The fifth-generation, smarter airport


Growing globalization and integration are driving airports to expand and modernize their IT systems, even during difficult financial times. In India alone, dozens of airports and terminals are expected to be built in the next five years, and passenger traffic in India is predicted to involve over 40 million travelers.

Airport Terminal

Passenger expectations are increasing, and they are demanding greater choice, such as mobile access to itinerary changes. Global business travel is also increasing. In the face of this demand, airports are experiencing wide swings in revenues. The cost of operations is rising, along with growing competition from other airports.

Airports today are facing three key challenges:

  • Security – pressure to handle tougher challenges in battling terrorist threats; need to minimize disruption of operations.
  • Passenger experience – pressure to improve overall passenger experience; pressure to enhance airport attractiveness by becoming retail-focused entities.
  • Operational costs – revenue decline and unplanned cost demands for security, limiting airport expansion and modernization projects; deferral of IT projects and renegotiating IT contracts; increasing pressure from airlines to lower fees, requiring airports to find alternate sources of revenue.

Airport IT challenges

The typical airport lacks information on demand. Numerous stakeholders depend on rapidly changing information, but it is often held in multiple IT systems. With multiple systems, data tends to be copied and stored with potential inconsistencies. There is a fundamental need to ensure that information is current and accurate for all users, at all times.

In addition, IT struggles with the high cost of ownership. End-to-end airport business processes do not have a single owner, and introducing a new process is a costly affair. Expensive IT investments are nevertheless needed to help airports gain insight into their operations and better manage “irregular operations” (IRROPS). Normal operations can be disrupted by many types of unplanned events that require rapid detection and response, and that places increased demands on effective process monitoring, systems integration and collaborative decision making. These unplanned events can therefore inhibit the introduction of new systems or updates. Airport IT departments have difficulty acquiring the technical skills needed to implement such changes.

Toward a smarter airport operations command center (AOCC)

IBM classifies AOCC evolution into five generations.

1.  Point-to-point integration among existing airport applications is the defining characteristic of first-generation airport systems. Introducing new systems and services typically takes a long time through the first-generation architecture based on point-to-point integration.

2.  Second generation AOCCs use the Airport Operational Database (AODB) as the airport information center. It is the “central database or repository for all operative systems and provides all flight-related data accurately and efficiently in a real-time environment.”

3.  A database-centric mechanism for coordinating business processes does not adequately enable the passing of messages and data during the process. Third-generation architectures based on an enterprise service bus (ESB) provide a more responsive architecture.

4.  A fourth-generation AOCC provisions airport management tools that integrate data from multiple, disparate sources. However, experts are still required to manually interpret the data. The resulting decisions still tend to be isolated within airport “silos.”

5.  Given the business and technical pressures described above, AOCCs are evolving to an increasingly collaborative fifth-generation platform. The characteristics of a state-of-the-art AOCC include:

  • Situational awareness with airport maps and terminal maps
  • Computer-aided dispatch based on event triggers, rather than manual communications
  • Process orchestration and execution across various functions at a business-process level and not a technology level
  • Automated escalation in the case of incidents, and automatic linking of incidents to operational processes
  • Mobile alerts issued and managed based on escalation processes
  • Mobile-based aircraft turnaround milestone process monitoring
  • Real-time analytics, rather than only key performance indicators (KPIs), are more important for operations
  • Dynamic resource allocation to ensure that resources are at the right place at the right time

The time for airports around the world to change is now. Current business models are not yielding the desired results. Today, airport authorities, owners and their major business partners are facing rising costs, declines in revenue, growth constraints and an increasingly dissatisfied customer base. To prevent these problems from worsening, airport operators must move away from “business as usual” models and transform their business processes. They must become smarter airports.

Smarter airports are connected networks that make it easy for passengers, cargo, information and services to get where they need to be. The seamless integration of information from all airport processes streamlines airline operations. Having one instrumented, interconnected and intelligent information architecture helps the airport adapt to the changing needs of airlines, aviation service providers and customers. The result is a positive effect on airport revenue and growth.

Bill McCrosky is a Solution Architect and Consultant on the STG Industry CTO team, responsible for the Travel and Transportation (T&T) industry. He has 35 years of experience in the IT industry. Since joining IBM in 1998, he has been a project manager and solution architect on numerous business analytics and optimization projects. You can reach him on Twitter @BillMcCrosky

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