What’s missing from the airport of the future?


Of course you’ve seen the surveys. Airports around the world are investing in solutions to reduce queues, improve passenger satisfaction and reduce operational costs. Many of these technologies begin with the word ‘automated’: automated check-in kiosks, automated baggage handling, automated boarding gates, and the list goes on.

Will they help airports achieve their goals?

Yes – but only if they are supplemented with something else.

There are obvious benefits to automation, particularly in reducing bottlenecks that impede a passenger’s progress through the airport. However – and it’s a big however – automating parts of an interconnected system isn’t necessarily going to improve the performance of the system as a whole.

You don’t need me to remind you that airports are complex, interconnected systems. As the Australian ‘Airports of the Future’ website puts it, “They are characterized by complex interdependencies between different parts (e.g. check-in, security and retail areas) and different aspects of airport operations.”

These complex interdependencies mean that even a relatively small disturbance, such as a ten-minute flight delay, can have disproportionately large knock-on effects. The reality is that there is never just one small delay. There are many disturbances throughout the day and night, and each of them ripples through the system to create waves of chaos: peaks and troughs that are impossible to predict and, therefore, difficult to plan for.

The Big Brain: Intelligent visibility and optimization
What’s often missing from high tech shopping lists is the one item that’s going to be indispensable: the overarching technology that the airport of the future will need to integrate the planning of all its processes, equipment and personnel. I call this overarching technology the ‘Big Brain’ – or central intelligence – that integrates and constantly optimizes an airport’s operations. This Big Brain is invisible, but as a famous aviator once said in another context, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

There are two parts to this Big Brain. The first is about enabling integrated planning or intelligent visibility.

To get a feel for what’s possible, imagine an airport where planners have full visibility into all the consequences of any disturbance, in real time. In this airport of the future, the Big Brain is constantly calculating all those ripple effects, alerting planners to their consequences, and offering suggestions on how to deal with them. For example, the Big Brain might calculate that in 30 to 40 minutes, disturbances in various parts of the airport will result in bottlenecks at immigration, and suggest how best to respond.

The second is about using the Big Brain to constantly optimize airport operations based on the relevant KPIs.

Using its…
(i) insight into all the consequences of hundreds of disturbances
(ii) knowledge of the KPIs that need to be optimized (such as length of queues, waiting times, turnaround times, operational cost etc.)
(iii) information about personnel, equipment, relevant regulations and business rules…
the Big Brain will intelligently and continuously answer the big question: Given everything that’s happening at the airport, which decisions will optimize the airport’s goals of maximising passenger satisfaction and minimizing operational cost?

Enabling the airport of the future
I’m not talking about a situation where an all-knowing black box spits out decisions. I’m referring to a planning and optimization platform where planners interact with the system to respond flexibly and intelligently to new developments. Such a system will enable planners to tweak the weight given to certain goals or even override a decision.

The effects of this Big Brain go beyond handling day of operation disturbances. An airport with this capability can use it to make more intelligent maintenance schedules, or look months ahead to predict how much capacity will be required and plan accordingly.

And here’s the really interesting thing. This Big Brain exists and is already working behind the scenes to enable the intelligent airport of the future. To find out more, check out this management briefing on optimized resource planning or watch how Copenhagen Airport (recently named the best airport in Northern Europe) is optimizing its operations with the Big Brain of planning and optimization.

How far are we from the airport of the future?