Not so long ago, flying for most of us meant the almost-certain prospect of joining a queue snaking around the airport departure hall to check-in and drop off bags. It was the definitive manifestation of the analogue world at work.

Today the majority of airports are providing self-service solutions such as check-in and bag-tag printing at kiosks, and assisted bag-drops. Conveniently, most of us travel with a smart device, which provides airports with opportunities to update us via apps to make our journey easier.

In future, airports have ambitions to deepen their digital connection with passengers, staff and stakeholders. While integrating the enabling technologies will not be without challenges, the real issue will be for airports to usefully optimise their newly acquired technical ecosystems and, ultimately, improve their business models. Crucially, what has yet to shake down is an agreed division of information between stakeholders about the customer, be they passenger or commercial partner, and an acceptable methodology of sharing that data.

Smartphones and tablets are an obvious starting point for airports’ digital interactions with passengers, but it is fair to say that their mobile apps have offered limited capabilities so far. However, airport chief information officers are forecasting an explosion in app functionality in the next three years, according to SITA’s 2016 Airport IT Trends Survey.

By 2019, around 80% of airports, give or take, are planning to enable purchases of airport services; airport and flight status information; wayfinding within the airport; plus customer relationship management and passenger surveys.


Consumers will be much more receptive to these digital services if they are delivered in context-sensitive ways. There is a trend towards increasingly rich content delivery, according to Andrew O’Connor, SITA’s vice-president Airport Solutions. He cites the app SITA developed for Miami International airport, which leverages beacon technology to offer users personalised information based on their location and needs. This includes suggestions for nearby food and retail outlets, indoor maps with directions and walk times, plus information to support an individual journey, including updates on gates, flights and baggage collection.

The in-app retail relationship between airports and passengers is likely to be a mix of direct sales and embedded third-party services. “There is potential for airports, a bit like airlines, to unbundle what they could offer, and some are starting to do this. Airlines have [had] beneficial lounges for quite some time, but now certain airports have their own private lounges people can buy entry to,” says O’Connor.

Passengers are irritated by retail offers when they are made at the wrong time or place, hence 74% of airport CIOs have an eye to piloting context- and location-aware applications in the coming five years. “I see this as a trigger to allow... more intelligent services, which are based on where the passenger is,” adds Nigel Pickford, SITA director Market Insights.

Research is under way across Europe to better understand passengers’ emotional and physical needs during their airport journey. PASSME, a European Union-funded consortium of aviation industry and academic experts, is working to reduce travel time between European airports by 60 minutes via a real-time passenger-centric system for managing passenger flows; a system for managing luggage flows; re-designing passenger-centric airport and airplane processes and facilities; plus a personalised device and smartphone app. It is currently using a mobile app and wearable devices to measure passengers’ physiological responses, such as heart rate, to create a more holistic and accurate profile of the passenger’s journey through the airport.


The physiological insights can be used to help passengers de-stress, explains Genovefe Kefalidou, research fellow in human factors at the University of Nottingham, who represents the university in the PASSME consortium.

“For example, once the wearable device and mobile app identify that a passenger’s stress-level increases, then the mobile app will be able to provide prompt information/guidance/feedback to the passenger in regards to what they may like to do to reduce their stress and feel more relaxed; for example, speed up their flow and navigation through the airport, sit at a nearby cafe with their family as there is still time until boarding and the gate is not packed yet.”

PASSME aims to combine forecasting data on passenger flow in the airport with this personalised data and is also exploring the use of smart cards and other smart objects to enable responsiveness in passenger-airport or passenger-airline communications. “One of the reasons for going down this route is to create a strategy for as many passengers as possible while at airports; ie even those that do not use mobile phones,” says Kefalidou.

Airports do not have the app space to themselves. While they may be able to engage with their local departing passengers, reaching international travellers is much harder. Global app Flio launched last August to provide a more personalised airport experience for frequent flyers and had clocked up 80,000 users by February 2016. Flio’s target is to access 10 million frequent flyers and cover all commercial airports by 2020.

Flio co-founder and head of partnerships Andrew Watson says: “We have a lot of data on our users’ behaviour in airports, as well as prior to getting to the airport. As a global platform... we are able to collect a much more complete travel profile for passengers: how many trips have they taken, where have they been before they have arrived at your airport, and also areas of interest such as food or specific shopping offers.”


Customer data is the life blood of these visions of relevant and interactive engagement, but accessing it and working within consumer privacy laws is fraught with difficulty. Copenhagen airport first encouraged users to opt-in to its app by offering free wi-fi and latterly via an in-app loyalty scheme. “Users get discounts and collect points as they go. You can earn points for instance by reserving parking and spend them on a coffee,” says Christian Poulsen, CIO and vice-president, assets and technology at Copenhagen airport.

Copenhagen wants to understand more about its passengers’ travel plans, but with privacy legislation in the EU getting tighter, opting-in is only half the story. Poulsen says the next phase will be features that allow app users “to be forgotten”, which may make customers more willing to try the app.

But Poulsen says a stand-alone airport app is not the only solution. “We will have to work with others, including working with data. We have just signed a strategic partnership with Amadeus, which has a lot of information in its reservation system, which will be interesting for the airport to build a relationship with passengers. It goes back to what we are allowed to do with data. It is still a long way to get all the data we need to be relevant to passengers.”

To sustain a healthy digital ecosystem, airports need to extend their engagement with passengers to other channels, both online or virtual, and across the airport campus. John Jarrell, head of airport IT at Amadeus, says: “Digitising the airport processes will be more a case of the airport getting its content into other social media apps. This will allow their content to be searched and used by passengers without requiring airports to spend time and money developing an app, and without passengers needing to download an app for an airport they may only be visiting once or twice.”

