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The key challenges for today’s airports and becoming fit for the future

Dr. Ralf Gaffal, Managing Director of Munich Airport International’s (MAI) Business Division, spoke to International Airport Review about the key challenges and questions that airports need to address sooner rather than later, highlighting best practices and using Munich International Airport (MUC) as an example.

The key challenges for today’s airports and becoming fit for the future

The expectations and requirements for modern airports have changed enormously during the 21st century. Airport operators face a variety of challenges, altering markets and changing needs of their customers. To meet these requirements and expectations, new strategies, technologies and investments are required. Airports must find new answers. 

Dr. Ralf Gaffal, Managing Director of Munich Airport International’s (MAI) Business Division, sees the question of how the airport world – which is still rather manual – can be securely automated and digitised as one of the major issues for airports. 

Significant changes in favour of automation and digitalisation have taken place in the last decade of airport operations. Yet, still, there is a long way to go to integrate all available data into one big data lake, illustrate information and interpret those in real-time to add value to day‑to‑day operations. “It is imperative to evaluate how new technologies can benefit airports and how these technologies can be smoothly integrated into airport processes so that a high level of safety, security and passenger experience is guaranteed”, stated Gaffal. 

The use of technologies that enable touchless and contactless processes, in particular, is expected to increase significantly. Prominent examples include, among others, biometric recognition algorithms, self‑service check-in and bag-drops and self‑boarding gates, as well as mobile payments. At the same time, data protection must not be neglected, but should always remain in focus – especially when service providers, authorities, airlines and airport operators share data on a continuous basis during the airport processes to enhance efficiency levels.

Challenges Munich Airport International

Significant changes in favour of automation and digitalisation have taken place in the last decade of airport operations.

Cyber-security is an increasing threat

“In addition to the digitalisation of airport processes, cyber-security has become a fundamental challenge to airports and requires investments into resources, manpower and shared teams”, added Gaffal. Continuous training and development of the entire staff, which includes improving skills and offering awareness programmes to all users, are needed. Second, it will be important to keep all systems and protective mechanisms up to date. To address this, Munich Airport opened an Information Security Hub in 2017, offering opportunities for training and continuing education, while working together with industry partners to put next-generation IT security technologies and processes through their paces.

The expectations and requirements for modern airports have changed enormously during the 21st century. Airport operators face a variety of challenges, altering markets and changing needs of their customers. To meet these requirements and expectations, new strategies, technologies and investments are required. Airports must find new answers.

Dr. Ralf Gaffal, Managing Director of Munich Airport International’s (MAI) Business Division, sees the question of how the airport world – which is still rather manual – can be securely automated and digitised as one of the major issues for airports.

Significant changes in favour of automation and digitalisation have taken place in the last decade of airport operations. Yet, still, there is a long way to go to integrate all available data into one big data lake, illustrate information and interpret those in real-time to add value to day‑to‑day operations. “It is imperative to evaluate how new technologies can benefit airports and how these technologies can be smoothly integrated into airport processes so that a high level of safety, security and passenger experience is guaranteed”, stated Gaffal.

The use of technologies that enable touchless and contactless processes, in particular, is expected to increase significantly. Prominent examples include, among others, biometric recognition algorithms, self‑service check-in and bag-drops and self‑boarding gates, as well as mobile payments. At the same time, data protection must not be neglected, but should always remain in focus – especially when service providers, authorities, airlines and airport operators share data on a continuous basis during the airport processes to enhance efficiency levels.

Challenges Munich Airport International

Significant changes in favour of automation and digitalisation have taken place in the last decade of airport operations.

Cyber-security is an increasing threat

“In addition to the digitalisation of airport processes, cyber-security has become a fundamental challenge to airports and requires investments into resources, manpower and shared teams”, added Gaffal. Continuous training and development of the entire staff, which includes improving skills and offering awareness programmes to all users, are needed. Second, it will be important to keep all systems and protective mechanisms up to date. To address this, Munich Airport opened an Information Security Hub in 2017, offering opportunities for training and continuing education, while working together with industry partners to put next-generation IT security technologies and processes through their paces.

