Virgin Australia plane landing at Brisbane Airport. Picture: Liam Kidston
Virgin Australia plane landing at Brisbane Airport. Picture: Liam Kidston

Future for airports is ready for take-off

ANYONE attending an airport industry conference who doesn't hear the phrase "kerb to the gate" within the first 5 minutes should check they're in the right place.

The phrase flies off the lips of just about everyone from airport operators and managers to technology experts because it sums up what the industry is about: getting passengers and their luggage on and off planes.

In Brisbane this week, about 800 airport and aviation industry leaders have been exploring the latest trends and hi-tech advances they hope will make the trip from kerb to the gate faster, smoother and more comfortable.

The holy grail for airport operators and a growing mass of post-digital passengers (those who prefer to interact with technology rather than humans) is to make the process self-service, free from queues and humans.

To achieve this, the industry is turning to technology that sounds like it came from a 1980s sci-fi movie - holograms, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, facial recognition biometrics and humanoid robots.

Keynote speaker Catherine Mayer, vice president of Sita, a global air transport communication and information technology specialist, said technology was rapidly changing the face of airport operations, making it vital for executives to create robust digital transformation strategies.

"This is not optional because, as we know, digital technologies are in every part of our lives and our industry," she said. Mayer said Australian airports had a global reputation for being early adopters of emerging technology.

"It's been great to see that all of your large airports have embraced technology in terms of operational databases and common check-in, and the different trials with biometric identification and passenger flow monitoring, that's really exciting."

Mayer said AI was a key technology that operators were investing in to better predict the flow of planes and passengers through their airports.

"What airports are trying to do is have a much better view, and optimise their own resources by trying to predict when flights are going to arrive and leave," she said. "It's by using any number of different sources of information - it could be weather systems or from Air Services Australia, the airlines, the originating airport or maybe information about what's happening on local roadways - to try to predict what is actually going to happen so they can better schedule the utilisation of things like their gates and parking stands."

She said "humanoid robots" were also becoming popular as "post-digital travellers" instinctively sought out technology to answer their questions.

"There must be some 60 to 70 airports using them or trialling them because these robots can, first of all, detect language and respond in that language, and they can access information via the Cloud so they can reach out and get the answers."

Queensland Airports chief financial officer Amelia Evans said the company, which owns the Gold Coast and Townsville airports, had made managing technology and data a key priority over the past 12 months.

"Three of the main stress points for an airport are check-in, security and the gate, so a lot of the work we've been doing is understanding how what we do in that technology space can impact a customer's journey," she said.

Evans said the Gold Coast Airport had successfully introduced a new airport operations system that provided operators real-time data.

"That helps us really understand the resource application for our people, the flight planning and the flight management, and also the information that we get in terms of flight delays. So when there's a disruption, we can really make a difference to what the customer feels and understands at the airport, and therefore, what they know they've got to do next," she said.

She said the Gold Coast Airport wanted to position itself as the "airport of the future" and executives had recently brainstormed about 150 ideas and initiatives that included concepts such as holograms, virtual reality, robotics and video analytics.

She said advances in video technology would help operators understand passenger behaviour.

"Facial recognition might be one part of that but what the passenger is doing makes a real difference to the decisions we can make to improve their experiences."

But digital futurist and former Telstra chief scientist Hugh Bradlow cautioned airport operators against some of the "hype" around emerging technologies. "Fifty four per cent of airports are experimenting with AI, but there are real problems with AI," Bradlow said. "The first is scalability. Facial recognition doesn't scale very well and you have to train the algorithms with data."

He also said increased use of technology and big data would create cybersecurity and privacy problems.

North Queensland Airports CEO Norris Carter said operators at Cairns Airport were continually looking at ways to use technology to streamline the journey from the kerb to the gate.

"But you've got to think about it end to end, otherwise you just move the line somewhere else so you want to make sure you don't get rid of the line at check-in only to make twice as big a line at security."