Arriving early, waiting at the baggage drop – and even longer at security – and then walking miles to the plane can often make air travel a chore. But with ever-more sophisticated technology, these hold-ups could become a thing of the past. With aviation set to grow – the International Air Transport Association forecasts passenger and freight growth over the next decade – airports, and their owners, need to embrace the changes automation will bring.  

Adam Petrie is a principal at AMP Capital, the infrastructure investment group that owns airports including Melbourne and London Luton. “Technology is a risk if you are not proactive and prepared for it,” he says. “But it is also an opportunity if you are, as it is increasingly impacting aviation in various ways. The aim is to have a seamless passenger experience, from the time they leave their house until they board the plane.” 

AMP Capital’s airports are looking at how to use technology in everything from better understanding customers to improving the automation and efficiency of basic infrastructure. They are not alone. According to its 2018 Masterplan, Birmingham airport wants 80 percent of its 18 million projected passengers to use self-service check-in by 2023. 

Baggage handling is set to undergo a second revolution too, according to one of the architects of the first one. Alex Bradley, director at AutoLogic Systems, was in the team that designed the five-tier screening process for hold baggage at airports after the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. The next step, according to Bradley, is to make screening faster and more flexible. 

His company designs ‘compressed’ and ‘batch flight build’ systems. These use computer programs that adapt to the ebb and flow of passenger bag drops and aircraft loading. Compressed or batch systems can cut the space needed for baggage by up to 50 percent. For new-build airports, this means less space is needed. It also means lower operating costs and landing fees. Existing airports can gain too, through higher capacity and extending the operational life of equipment. 

“This will allow more longevity to a current airport,” says Bradley. “Altogether producing a greener, cheaper, smarter solution.” 

These automated systems will not just improve efficiency, but make it more secure. “The system will learn local threats and respond accordingly with more automated, less subjective, learning analysis,” says Bradley. “This will yield efficiency and enhanced safety.” 

Even before bags have been dropped for screening, technology is upgrading security. Subject to legislation, automated profiling, amalgamating the data collected on us, will tell the airport who people are and the likely risks they present before they have walked through the door. “Traditionally ‘what to do’ decision-making with this data has been manual,” says Bradley. “In the future it will be far more automated.” 

Once airside, real-time flight scheduling data communicated around the airport will help prepare for surges in passenger numbers.  

“Working with reliable data that is automatically distributed to all stakeholders gives a more efficient flow, not just of information but the resulting passenger or freight flows,” says Thorsten Kolbinger, managing director of BEONTRA, which carries out scenario planning for airports. “Delays are often caused by a lack of information.” 

Focus on people 

However, Robert Crossman, director at Working Time Solutions, says these resources highlight how people will remain integral to airports’ operations.  

“What’s changing rapidly is the use of technology to optimise productivity and efficiency within the workforce,” says Crossman, whose company provides airports with workforce-planning and management software. “Investing in the systems and processes needed to support a more responsive and flexible workforce will become an increasingly important strategic priority.” 

Yet people can also pose significant risks to investors. Protesters against the climate crisis are appearing at airports, as air travel makes up 12 percent of all transport-related carbon emissions. According to IATA, increased awareness of this may have contributed to the flatlining of passenger numbers in developed markets over recent years. 

Vaughan Lindsay, chief executive of ClimateCare, which advises business on environmental strategies, says many airlines are looking at ways to reduce their environmental impact, but there is still a long way to go. 

More fuel-efficient aircraft are already being developed, says Petrie, with airports focused on improving their own environmental performance. 

“The real leadership position would be the creation of a wholly carbon neutral airline,” he says – something Jet Blue accomplished, albeit temporarily, when it offset its customers’ carbon emissions in June. 

Petrie nevertheless believes that the outlook for airports is strong. Even the frequent collapse of airlines should not trouble investors, he argues, as the demand – especially from emerging markets, which IATA predicts will grow by up to 11 percent a year – continues to drive airport development and expansion.  

“Continued globalisation is a big driver, as aviation plays an important role in the connectivity needed for this to happen,” says Petrie. “Aviation both benefits from, and is a contributor to, globalisation.”