Driving sustainability

Another fundamental question Gaffal claims is how the aviation sector and airports, in particular, can become sustainable and more environmentally friendly. Driven by climate change and the ‘Friday for Future’ initiative, the commitment of the Paris Climate Change Convention forces the aviation industry to act, and airports must achieve the ambitious goal of carbon neutrality. This is the key to ensuring that flying stays a mode of transport of choice for people around the globe and that we can combine globalisation and climate protection successfully.

“At Munich Airport, for example, the declared aim is to reduce 60 per cent of CO2 emissions by 2030 through new technical measures and to compensate the remaining 40 per cent by appropriate offsetting measures, i.e. climate protection projects in the airport region”, explained Gaffal. Now that Munich Airport is one of the first signees of the Airports Council International (ACI) Net Zero Carbon initiative, the climate targets have become even more ambitious: By 2050, at the latest, the airport intends to reduce its CO2 emissions to net zero, in cooperation with around 200 other European airports. 

Climate targets demand increased action from airports. It is most efficient to avoid emissions in the first place – for example, by switching to renewable energies, carbon-neutral facilities and vehicles. “Munich Airport was just recently awarded for a patented climate-neutral drive concept. A passenger bus originally powered by diesel from the airport’s vehicle fleet has been converted to a climate-friendly drive system using liquid biogas (methane) and thus made fit for the future”, cited Gaffal as an example.

In order to further reduce carbon dioxide emissions, there are numerous initiatives for the use of sustainably produced, alternative aviation fuels in air traffic. Biofuels can be produced from plants, fats or waste, for example. Alternative aviation fuels today can even be produced from renewable energies, as well as carbon dioxide and water. This is a promising approach, but alternative aviation fuels must also be produced in sufficient quantities and, above all, offered at competitive prices.

Taking responsibility for the environment needs commitment, a clear agenda and future‑oriented planning.

Attracting a talented workforce

Besides the natural environment, the working environment is also a relevant challenge. Airports are still highly labour-intensive businesses, at least in certain divisions such as baggage handling, security check and terminal services. There are airports where capacity bottlenecks are not caused by a lack of infrastructure, but by a lack of staff. How do you attract the right talent, and how do you improve staff training to ensure continuous operation and stable growth? This is another crucial question that, according to Gaffal, requires an answer.

In today’s highly competitive and transparent labour marketplace, it needs reliable strategies to make the airport an attractive employer. Besides rewarding compensation, this also includes aspects such as company culture, personal development possibilities, job security and a healthy work-life balance. That’s why Munich Airport has set up its own Airport Academy, which is even certified Departure board in Terminal 2 as an educational institution and offers a wide range of training, seminars and continuing education courses – including for employees of outside companies and airports.

Capacity management

Optimising airport infrastructures and capacities to a maximum poses a further challenge for airports. In numerous urban regions, it is currently difficult to expand airports. Either there is no room for growth or there is no political will or support for expansion projects. The challenge there is to find solutions to increase the capacity utilisation of airports: Maximise the throughput of passengers and the usage of aprons in a secure and safe way while ensuring an excellent customer experience. 

One solution can be the introduction of Total Airport Management (TAM). TAM is an enhancement of Airport Collaborative Decision Making (A-CDM). It is a concept that allows airport operators, airlines, ground handling agents, air traffic control and the Network Manager Operations Centre (NMOC, formerly CFMU) an efficient and transparent co‑operation. The target is to increase both the overall efficiency of terminal processes, the turnaround process of aircraft at the airport and the en-route capacity management. “Munich was among the first airports in Europe to introduce A-CDM”, said Gaffal proudly. The airport is also further actively involved in the EU’s SESAR and EUROCONTROL’s pan‑European cutting-edge research programme, which aims to optimise aviation management throughout Europe. So, increasing operational efficiency and productivity, combined with smart airport planning, will allow airport operators to maximise the asset utilisation with smaller airport footprints and lower environmental impacts.

Evolving challenges

Finally, airports need to look into the enhancement of their safety and security concepts. In a fragile and constantly changing world – with terrorist attacks or global epidemics and pandemics – security measures and safety precautions need to be identified, evaluated and adapted more quickly. 

In addition to these fundamental challenges, it remains essential for airports to continuously improve the passenger experience, alongside the customer journey, with stress-free and smooth processes, attractive shopping and dining offers and inviting events and entertainment.

