By Ameya Joshi
As the world headed into a pandemic, the travel industry was the one which was hit the most. As recovery started, the hit with aviation continued even as people chose to drive to holiday destinations and start staying in hotels. With multiple waves of COVID, it was time for the airline industry to strike back and in a way that nobody had anticipated. This summer, the US and Europe have struggled to handle airport passengers. Heathrow restricted passenger numbers to 100,000 per day, thus asking airlines to axe their popular routes; Amsterdam’s Schiphol restricted numbers to 65,000 per day.
Whilst struggling with the day-to-day challenges till the industry gears up to handle the surge in demand, there seems to be a special focus on infrastructure development.
What Are The Current Trends In Aviation?
From passenger experience to airport operations, the trends vary from each sub-sector in the aviation ecosystem. On the airport front, the concept of Aerotropolis is fast catching up. In India, Hyderabad is following Delhi’s footsteps in ensuring a combination of hospitality and food district next to the airport. Both Hyderabad and Bengaluru are trying to set up logistics hubs and an infrastructure which houses MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions) around the airport. The Aerotropolis concept has been tried globally, and Changi Exhibition Centre and the KLIA Aerotropolis at Kuala Lumpur are topping the list.
An increased number of airlines are focusing on self-service; passengers drop their baggage and print their own baggage tag and boarding passes which not only speeds up the process but also reduces the need for check-in counters being serviced by counter staff. This reduces the number of long, drawn-out arguments at the desk; no one to talk to, just follow the process and rules, pay for excess baggage and travel to your destination.
With a focus on the environment, airports are trying their best to be green. This includes moving to solar-powered or other alternative power sources, having green terminals, reusing wastewater and using natural light.
Combining Trends To Better Infrastructure
There are three types of aviation markets. The nascent ones have limited infrastructure but limited flight movements, the matured ones are congested but developed, and the zeal is to improve customer experience in available resources and the third ones where there is exponential growth in passenger demand. The growth has to be continuously matched by building infrastructure. India is one such market that has seen over 30 new airports being operationalised in the last seven years. But this throws up some pertinent challenges.
Exponential growth comes with a need to abandon the long-term master plan and look for short-term quick fixes and solutions. This has often resulted in expanding aprons in available space as done in Indore or Patna. In Jaipur, the old terminal is being re-operationalised to cater to the passenger traffic.
The airport comprises three wings for capacity planning. The runway, which is based on radar, parallel taxiways, and rapid exit ways, would have a capacity for maximum movements per hour. The apron, where the number of bays for a particular type of aircraft will dictate how many aircraft can be handled simultaneously, and the terminal, which has a per hour throughput and the arrival and departure wings total up to tell us the hourly capacity of the terminal.
There are multiple cases in the country with ample bays, but the terminal cannot support as many passengers. This can be seen in places like Pune, Srinagar and Patna, amongst others. There also is a case of ample runway capacity but not enough bays, and then come to the metro airports where the terminals and aprons are vast, but the runway capacity is exhausted. Can new-age technology help combat the challenge?
Modern-day software helps segregate flights to ensure that the available infrastructure is used at the optimum levels. This involves spreading flights across the day rather than bunching at peak hours to ensure that the same terminal, apron and runway use is spread through multiple hours. However, this is not as simple as it sounds.
Private airport operators in the country have already started modelling the terminals with AI’s help and using IoT (Internet of Things) exclusively. Airports in the vicinity, like that at Changi, have an entire terminal which is without manual check-in counters. On the other hand, Hyderabad has already worked with IoT providers to explore bottlenecks and effectively use the information to ensure that bottlenecks are taken care of and improved.
Airports at Bengaluru – where a new terminal is being built is, modelling it on the garden theme. It takes care of the environment, reuses water and ensures minimal electricity usage. This is done with automation and IoT to ensure the passenger experience is enhanced.
At airports like Kochi, solar power runs the entire airport. Most airports have invested with solar farms dotting the landscape in the airport land. Furthermore, at multiple airports, the government is investing in Digi Yatra, which would use biometrics to enter the airport and verify the passenger.
The future is about combining Technology with Infrastructure. The former is even more critical in a country like India, where it is challenging to keep pace with the speed at which passenger numbers increase each year. No wonder the state-owned Airports Authority of India (AAI) has invested in a mobile Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower rather than spending on building a new tower and buying equipment every time a new airport is commissioned.
The AAI invested in control towers and unused equipment when the airline operator stopped services to that airport. This led to a situation where a new airport is about to be opened up, but large investments are needed, which are lying defunct at another airport. Now, AAI can simply tow the mobile tower to the new airport and start operations
India is in a unique position to leverage technology and infrastructure since it is in the early stages of developing the aviation sector and related infrastructure; it is an industry that holds great promise, especially in terms of employment and leveraging technology.
Ameya Joshi runs the aviation analysis website Network Thoughts