Smart airports

Airports pursue data integration with partners to improve passenger experience

Tony Velocci
30 October 2019

4 min read

Technology and passenger preferences continuously redefine the airports of tomorrow. Compass looks at how some of the most forward-looking of these facilities are exploiting digital technologies to enhance the end-to-end travel experience.

Airports have long been testing grounds for travel innovation, cross-pollinating between aviation, technology and urban development. Now, airports are on the cusp of a bold new era: a system of transportation-infrastructure nodes optimized to deliver optimal passenger experiences.

Smart airports, as these facilities are called, are still the exception rather than the rule, but their numbers are increasing. The International Air Transport Association estimates two dozen may exist worldwide. It expects the number of such facilities to double over the next 20 years, as airport administrators prepare for a massive increase in global air traffic demand.

Since the dawn of the jet age in 1960, airport administrators have focused primarily on safety and on-time performance. Today’s “agile airports,” however, are applying digital-age technologies to the challenge of improving passenger experience.

Examples of agile airports include Las Vegas McCarron International, London Heathrow and Hong Kong International. The common denominator: A focus on using partnerships among airlines, retailers, carriers and other members of the airport ecosystem to offer personalized services enabled by broad process integration and seamless exchange of passenger and operational data. For these and other smart airports, the trend is toward creating intelligent, location-based services, including way-finding to move people through an airport at an optimum rate, minimizing delays and maximizing their spending at restaurants and retailers; providing trusted travel advice; and offering preferential treatment based on passenger segmentation.

Smart airport initiatives are being driven, in part, by a stream of developments in consumer technology that have fueled passenger expectations for unfettered access to real-time information and personalized services. Another driver: Airlines are posting profits that would have been unimaginable a decade ago, and airline industry professionals are determined to sustain that financial performance.

Smart airports will play an essential role in satisfying both imperatives.

“Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International and other airports like ours will always be looking for opportunities to make our best better and take the passenger experience to new heights,” said Dawn Gregory, director of innovation and performance at Hartsfield-Jackson, the world’s busiest airport by passenger traffic since 2000.


Pervasive digital connections to air travelers enable airports to establish continuous, real-time communication anytime, anywhere. This allows airports and their partners to engage passengers with relevant and compelling information and offers. These connections also position smart airports to respond quickly to disruptive new entrants, Gregory said.

The phenomenon of ride-hailing services is one of the most recent such disruptions.

“This will affect all airports,” Gregory said. Some of these services “don’t even exist yet, but we’re already studying the possible impact on our business model and how we should be preparing for it, including how air taxis could influence air travelers’ expectations of Hartfield-Jackson Atlanta International.”

As smart airports evolve, they will reach farther beyond their physical boundaries to enhance the passenger experience. For example, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta is working with the city’s Urban Land Institute to study potential autonomous vehicle corridors around the airport, with an eye toward creating better connections to the airport and its terminals.

Some forward-looking airports have become living labs, creating innovation incubators to foster and develop start-up businesses with new concepts for host airports to test. Munich and Aeroport de Paris Group – which includes Orly and Roissy Charles de Gaulle near Paris – operate innovation incubators, as does Singapore’s Changi. The latter partnered with the Singapore Economic Development Board to invest US$50 million (44.5 million euros) into its “Living Lab Program.” The goal: to develop and implement technology solutions leveraging automation, data analytics, the Internet of Things, non-intrusive security and smart infrastructure.

“Essentially, we want innovators to show us what we don’t know and present future opportunities with specific focus areas,” said Rick Belliotti, director of Innovation and Small Business Development at California’s San Diego International Airport. That facility’s Airport Innovation Lab recently welcomed applicants for its second group of innovators, who will go through a 16-week accelerator program.

In the initial class of entrepreneurs, the focus was on parking and improving passengers’ end-to-end experience while in transit. The second group’s focus is on reducing operating expenses.


While the accelerator program is new, the San Diego lab can point to some successes. For example, the AtYourGate app, which allows travelers to shop online from their mobile devices and have food and other purchases from the airport’s retailers and restaurants delivered to them at their departure gate.

Successful innovations developed in San Diego’s incubator could be rolled out not only in San Diego but by other airports and analogous businesses, including shopping malls, convention centers and other transportation hubs, Belliotti said. Following San Diego International’s successful deployment of AtYourGate, for example, the app was rolled out to Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey.

“We continually seek to raise the bar on customer satisfaction, and one way we do that is by embracing new technologies,” Belliotti said. “We demonstrated [AtYourGate] has the right formula to deliver a high-quality service that can change the way people experience air travel, a cornerstone of our Innovation Lab.”

Not to be outdone, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International is using artificial intelligence and augmented reality to help sight-impaired travelers identify agents who can assist them in navigating the sprawling, 192-gate airport.


To make the most of these and other technologies to improve the passenger experience, reduce costs and raise operational efficiency, airports need to put in place processes that optimize all of their available resources, said Aneil Patel, Air Policy managing director of Washington, DC-based Airports Council International (ACI).

Software-based planning systems can make all the difference for airports prepared to align their processes and available resources with key performance indicators (KPIs), which measure progress against goals. Airport KPIs might include security wait times, airline turnaround times and how long it takes for luggage to find its way from aircraft cargo holds to carousels. At least one demand-driven software product, for example, allows an airport, in collaboration with partners, to anticipate the number of passengers who will check in, making it possible to decide in advance how many check-in desks and security lines to open, at what time and for how long.

But Patel draws an important distinction for airports aspiring to transform their operations.

“Becoming a smart airport is not about technology per se,” he said. “It’s about how airports apply data generated by sensors that are part of a smart airport’s infrastructure.”

“Technology is the enabler to help us raise our game,” Gregory at Hartsfield-Jackson said. “What matters most is how you implement the technology, which is just a means to an end.”

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