Sunday, June 23, 2024

Tech Ready Airports Here To Stay

Vijay Grover 

 “An approaching airplane joins the long line of airplanes in the sky waiting to land; it’s detected by an array of cameras and navigation technology that bypasses the traditional Air Traffic Control tower. The systems guide the flight to the runway, and then automated bots guide the airplane to the taxiway, and the Gate is assigned. Once at the Gate, a laser-guided aerobridge positions itself to let passengers disembark, while automated vehicles below unload baggage. The passengers head to automated immigration counters that face-scan and thumb-print them. The passengers then head to collect their luggage, which baggage bots have already delivered to the carousel”. 

Sounds much like a scene out of a science fiction movie. The question is, where is the human interface? If technology has its way, the above scene could soon be a reality, at least at Singapore’s Changi International Airport, which has a partially minimised human interface in its current operational terminals. Changi Airport, which opened Terminal 4 last October, has minimised human interface to a large extent. Changi Airport partly uses learning from its smallest and newest facility to test and develop automation at the airport. This testing is in preparation for the gigantic Terminal 5, being designed to handle 50 million passengers a year when it opens in 2035. 

In India, Changi Airport may not be comparable in size and scale, but with domestic aviation proliferating, several major metro airports might need automation as a necessity to streamline operations as they get bigger. The efficiency also helps in understanding what drives airport costs, particularly costs borne by the airlines. Airports work based on cost per enplaned passenger (CPEP). The CPEP is defined as all landing fees, airside usage charges, fueling costs, terminal rents and airline payments to airports divided by enplaned passengers. It is difficult to arrive at the median CPEP for airports in India, given the difference in size and scale of the 100+ airports; however, industry experts say that it hinges around INR 500, with large metro airports having higher costs than small and medium terminals. 

While airports like Bengaluru, Delhi and Hyderabad have already started using tech innovations to keep tight control on the CPEP, others, including the AAI-controlled terminal, are also not behind. Interestingly technology is at the forefront to help plan costs and improve efficiency. 

The GMR Group, which owns and operates Rajiv Gandhi International Airport in Hyderabad, recently took the lead as it launched a Blockchain Centre of Excellence (CoE). The initiative will create a structured mechanism to build creative ideas, nurture and foster them, and build a Go-To-Market strategy for all successful initiatives. It will allow its partners to work on their ideas and bring them to a forum to validate. The advantage this exchange brings is that collaborators can also try their products/services at GMR Innovex across a vast landscape of Airports, Air Cargo, MRO, Logistics, and other Infrastructure sectors. 

Technology is emerging as a game changer, a reason why Bangalore International Airport has plans to launch a Joint Innovation Centre (JIC) with Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Intel to drive the development and adoption of digital solutions in aviation. Expected to begin operations at the BLR Airport soon, the JIC will focus on strengthening BIAL’s digital roadmap, driving digital innovation for the airport. It aims to provide a digitised and intuitive experience for travellers and positively impact the airport’s community. Hari Marar, MD & CEO, BIAL, says, “The new Joint Innovation Centre between BIAL and AWS will enable us to develop modular, scalable, innovative digital solutions that can benefit all stakeholders in the aviation domain and help reimagine air travel in India.”

Meanwhile, globally the aviation sector is moving towards tapping into blockchain technology to build an aviation infrastructure that offers more efficiency and, therefore, savings for the stakeholders in the business chain. In the International Air Transport Association (IATA) study “Future of the Airline Industry 2035”, blockchain has been identified as one of the technologies that may significantly impact the future of aviation.

To make travel safe and hassle-free, digital identity programs for passengers, pilots, cabin crews and airport staff are being mulled or rolled out internationally for air travel. The IATA is recruiting airline industry insiders for its ambitious One ID digital identity working group.

In One ID proposal, association members want to arrive at a “Departure to Arrival” travel process that is paperless, shares the minimum data needed and gives passengers control over personal information. Beyond the obvious credentials required and shared for more efficient travel, the initiative will include health certificates and biometric information which have become an essential element of international travel. The One ID aims to ensure that a passenger’s walk from the airport entry to the boarding gate should be a walk interrupted only for shopping at cafes and shops at the terminal and not multiple procedural hurdles.