Jarrell notes: “We are already seeing evidence of such efforts via chat bots such as in Facebook Messenger, which provide a simple, natural language interface to content providers.”

The airport environment is also evolving to create more digital experiences within the fabric of the terminals. An indication of what this might look like is the 475m-span digital canvas in Orlando International airport’s ticket lobby. The entire video wall network is integrated with Orlando’s operational and flight information display systems; plus airlines can integrate their point-of-sale information and social media content. It opens up possibilities to visualise real-time travel data and to tailor content to meet specific experiential needs.


The digital experience at Orlando includes outdoor digital displays and way-finding video walls. The ability to leverage data, such as flights, demographics, passenger flow and spending behaviour, with digital displays like these will create opportunities for what Sarah Parkes, airport team managing director at outdoor advertising specialist Primesight, dubs “mass personalisation”. She says it will enable brands to find ways to be “genuinely part of the experience, as opposed to just a clunky interruption”.

“Collecting flight destination or arrival data allows advertising to be targeted at specific destinations, and is particularly effective when you consider that the airport experience ‘book-ends’ the travel experience,” she says. “A recent campaign for O2 across London Stansted, Manchester and London Gatwick displayed different messaging based on incoming flight data, which allowed them to serve up content that added value to the specific travel experience being targeted.”

Copenhagen airport has digitalised all its screens and is now exploring the potential they offer to be more engaged with its passengers – and its retailers. “When you buy an ad on Facebook, you can say you want 20,000 displays to relevant customers. We can do the same at the airport. We can do targeted marketing with these screens based on our data, knowledge of passengers and the screen’s position in our airport,” says Poulsen.

“This means [retailers] can do much more targeted activities based on who will pass the shop. It is still too early to be really proud of the results, but we are trying. This is part of the whole set-up to be more engaged with each other,” he adds.

In effect, airports like Copenhagen and Orlando are digitising the analogue experience of the physical space, which will create interactive connections with those passengers who do not carry a smartphone, or do not wish to opt-in to an app, or who are electing to be offline.


Digital and self-service will not appeal to all, but that need not be an exception-management problem. “The average age of leisure travellers is increasing, and this demographic is not the same as millennials – though they do have potentially more spending power. Consequently, airlines and airports will have to cater for both digital natives and non-digital travellers. This should not be seen as a negative, but rather as a way to differentiate services. Many travellers will pay a premium for personalised services if they see value in it,” says Jarrell at Amadeus.

While the development focus generally starts where the money is – with the passenger – similar, inward-facing digital services to staff and stakeholders will follow. Providing staff with services via smartphones and tablets is one of the top four tech investment areas for airports in the next three years, according to the IT Trends Survey, revealing that today around a quarter of airports use smartphones and almost a third use tablets for customer-facing processes in departures and arrivals. Less than 10% use mobile devices for operational processes, but this is tipped for rapid growth in the coming three years. And by the end of 2019, nearly two-thirds of airports plan to provide staff with mobile tools with a particular focus on limiting the fall-out from cancellations and disruptions.

A key enabler is the ability to deliver IT services via cloud-based solutions, which is also figuring high on CIOs’ investment agendas. “It means that information that needs to be shared can be shared so much more readily through any type of platform, whether mobile or desktop, and updates to that data can be delivered in fast time as new information is available,” says SITA’s Pickford.

Mobile tools are emerging that not only connect the business stakeholders at the airport, and ensures they are all using the same information. Staff, airlines and ground handlers at London Gatwick, Edinburgh and Dubai airports are using the ‘Airport Community’ app, which seamlessly integrates with airport data sources while maintaining data privacy. It provides configurable alerts and keeps them up to date on delayed flights, incidents and weather, allows them to see real-time passenger queues and get an overview of turn performance both on airlines and ground handlers.

SITA has collaborated with Microsoft to deliver a Windows 10 universal app for use on phones, tablets and wearables to digitise ground operation processes. The AirsideApp integrates with the variety of back-end systems in use at airports to provide ground agents with contextual data and enable real-time monitoring of processes from teams and third parties. Airports in Asia and the Middle East, plus a leading Asian airline, are already using the app and SITA reports admin time has been reduced by as much as 30% while accuracy has improved.

A blueprint for sharing data among airport staff and stakeholders in real time is already in place in the shape of Airport Collaborative Decision Making (A-CDM), which allows airports, airlines, ground handlers and air traffic control to work more transparently and collaboratively to improve airport operations. Copenhagen airport implemented A-CDM technology in October and is using real-time data about the status of aircraft, the number of passengers, bags and connections to optimise services. It is a model that is inspiring Copenhagen’s Poulsen to think about how all the companies in the airport’s ecosystem can work together.


“We have 700 individual companies acting together to deliver the many services we have as an airport, so orchestration is important. To do that we need to share more data and need more digital connections between these companies. Everyone has their own view of reality. We need to have a common understanding,” he says.

This digitally connected infrastructure is still at the planning stages, but in Poulsen’s vision, the airport would be able to respond better to its retailers’ needs if they shared data. “They should also tell us ‘this is what we sold today’, so we can start to figure out what would be wrong with the layout of the airport. If we have X number of passengers, what should we do to maximise the return to the community?”

A new picture has begun to emerge. All the technical goodies have either arrived, are in your pocket, or will be coming to an airport near you soon. To fully realise the promise of the digital ecosystem, the players within the airport community will have to find ways of swapping exclusively acquired customer data in return for access to a vastly richer universe of data. At the moment these agreements are made piecemeal – a process that is unlikely to keep up with the proliferation of new data streams. A better model for data sharing needs to be considered and that challenge looms large.