Innovation and digital transformation strategy for emerging, regional airports
Arturo García-Alonso, Chief Operating Officer at Avports, outlines how crucial digital transformation is to provide a positive, exciting passenger experience and journey across the operator’s smaller, more regional Albany International and Westchester County airports.
In today’s business world, virtually every company out there is dedicating attention and focus to opportunities related to the implementation and integration of digital technologies. This is applicable to enterprises of all sizes, industry sectors and world regions. Now, if we take a closer look at our airport and air transport industries, there are several factors that make digital transformation even more critical. Among all of them, the key success factor to unleash the power of digital technologies for airports of all sizes is understanding the needs of customers and operational stakeholders. Based on that, it is possible to identify and capture the different data sets that passengers and stakeholders generate. As a result, these data repositories can then be mapped, cross-referenced, and shared in a secure way, enabling customers to be in control of their journey and airport community partners to work more efficiently towards the common goal of operational excellence.
In our case, at Avports, the scenario is even more critical, as we currently manage operations in 10 different locations, with several business models and circumstances that are distinct to each other. In this environment, our digital transformation approach is based on simplicity, agility, and flexibility.
In this context, let’s get a closer look at some of our experience and lessons learned implementing digital related technologies and solutions.
Define a digital transformation strategy based on WHY
Digital transformation is a journey, and like every journey, the starting point consists of defining the key aspiration, motivation and vision for the journey. For a company, this journey starts by understanding how the company envisions its future and its value proposition. In our case, our vision at Avports is to be the world reference in future aviation infrastructure development and operations. To deliver that vision, our strategy is to put customers at the centre of our actions every day, with safety, reliability, responsibility, continuity, resiliency, sustainability and convenience.
Unleash the power of the human capital
As a company defines its digital transformation journey, some may believe that the core elements to consider are technical and technological – as if it was all about providing an inventory of applications, cloud computing projects, sensors, data algorithms and semantic models. As counter intuitive as it may be, the core aspects and success factors related to business digitalisation are cultural and have a strong human capital component. Consequently, our approach at Avports considers the input from our team colleagues at all levels. We focus on identifying digital initiatives that can empower our people to be better equipped to deliver our vision, our WHY. At the same time, we approach the opportunity to embrace flexibility and nurture the ability to try new ways of providing value. Our mission is to be in constant learning mode, capturing and understanding both success factors and root causes of potential challenges. We have focused first on initiatives that boost efficient processes and workflows, data capturing and information sharing from employees and business partners, such as Veoci for operational and maintenance tasks, Yardi for financial management, Google for customer experience drill-down surveys, and Tableau for business intelligence, integration and dashboard visualisation.
Understanding security risks and promoting mitigation measures
Our organisation is aligned towards our vision and the team is empowered to deliver it by leveraging digital and data opportunities. This is great news! However, this is not enough. At this precise stage is when both risks and rewards start to grow, almost at an equal pace. Having an early understanding of the risks related to digitalisation – in particular, cybersecurity and information security related risks – and providing tools and frameworks to actively mitigate these risks are imperative activities in the digital transformation journey. For us at Avports, we have identified the information security risks levels and introduced mitigation strategies such as multi‑factor authentication processes and cybersecurity specific training, including an annual company-wide cybersecurity tabletop exercise.
Agility as a tool: learning from proof‑of‑concept trials and feedback
Once the team has embraced the strategy and associated risks, it is time to identify, assess and prioritise potential projects that deliver components of the vision. The key problem at this stage is how to evaluate feasibility and at the same time develop a solid business case only with theoretical assumptions and broad expectations. In many cases, reality can hit hard down the road, when the project implementation plan is ongoing and significant resources have been spent already. To maximise flexibility, the best approach to understand project viability and feasibility is to implement a proof-of-concept (PoC) strategy. This well‑known methodology is based on a simplified solution scope, and a controlled sample of testers or users in a targeted group. A very important aspect of the PoC implementation strategy is to provide an objective way of measuring and documenting potential complexities, cost projections and impact on the defined key objectives of the overall digital transformation strategy. At Avports, we have already embraced the PoC strategy by planning and implementing small scale, targeted and controlled technology-related projects such as the use of autonomous vehicles, drones, robotic applications, passenger real-time feedback solutions and sustainable operations opportunities. These PoC projects can also identify great opportunities for partnerships with providers and business partners. One example was the first trial implementation of Sony’s Aibo robotic dog in an airport environment. Our team was able to test and implement this technological platform as an additional amenity and opportunity for passengers with special needs to interact with a robotic pet, measuring and tracking feedback on emotional response.
Motivate process improvement aligned with technology implementation
One of the best moments for a team to identify opportunities for process improvement is when one of the process steps has been identified as a potential area for technology implementation. At this time, it is best practice to look at the whole process and see if some of the other process steps can also be improved or made more efficient by using the data and tools that are now available for the team. A very good example of this exact point is our team’s experience with the implementation of blockchain technology to track cleaning processes and protocols at Albany International Airport, in cooperation with the AlbanyCounty Airport Authority and GE. Our team in Albany helped with the implementation of the data capturing functionalities via QR codes located throughout the airport. As each cleaning event is finalised, the team member can scan the QR code when a cleaning activity is completed in each area. This information is then made available to customers via app, where everybody can see the frequency and details of the cleaning process. Also, the tool has been very useful for the management to monitor levels of service. Above all benefits, the tool has helped tremendously in identifying opportunities for improvement by means of identifying work efficiencies and areas with a higher perception of service quality, providing a great framework for continued excellence. This is also a great example of collaboration and data transparency, and one of the key success factors for Albany International Airport being recognised as a world leader in airport health and safety innovation.
Bringing it all together
In essence, implementing a successful digital transformation strategy is an ongoing multi‑destination journey with multiple steps and no final concrete destination. As in every journey, there are many ways to reach and complete each stage of the trip, depending on evolving requirements, needs, expectations and budget. We at Avports are embarking with our team in this journey together with our customers, industry partners and communities, making future airport operational excellence a reality everyday with small, incremental steps.