The working group of IATA says it will endorse promising standards for making this a reality. It must work with all other relevant groups to eliminate process conflicts and duplication. One of those standards will have to be an efficient way to get governments on board with One ID, which, among other things, means creating or sanctioning secure digital Identities for passengers.

IATA has been conducting research and development on this technology for the past five years, starting with prototypes and in some cases, testing in production environments. 

Several airlines and their partners have been experimenting with blockchain technology in various use cases. The industry feels that the initial progress is tangible enough to encourage further developments and to look beyond prototypes. The rise of new technologies often comes hand in hand with a lot of hype. The promise of blockchain is to enable the exchange of value and information across digital channels without friction. In a multi-user under blockchain, any information on a passenger manifest will be available to other users like the airport management, immigration, security agencies and others on a real-time basis. Any change or alteration made at any level by anyone to the data will also be visible to everyone enhancing security and efficiency. 

“Blockchain is the future, and it’s been demonstrated successfully. We are ready to roll out the BlockChain technology solution for the civic corporation and government bodies. It will enhance efficiency and add a new dimension where precision and transparency become visible. In aviation, it could be the next big revolution which can assist in controlling operational costs,” says Vikram Shetty, ex-Secretary of CITAG, a citizen-led initiative to promote BlockChain technology. 

Technology integration is not just in passenger services at terminals, but even being planned in operations at airports. With rise in passenger traffic, comes the rise in inflight catering needs. Given the varied meal preferences it is important for any airline to strike a balance to cater to the needs of passengers. 

The precise distribution and stocking of meal preferences, especially on international routes is a huge challenge for inflight caterers and airlines. While software like Airchief has given the airlines some relief, the technology cannot predict the actual consumption in-flight. A study by Airbus Industries shows that an average passenger generates 1.43 Kgs of waste during a flight. The study also shows that in the next 8 years by 2030, the amount of trash per passenger will double. The industry and airports are concerned about the increase in logistics and workload to dispose of it.

The Airbus study also finds that more than half of the trash generated is untouched food, a reason why an IATA survey issued in 2021 Key to Airbus’ solution for the tracking and controlling of in-flight catering is the Food Scanner, an artificial intelligence-enabled device that analyses the composition of food in a simple point-and-shoot process. The Food Scanner’s downward-looking camera identifies what is on the meal tray as the cabin attendant pulls it out from the trolley during the in-flight service, and subsequently captures pictures of what remains when the tray is returned.

The advantages of Airbus’ in-flight catering tracking solution are numerous. In addition to reducing the amount of food and beverages carried during flight with the associated lower aircraft weight and reduction in fuel burned the Airbus solution holds the promise of better management over the amount of food produced at the origin, along with the reduction in dedicated catering space aboard the aircraft, as well as enhancing the waste collection and separation process. Additionally, it would limit the amount of food and beverages that are discarded upon arrival, with certain countries requiring such waste to be burned.

Airlines and Airport staff are getting down to implementing IATA Resolution 753 on baggage tracking which aims to encourage airlines to reduce baggage mishandling by implementing cross-industry baggage tracking. Many countries and airlines in India are also getting into the process to eliminate or minimise baggage mishandling. This proposal was unanimously supported by IATA Airline Members in the global deployment of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID).

IATA is running training courses targeted to baggage operations managers within airlines, airports and ground handlers who need to implement baggage tracking in the most effective and cost-efficient way across an airline route network and within individual airports.

Airports are working on options to track baggage with a specific focus on RFID and learn how tracking data can be exchanged with other parties through the latest industry standards such as baggage XML messaging. So lost or misplaced baggage may soon be a thing of the past 

While technology may reduce the manpower required for airport operations, warmth and hospitality continue to be basic prerequisites for a regular flyer. So one can rest assured that the smiling cabin crew and reassuringly trained pilots will continue to be a part of every journey. 

Vijay Grover is the Editor of IA&D 


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