Airports need an integrated approach to systems engineering that designs from the start for Airport Operational Intelligence — capturing and viewing of both business and operational events on the airport campus and in real time — that allows rapid correlation, dissemination and decision analysis.
The terms are flying fast and furious: Smart Airport, Business Intelligence, Airport of the Future, Intelligent Airport, KPIs, Performance Metrics — all reflecting integration of technology into the aviation transportation environment.
Just 30 years ago, information technology had been considered an add-on or luxury, and often as an afterthought to the airport operation and facility. With the advent of common use and other systems like multiuser flight information display systems (MUFIDS), technology began shaping better passenger flow and more efficient use of airport space. Self-service check-in arrived in 1995, and that launched an enduring trend of extending technology beyond operations and into the realm of the passenger experience. When smartphones began proliferating, the industry responded with Mobile 2DBC. Airports increasingly sought technology to serve other needs, such as Wi-Fi for Internet connectivity and mobile operations. Airport technology took yet another leap as innovations in consumer technology began driving non-aeronautical revenues through the use of low-energy Bluetooth beacons. A variety of sensor technologies advanced queue monitoring, as airports recognized that passengers intrinsically assign a value to their time in the airport that is dependent on the type of traveler and the location within the airport.
Passenger processing and airport operations produce a wealth of data that is often not combined with other relevant information to inform key decision-makers and allow them to select optimal options in real time. At best, the majority of such data combinations is typically available only for archival analysis and future design. Mobile and self-service technologies, in particular, serve well to inform passengers, give them more control over their journey and generate data. But without focused examination, that information does not necessarily make the airport operate smarter. Couple that data with information created by the Internet of Things and suddenly an airport quickly realizes data mining for esoteric nuggets of information is impractical without a sound strategy. Airport planners and designers have an even greater burden: How do you design a facility with enough flexibility to take advantage of that knowledge expected in the future?
Information technology consultants, business strategists and futurists are talking about business intelligence, and you may be getting calls from companies wanting to sell you services. And new business intelligence methods, procedures and analytical tools may allow airports to exploit some of this information. The problem is this: While some solutions work well for marketing, sales, manufacturing and distribution of products, they do not always address the needs of an airport. What's needed is an integrated approach to systems engineering that designs from the start for Airport Operational Intelligence — capturing and viewing of both business and operational events on the airport campus and in real time — that allows rapid correlation, dissemination and decision analysis.
Operational events include not only building automation and baggage handling but below-the-wing activities that get aircraft on-blocks, load fuel and baggage, and facilitate efficient boarding by passengers. Finding ways to collaborate with airlines to mine this data can make both airlines and airports more efficient and increasingly profitable.
Ron Crain and Stuart Garrett are project managers in the Aviation Group at Burns & McDonnell.
Burns & McDonnell professionals consider an airport to be operationally intelligent when it knows about itself and functions optimally, using data to make decisions. If the airport qualifies as smart, passengers may never know. Think about some of these clever elements of existing airports:
The baggage-handling system knows when belt speeds are out of limits, and may even know that the cause is an overheating drive motor.
Lighting controls on the concourse can detect the intensity of outdoor light and adjust the interior lighting for energy savings. Smart metering on electrical circuits and boarding bridges can determine if airlines run preconditioned air and power on aircraft docked overnight.
ADS-B receivers can determine and report exactly when each aircraft lands and departs. Auto-dock systems know the precise turn times for each gate and airline. Information is relayed and decisions made automatically or by operators whose efforts can result in smooth and transparent efficiency.
So how do we make this happen? It calls for applications, infrastructure, best practices and integrated systems engineering to provide access to, and empower analysis of, data that improves performance and helps airports make informed decisions.