Air transport

Flying into the Future: Challenges and opportunities for the Upcoming Airport Business

31 of October of 2023

The aviation industry is undergoing a significant transformation, and airports are at the forefront of this revolution. Climate change, digitalization, COVID-19, connectivity, AI… are affecting us in the way we live and how we move. With the new drivers of change, airports will have to face challenges in terms of capacity, sustainability, and passenger experience. However, with the right strategies and technologies, these challenges can be turned into opportunities to grow. In this article, we will explore the main challenges and opportunities for the upcoming airport business.

Paving the Way to Net Zero Emissions

Climate change has become a critical issue globally, and it is everyone’s duty to devise and implement appropriate measures to reduce pollution while promoting the creation of clean energy. To address this issue, the aviation industry has set a target to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

However, emissions directly linked to the aviation sector are mostly caused by aircraft emissions (95%) rather than airport infrastructure. Therefore, several technologies are being developed, with the intention to provide more efficient fuels and to create greener technologies. Still, airports will have to adapt their facilities to existing and future technologies.

One of the most promising technologies that is already here is Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs). SAFs are made from renewable sources, such as waste biomass, and can reduce CO2 emissions by up to 80%. Organisms like the Energy Department of the US and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) have drawn roadmaps for the implementation of the technology. For example, the IATA has set a target to use SAFs for 10% of aviation fuel by 2030 and more than 60% by 2050.

Hydrogen emerges as a potent contender in the quest for emissions reduction. Industry giants and startups, such as Airbus or ZeroAvia, are channeling their efforts into harnessing hydrogen as a fuel source. Hydrogen can be produced from renewable sources and can be used to power aircraft, reducing CO2 emissions to zero. If this technology consolidates, airports may need to accommodate the relevant hydrogen supply chains to feed the aircraft fleets.

Electric aviation is also at the forefront of innovation for regional and short-range flights. Likewise, the Advanced Air Mobility concept is gaining strength. It intends to introduce fully electric aircraft in the cities and metropolitan areas to enable clean mobility in locations where we now see more pollution and congested traffic. In this industry, many startups like Joby, Lilium, Archer, Volocopter, Wisk, …, are making huge advances in the implementation of eVTOLs and plan to have commercial flights at the end of this decade.

In addition to achieving net-zero emissions, airports can implement sustainable practices such as waste reduction, water conservation, creation of green spaces, and energy efficiency. From now on, sustainable airport designs will be required and highly valued for every relevant new construction.

The creation of energy hubs is another solution to reduce emissions. Airports can become energy hubs by generating renewable energy and using it to power their operations and nearby communities. This reduces the dependence on fossil fuels and can help airports achieve net-zero emissions.

Scaling new heights

Airports are grappling with the challenge of capacity as they anticipate surpassing pre-COVID passenger figures in 2024 and doubling them by 2040. To tackle this growing demand for air travel, airports are adopting strategies such as process optimization and digitalization to enhance efficiency. Leveraging digitalization can not only streamline operations but also improve the passenger experience by minimizing delays. One clear example is the time-based separation system (TBD) developed at London Heathrow Airport for runway optimization.

This shift toward digitalization is reshaping air traffic management (ATM) with advanced analytics, AI, and ML playing pivotal roles in processing real-time data for improved efficiency. These technological innovations pave the way for predictive maintenance as well, which reduces downtime and reinforces safety protocols. At the same time, satellite-based technologies will have a vital role in providing real-time insights into weather conditions and air traffic, thereby enhancing predictive capabilities.

Furthermore, the concept of intermodality emerges as a promising strategy to facilitate the increase of airport passengers and alleviate, at the same time, transport congestion due to the establishment of Low-Emission Zones, that are likely to reach airport areas in the near future. By integrating various modes of transportation such as trains or shuttles, airports can optimize capacity and enhance passenger satisfaction. Emerging technologies, such as autonomous vehicles, eVTOLs, and hyperloop systems, expand intermodality possibilities and hold the potential for swift connections between airports and nearby cities or countries.

This expansion aligns with Ferrovial Vertiports’ mission, as they lead in developing sustainable vertiports worldwide, facilitating the deployment of electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, and contributing to Advanced Air Mobility.

Airport expansion remains a potent approach to addressing capacity challenges. By increasing gates, runways, and terminals, airports can accommodate more flights and passengers, ensuring smoother operations. Process optimization will improve the performance of stands, by the implementation of Artificial Intelligence for turnaround and ground support equipment processes.

Enhancing the Passenger Experience

In today’s travel landscape, passengers’ expectations have evolved to encompass a wider range of services, coupled with an increased demand for quality and efficiency within airport systems. Therefore, airport systems and layouts will be rethought towards a seamless and comfortable passenger experience. This translates directly into the development of tailored experiences for passengers, facilitating their access/egress and comfort in the terminal. To this end, collaboration with airlines becomes crucial, both for data sharing and integration of the systems.

In accordance with this, automatic processes are drawing a way towards a non-stop process, avoiding queues, and waiting times. We can already see some examples, such as seamless security screening in the UK or the use of security technologies like the Next Gen CT rays in Helsinki Airport, removing the need to extract items from hand luggage, and eliminating some current restrictions.

Another example of automation can be found in baggage handling. With self-bag drop services, almost every process regarding baggage handling is automated. With this technology not only wait times can be reduced and airport operations efficiency improved but to reduce lost luggage. In this line, a simple tool is changing the quality of airline service, and it is baggage tracking, which allows the tracking of luggage through an app by both the airline and the passenger, reducing losses and increasing customer satisfaction.

Moreover, other revolutionary technologies are being developed as well to accelerate the processes through the airport. An example of this is biometrics, a technology that can identify and validate human processes. It can be used for check-in, boarding, and immigration clearance. This technology will reduce wait times and improve the flux in the airport experience in these critical processes. In fact, this technology has been validated to start being used next year in Singapore Changi Airport without the use of passports.

Artificial Intelligence (AI), the technology that has revolutionized the entire industry, emerges as a transformative tool that can dramatically improve the passenger experience. By harnessing AI’s capabilities, airports can meticulously analyze passenger data, predict behavior patterns, drive commercial decisions and optimize overall airport operations. For instance, AI algorithms can be harnessed to anticipate flight delays, enabling proactive communication with passengers. In the field of retailing, AI can help to build new designs to optimize revenue and understand customer behavior.

Journey planning is also likely to experience changes. First and last-mile solutions can help passengers get to and from the airport. For example, airports could provide autonomous shuttle buses or partner with ride-sharing companies to offer convenient transportation options. In addition, parking lots can become smart, allowing optimization of capacity and accessibility to passengers by pre-booking services, contactless payments, or dynamic pricing.

What’s next?

Remaining competitive in the airport industry requires proactively embracing these transformative technologies and strategies, ensuring safe, efficient, and environmentally friendly travel. Investing in innovation, fostering collaboration, and forging strategic partnerships remain key to enable a promising future for the airport industry.

Ferrovial is a pioneer in the development of the airport sector, with an unwavering commitment to innovation that drives it to be a leader in advances and to envision a future marked by superior service quality and cutting-edge technology. Since we find ourselves in a world of continuous change, adaptability and resilience are the keys to success. This foresight lays the foundations for the current direction of the airport business, in which we are already working to offer a benchmark service, increasing capacity while offering passengers a better experience and acting on the impact that this means of transport has on our ecosystem.

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