Op-Ed: The Future of Airports – a new model from an old tradition

An ancient art form — the mosaic — serves as a guide for new-world advances in data management … and major opportunities for airports, according to Collins Aerospace general manager, airport solutions Rakan Khaled, who makes the case in this Op-Ed contribution for Runway Girl Network.

Given my profession, you won’t be surprised to learn that I spend a lot of time in airports. What may surprise you, however, is something I’ve noticed about them: most, if not all, display some sort of artwork known as a mosaic. From the beautifully tiled seascapes on the walls at Orlando International Airport to stunning dual mosaics of Queen Elizabeth at London’s Gatwick Airport to the massive mural depicting ordinary life at Singapore’s Changi Airport T3, mosaics grace the walls, floors and ceilings of airports around the world.  

Mosaics are not new. For thousands of years, early humans recognized that many small bits of ordinary material — when properly organized and aligned — could be used to create something spectacular. Skilled artisans glued tiny bits of polished stone onto various surfaces to create the earliest, most basic mosaics. The Romans, Greeks and other ancient civilizations used mosaics to adorn their homes, places of worship or other meeting places — and to tell a story.

Through the ages, mosaics became larger, more sophisticated, more detailed, and told more complex stories. But always, whether it is created from stones, tiles, glass or precious metals; whether it’s ancient or new; or whether it’s large or small, the value of a mosaic is greater than the sum of its individual parts. 

While I have great appreciation for the beauty of mosaics, this is not an essay about airport artwork. It is about airports, period. I have come to recognize that the same techniques used to create mosaics can — and should — apply to the digital world and, more specifically, to the airports of the future. If that makes your head hurt, allow me to explain.

The technology embedded in each of our lives today generates trillions of bits of data which, like the tiny tiles of a mosaic, can be collected, organized and aligned to create a bigger picture, a larger story that’s worth far more than the sum of its parts. 

Airports are a rich quarry. They are brimming with data — not only from the people, bags and aircraft that traverse the property, but also from the operations: flight planning, air traffic control, security, safety and the other support functions. Larger airports that house restaurants, retail outlets and duty-free shops also have data from those activities.

But like a mosaic yet to be pieced together, this data is scattered all over the place. It’s not being used as effectively or efficiently as it could be. Worse, we’re missing the countless opportunities this data — in organized, integrated and aggregated form — might reveal.

Don’t get me wrong. We have made incredible advances in technology in recent years that have brought huge improvements to our airports. But for the most part, the approach has been to fix what’s wrong rather than take a wider, more holistic, longer-term view of how to make the entire aviation ecosystem significantly better.

How do we do this? It’s tempting to say — as many have — that the solution is technology. Just add the right technology and you can increase efficiency, streamline processes, eliminate waste and reduce costs. But the real solution goes deeper than that. It’s the data embedded in the technology. The effective use of data — transforming it into actionable intelligence — combined with human imagination, is what will get us there. 

I believe that now is the time for the aviation industry as a whole to pivot toward a new, data-centric approach to airport management. The disruptions of the pandemic are beginning to fade, travel is picking up and may, at some point, far exceed pre-pandemic levels.

Airport customers — both passengers and the airlines — are demanding more, higher quality services. In addition, new regulations will require “greener” practices to address carbon emissions and other environmental concerns. Airports will need to make major investments in their operations, infrastructure and skill base now to meet these future demands and remain financially viable.

My company, Collins Aerospace, has long recognized the value of the data in its vast array of airport and aircraft systems and is committed to leading the way to a more connected, seamless and sustainable aviation ecosystem.

While I don’t profess to have all the answers, I would like to offer several ways airport executives can lead the charge to a new and better future in global air travel through a data-centric approach:

Many airports continue to maintain independent IT operations on their premises — a holdover from the pre-Cloud era. They continue to house vast computer rooms, which require separate cooling units. They have their own IT teams that walk around airport facilities to maintain the hardware, install new software, and address other IT issues.

Granted, there is comfort in knowing you have your own network and your own people within arm’s reach when something goes wrong. But given the solid track record of performance for Cloud-based computing, plus the ease, efficiency and cost-savings produced by moving to the Cloud, the case for making the switch is pretty overwhelming. Add to that the additional benefits for the environment — lower energy costs and a smaller footprint as you eliminate all that hardware — and transitioning to Cloud-based computing just makes sense.

