What is a Smart Airport?

  • Smart cities, smart airports: these are buzzwords that we're hearing more and more. It’s clear that technology is changing how we design and operate airports, and it’s clear that tech is transforming the passenger experience. But the actual benefits for airports and airlines—and for customers—are often much less clear.

    So what is, actually, a smart airport?

    To answer that question, here's the first article in a series about what makes an airport "smart." Today's topic: technology.

  • Smart airports embrace new technologies that deliver
    a clear return on investment—and avoid the ones that don’t

    Going to an aviation conference can be an overwhelming experience. Hundreds of companies offer a dazzling array of devices and software applications that—so they claim—will reduce labor costs, raise profits, and improve the passenger experience. With so many vendors offering high-tech “solutions” for every imaginable task, it’s easy for airports to lose track of the big picture—and of the bottom line.

    Less successful airports risk investing in pricey new gadgets, many of which do not have a proven track record. Smart airports focus on their own priorities, not on helping tech firms meet their sales targets. They’re open to adopting new technologies, but they're not afraid to ask tough questions. Is the high cost of this device/this software really justified, or is there a cheaper, low-tech alternative? Is this talking robot/VR goggle/interactive tablet just a gimmick, or is it a useful amenity that will enhance the customer experience? Is the interface user-friendly, or will it frustrate my passengers and employees? How long will it take for this new technology to deliver a tangible ROI? If we’re talking five or ten years down the road, will it be obsolete by then?

  • Some investments in technology are a no-brainer. At a recent SMART Airports conference in Singapore, Zurich Airport’s Daniel Bircher pointed out that free, unlimited wifi has basically become an industry standard. Passengers expect to get online with a single click. If your airport has spotty wifi, or if internet access requires some kind of weird registration process, it drives down customer satisfaction. It reflects poorly on the airport, and on the country that it serves. This is true anywhere in the world.

  • But when it comes to most new technologies, smart airports evaluate the local context before deciding whether to invest.

    In an advanced economy with high wages and high levels of technical literacy, new technology can make airports easier to navigate and cheaper to operate. Tech investments can be a smart way to reduce your staffing needs. But in developing and middle-income countries—where much of the growth in aviation is taking place—wages are low. There are also plenty of infrequent travelers who are unfamiliar with things like biometrics, self check-in, and app-based procedures. They’ll need a lot of help from ground staff. In that kind of environment, it’s difficult to justify the big capital expenditures that new technologies entail.

  • In advanced economies, on the other hand, experienced travelers welcome the convenience of digitalized procedures. But they’re easily annoyed by buggy apps and dysfunctional e-gates—and aren’t shy about voicing those complaints on social media. To avoid bad publicity, smart airports partner with firms that focus on the customer experience. They introduce user-friendly interfaces that are easily operated by all passengers, not just road warriors and engineers.

    Finally, tech-savvy travelers are increasingly asking pointed questions about how airports and airlines are using their data. To protect themselves against expensive legal actions, smart airports develop a sound data protection policy that clearly outlines how passenger data is captured, stored, and analyzed, and explains how customers can opt out of those processes.

    Embracing new technologies that deliver a clear ROI is an important aspect of what makes an airport "smart." But it isn't the only one. In the coming weeks, we'll be looking at other key features of smart airports. Stay tuned!