Managing informational complexity in modern airports

by FM Media
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According to Frost and Sullivan’s BRIAN COTTON, current airport management systems are insufficient and will be unable to support future demands as airports evolve.

Airport managers struggle to balance the challenges of increasing operational efficiency and reducing operational costs, while improving airport capacity and strengthening the security and safety of travellers and cargo. At the same time, airports need to find ways to grow revenue from commercial (non-aeronautical) sources.
But their most pressing challenge is enhancing the quality of the passenger experience. Strong customer focus is a competitive advantage and, because airports are gateways, they have a direct impact on improving the customer experience and indirectly affecting non-aeronautical revenue.
In meeting these challenges, the responsibilities of airport management are expanding. Airports are complex enterprises made up of systems of systems. In addition to aviation operations, there are safety and security systems, energy, physical assets and human resources, real estate and space domains, all of which intersect with the passenger experience.
Managing all of this complexity requires not only understanding what happens in these domains, but also controlling and directing them for continual improvement. All of this depends on effectively dealing with massive amounts of information flowing throughout the airport.
Airports and their data management infrastructures must be designed to handle complexity and support change. Current airport management systems are insufficient to cope with the complexity of today and, without anticipating and initiating change, will be unable to support future demands as airports evolve.

Airports are evolving to play different roles in the wider ecosystem of the communities they serve. Driven by shifting travel and transportation needs, the industry is adapting by developing a spectrum of airport models, each meeting a different combination of needs.
Some travellers wish to experience the airport almost as a destination unto itself, with many options for leisure and entertainment, dining, fitness and shopping. Others want a minimalist experience, moving as quickly as possible through the airport, before and after their flight. Still others may need extra assistance to navigate through an airport. The test for the airport is to deliver the experience that each type of passenger wants, consistently and cost-effectively, despite the inherent complexity in meeting a wide variety of needs. The magnitude of this challenge will increase over time as passenger volumes continue to rise.
We believe that airports will evolve along the lines of three different models. One is the airport city, a fully featured international gateway and destination catering to the needs of both travellers and visitors from the local community. Another is the regional travel and transportation hub, an arm of the local economy focused on moving passengers and freight efficiently. The third is the local, self-service terminal, a streamlined entity where most of a traveller’s airport processes are conducted through self-service, focusing on speeding passengers efficiently from kerb to aircraft with minimal human assistance.
Regardless of the type of facility, airport executives face a common set of management challenges, stemming from the amount, variety and speed of information flowing from the major management domains in any airport (Figure 1). The six domains are linked to management outcomes, which enable the business outcomes central to the airport as an enterprise.

Smarter airports Figure 1

Underlying the management domains and their associated outcomes, efficient data processing is critical to ensuring that managers can understand, predict and direct events, processes and assets to achieve their targeted outcomes. Business intelligence and data analysis tools are the convention in airports, focusing primarily on analysing specific, single domain issues. For instance, most airports today can determine if a flight arrived on time or was delayed and often know why, but most cannot analyse and respond in real time to the root cause; for example, a delayed catering truck or slow fuelling.
For airports to be able to address their challenges and remain agile enough to accommodate evolutions in the industry, they must move beyond using data analysis to simply produce limited reports to using it to produce instant insights across all domains. The strategic importance of digital infrastructure must be elevated to manage informational complexity and produce successful outcomes.

As airports evolve, the amount of information and data generated will increase, driven by increasing numbers of subsystems, people, technology platforms and the interconnections between them, creating massive complexity for airport managers.
Typical airport management systems using information technology (IT) are designed around discrete, single-purpose systems, such as passenger management, which sit within organisational silos. This results in a complicated and inflexible system that is difficult to administer and expensive to maintain and power. Worse still, these systems segregate information that should be shared between domains and cannot easily adapt to changing requirements. Moreover, as volume and complexity increase, they can be overwhelmed, degrading managers’ ability to run the facility.
A better approach is to implement a superordinate system integrating all of the domain subsystems and enabling cooperation between them. Under this approach, aviation operations, security, energy and physical assets would all coordinate during a thunderstorm, for instance, to accommodate sudden changes in air traffic patterns, while ensuring positive passenger experiences. Using current management systems, this level of coordinated activity is difficult and costly, as managers must manually abstract relevant information from multiple sources and then try to combine it.
The integrated management system approach extends managers’ visibility across all domains, increases control and balances between them, and promotes continual improvement holistically (Figure 2). This approach also builds business value by reducing administration costs, improving process efficiencies and generating higher, supervisory level insight.

Smarter airports Figure 2

The digital infrastructure for an integrated airport management framework is based on ingesting, processing and sharing data from the many subsystems throughout the airport domains. This supports a method of smarter airport management through visibility, control and continual improvement capabilities. Two types of data organisation tools that enable an integrated airport management approach are starting to be applied.

1. Holistic management systems
The heart of integrated airport management is a holistic system that unifies an airport’s stand-alone systems. Because many airports have investments in legacy systems, the holistic system can incorporate the stand-alone systems without having to replace them. By obtaining operational data from each separate system and then creating a single view of all the data together, holistic management systems interconnect the separate systems and promote collaboration between domains through shared sources of information.
Holistic management systems can:

  • give security officers the ability to detect a threat, evaluate its implications and direct the appropriate personnel and resources to neutralise it without disrupting airport operations or inconveniencing passengers
  • enable maintenance managers to schedule work during low traffic periods, while retaining the flexibility to rapidly reschedule physical assets and personnel in the event of an unexpected surge of passengers, and
  • allow airport real estate managers to use consumer forecasting to evaluate the impact of a new entertainment centre on energy consumption, security needs and terminal traffic patterns to drive increased passenger spending.

2. Analytic software
Analytic software leverages the holistic management system to turn siloed, inefficient organisations that react into collaborative organisations that anticipate and act. Airport managers can use analytics to produce insight from large amounts of data collated from different domains and then generate specific reports to disperse the resulting insight throughout the organisation, such as:

  • describing the current situation of the airport or any part of it, in detail, with real time indications of changes, giving supervisors complete situational awareness
  • predicting system-wide patterns in passenger and aircraft traffic in various regular and irregular operating scenarios, and developing contingency plans that can be enacted or changed as events unfold, and
  • prescribing ways to manage resources and assets to optimise passenger satisfaction and revenue growth.

The vision of holistic, integrated airport management is compelling because it brings new levels of control in a complex environment. This approach can give managers visibility and improved situational awareness, and new tools are being developed to maintain control, and support continual improvement across management domains. In addition, it can assist to grow revenue, provide an enjoyable experience for passengers, improve efficiency to lower costs and enhance collaboration, and ensure safety and security, with minimal disruption to operations.

Brian Cotton is global vice president of information and communications technologies at Frost and Sullivan. This article is based on a Frost and Sullivan white paper entitled Asia Pacific Strategic Analysis of IT in Airport Operations and Management Market – Revenue Opportunities and Stakeholder Mapping.

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