Everything from microwave ovens to aircraft flight controls have self-monitoring sensors these days — sensors that can predict when a part will fail or what maintenance is needed and provide notifications. Imagine if every system within an airport had these same self-monitoring features and, further, that the data from these sensors rolled up into a single dashboard that included predictive analytics.

That dashboard would then be able to monitor and assess the overall health of the airport and help prevent disruptions. For example, you might be alerted that a security gate was about to fail, causing a backup of X number of people, causing X number of flights to be delayed and an overall schedule disruption affecting several airports. In other words, you would not only know that the security gate needed to be fixed, but you would also know the consequences of not fixing it. Further, this information could be quantified in terms of cost avoidance. What is the value of fixing the gate before it fails? Obviously, a lot more than the cost of the broken part.

While technology pervades the modern airport, there are still some practices that are not only inefficient, but they are also costly to the environment. The use of paper — for boarding passes and baggage tags, for example — is one those practices. And here, too, the effective use of data is the solution.

Why is it necessary to print out information about a bag’s journey and attach the sticky baggage tag paper to the handle? Could technology be used to eliminate this wasteful procedure?  Similarly, biometric solutions can eliminate the need for paper boarding passes. With biometrics, your face is your boarding pass and enables you to travel seamlessly, “curb to curb,” without using paper or showing any form of ID. A paperless airport for travelers and operators is the future.

Tracking the use of resources in our airports can also open our eyes to opportunities. Energy, for instance, is a huge expense for most airports, not only because of the cost of heating and cooling immense open spaces, but also due to inefficient equipment.

Airport executives need to demand more energy efficient products that last longer and also re-think how airport space is utilized: does that kiosk turn off when no one standing in front of it? Do we really have to replace our hardware so often? Does the passenger processing area need to be so large? If airport leaders ask these types of questions, I guarantee you, industry will respond, and airports will be better positioned to meet their sustainability goals. Beyond that, if they can reduce energy consumption and shrink their footprint, airports can use those resources for other improvements.

When you hear the term “connectivity,” chances are you’re thinking of a connection to the internet and the relative strength or weakness of that connection. In an airport environment, however, connectivity can mean exactly that, or it can refer to a wide range of connections. For instance, an airport’s ACDM (Airport Collaborative Decision-Making) system is a form of connectivity. It enables all stakeholders in airport operations, such as flight operators, airport operators, air traffic control staff, ground handlers, fixed-base operators, and others, to share information in order to improve policies, planning, and decision-making.

But connectivity also means connecting various products and systems to each other. This interconnectivity can bring new insights and benefits that stand alone systems can’t provide. In fact, I would go so far as to say the greater the connectivity, the more data can be captured and analyzed, and the better the decision-making and the greater the rewards.

Imagine this: suppose you had continuous access to all of the turnaround data from all aircraft at all airports. By analyzing that aggregated data, you could understand what types of aircraft take longer to turn around at the gate and get back into the air. Based on that, you could make scheduling more accurate, reduce flight delays, avoid operational disruptions, and make passengers happier. Further, with the data coming from that particular type of aircraft, you could then look for the root cause of the longer turnaround time and find ways to speed things up.

My point is, all that data from all those systems, aggregated together, paints a picture you can’t see when you’re just looking at a portion of it. Connectivity makes everything more predictable, allowing you to make adjustments in advance and minimize disruptions.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of all the actions airports would need to take to realize the full value of the data they possess. But it’s a start. 

When key technologies and the data they contain are brought together in a large-scale, strategic implementation, the benefits can be magnified and the change to the aviation ecosystem can be profound.

With these first steps, we are piecing together bits of data to form a massive mosaic of information whose value is far greater than the sum of its parts. And that’s a beautiful work of art.

Rakan Khaled General Manager, Airport SolutionsAbout the Author

Rakan Khaled, General Manager, Airport Solutions at Collins Aerospace

In his role as General Manager, Airport Solutions, Rakan is responsible for management of the company’s Airport Solutions portfolio, including setting the organization’s strategic direction, overseeing  product management, business development, and operations at over 120 locations worldwide.  

Rakan joined the company in 2006 and has held a number of leadership roles over his tenure. Rakan  has a technical and project management background where he led several mega complex projects for  the company around the globe. He held several leadership positions including Regional Director for MEA,  Global Head of Airport Operations, and Director of Airports for EMEA and APAC. 

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