,000 hours of delays which it says are caused by late passengers.

Meanwhile, airport IT systems are becoming increasingly connected and take information from many different sources into a central dashboard. This is a future in which airports are smart and connected, bringing together diverse technologies through the internet of things (IoT) to streamline operations, communications, improve collaboration between departments and increase data visibility.

For example, by using tags and sensors an airport can quickly locate infrastructure and equipment, they can monitor the progress and location of baggage and they can track the real time location of aircraft and vehicles.

Airports will find themselves operating at, or close to, operational capacity for longer. Expansion is expensive and can take a long time, which means airports will have to find a way of making existing infrastructure go much further. To do that they will need digital technologies.


Key Learnings

In the age of Industrial Revolution 4.0, airports are at a state that Frost & Sullivan defines as “Airport 2.0.” Processes are now being digitalised and moving towards the cloud. However, databases are not fully integrated, analytics are not widely used, and automation is low beyond core processes such as baggage handling. Due to their complex environment and numerous stakeholders being involved at any given process, the pace of transformation is slower than other industries and certainly lacks the maturity witnessed by airlines.

Nonetheless, Digital Transformation projects are underway in many airports, with many working on short-term, 5-year strategy plans. A few are working towards 2030 or 2040 visions, employing Futures teams that aim to make sense of global mega trends that will undoubtedly shape their business models.

Airports acknowledge these constraints and require inputs from visionary leaders, IT suppliers and industry bodies, in designing the Future Airport while providing a roadmap for short-, medium- and long-term optimization.

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