A satisfied and happy passenger is a better buyer and shopper, which will also lead to increased revenues”

Since customer satisfaction and passenger experience are major drivers of an airport’s long‑term economic success, it requires a continuous cycle between foresighted infrastructure development and service quality improvement. “A satisfied and happy passenger is a better buyer and shopper, which will also lead to increased revenues. Nowadays, passengers have a choice between connecting hubs, which means that airports need to stand out positively. It is not enough to offer high-end airport facilities to passengers, it also needs high‑end processes and services”, explained Gaffal.

The world of tomorrow

Further considerations of how we can make airports fit for the future lead directly to the fundamental question: What will the world of tomorrow look like? Climate change, wars, pandemics, economic protectionism, air traffic rights, competition and mistrust in flying are all aspects which might influence future developments and, therefore, need to be carefully observed. 

According to Gaffal, future airport facilities should be designed for greater flexibility and rapid change. Processes change over time due to new systems and changing practices or by replacing hardware components in the terminal with apps or software (e.g. check-in). Gaffal sees seamless travel as a key element of most major airports in the future. Contactless handling processes, easy baggage check-in, automated processes with biometric support result in shorter waiting times and easier and faster access to the boarding gates. It therefore follows that the passenger journey itself will become an increasingly commercial experience. The importance of this trend was even increased through the current pandemic. Airports must be prepared for the next disruptive event to avoid another hard hit and massive traffic decline. Building trusted and standardised processes on a global level is key to ensuring financially sustainable operations. 

Digital solutions

The communication with passengers and B2B partners will be more direct and customised in the future. First, apps are in use, such as the Passngr or Airport Community App, which offer services along the passenger journey individualised for each customer group or generation, tailored to different cultures and available in diverse languages. These apps offer contactless booking services (e.g. train, taxi) and payment solutions (Apple Pay, Alipay). They will be fully rolled out on a large scale and optimised over the coming years. The future will also see increased airside automation, flight schedules based on terminal operations, more predictive maintenance and asset management. Cloud-based services and systems are most likely to replace locally installed software. 5G provides the potential to reduce hardware and software installation and maintenance costs for airport operators and, at the same time, allows remote operations support and airport cluster management out of one location only. 

The more seamless and contactless we make the journey, the more camera-based and biometric surveillance and security measures we will need”

“But we must be clear on one point”, reminded Gaffal. “The more seamless and contactless we make the journey, the more camera-based and biometric surveillance and security measures we will need, and the key question is whether we can achieve this with the latest discussions and regulations on data security and data protection. The more seamlessness we strive for, the more transparent we will have to be as individuals in order to keep the security level as high as possible.”

Europe’s only five-star airport

Gaffal and his team are proud to support airports worldwide to tackle all of these challenges with best practice solutions for the entire airport lifecycle. Munich Airport International (MAI) the global business division of Munich International Airport (MUC), can help to shape state-of-the-art concepts and strategies to make airports fit for the future, ensure efficient and sustainable airport operations and optimise the airport’s commercial growth. Over the past 28 years, MAI has evolved from being the leading airport service provider to a global airport operator. Today, MAI is a trusted partner for smart money and ambitious airports throughout the world. With four subsidiaries and affiliated companies, MAI employs around 85 highly skilled experts globally and has a proven track record of more than 110 successfully delivered projects across more than 40 countries. Customers include: Sofia Airport (SOF), Aeropuerto International El Salvador (SAL), Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR), Toncontín International Airport (TGU), John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), Riyadh International Airport (RUH) and Jeddah International Airport (JED). “When planning, remodelling and opening new infrastructure, our clients constantly have the overall customer experience in mind”, said Gaffal. “As Europe’s only five-star airport, we support our clients in developing and optimising their airport facilities and services to reach the highest level of service quality. We believe that putting the customers first is key for a successful airport of the future.”

Dr. Ralf Gaffal has over 16 years of professional management experience in the airport and aviation business and holds a PHD in aeronautics. He started his career at Munich Airport back in 2004 as project manager. In 2008, Dr. Gaffal joined the 3rd runway planning team and led several work packages within this major project. In 2010, he was nominated to lead a newly created department for international business development at Munich Airport. Between 2010 and 2017, he expanded the footprint of Munich Airport globally, entered new markets, diversified the service portfolio and hired an experienced team of international consultants and experts. This thriving department was outsourced in a wholly owned subsidiary called Munich Airport International (MAI) in 2017, and Dr. Gaffal was appointed as Managing Director.

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