How new digital initiatives will completely the change the airport experience

At ACI Asia-Pacific/ World Annual General Assembly, Conference & Exhibition, hosted at Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA), we spoke to CK Ng, Executive Director of Airport Operations, and Steven Yiu, Deputy Director of Service Delivery from HKIA to discover how new digital initiatives will shape the future of airports and improve passenger experience.

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The future of airports is being shaped by new digital initiatives; completely transforming not only the passenger experience, but also the design of airports themselves. An airport that is leading the way in many of these new technologies is Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA).

The main focus for the new technology HKIA is implementing is to improve customer experience, from check-in to boarding. Its goal is for passengers to have a quick and simple journey through the airport.

Single token journey

A primary way to achieve this goal is this through a single token journey. HKIA ultimately aims for a passenger to use their face for the whole journey through the airport. It has already installed the significant equipment for passengers to do the check-in aspect of this and has implemented 100 self-drop bag areas, as well as completing the installation of 44 egates for passport and boarding pass checks.

Right now, passengers still need to check in baggage and continuously show their boarding pass and passport. With new technology it could be possible to integrate a whole journey from the passenger’s home right to the boarding gate. In the future, check-in at home will be possible using facial recognition. This data can be connected directly to the airport and the passenger can go all the way through an airport to the boarding gate.

With regards to immigration, you don’t need the passenger. The data is already there. It’s about what airports are going to do with this data. All airports are talking about the same thing but airports use data in different ways. HKIA is currently collecting biometric data from self check ins using cameras and linked passport readers. In the future, it sees using facial recognition to check in even before passengers reach the airport using apps on their phones.

Ultimately facial recognition is a great tool for the passenger as it ensures a quick yet secure journey through an airport.

The future of baggage

Security implications are always a concern. Currently passengers can check in at home and get their boarding pass but they cannot get a baggage tag. The future is about taking baggage out of the process and for passengers to travel separately from their baggage. The idea for baggage yet again begins with home check in, where passengers can phone a hotline and someone will go to their home to collect the bag for a charge through a logistics provider. The airport can then track the package and inform passengers of the baggage’s status.

The challenges associated with this are both the impacts on terminal design and the security implications. There are many challenges around the introduction of this as airports still have the traditional design for baggage collection systems. If the bags are moved off terminal and passengers are just passing through using their face, is there a need in the future for such a big terminal?

More of the travelling processes will be taken away from airports – passengers will simply be heading to the airport just to board the plane. The whole concept of an airport will soon change and it will be a destination rather than a place where you need to transition from one mode of travel to another.

The effective use of data

Data is of great importance to the future of airports where it is vital to gather, share and collect data for a number of aspects. A great use of data is for risk-based screening and advanced passenger information but for this, collaboration is imperative. In theory airports should be able to differentiate the risk level for all passengers and ensure there is no inconvenience to passengers when ascertaining this information. However, this requires heavy collaboration with enforcement agencies.

new digital technologies hong kong

As an operator, airports can collect information and pass it on but there are privacy implications. However, in principal this data can be passed through sensitively. The perfect solution would be that airports know exactly who is going to get on or come off a flight.

Right now, it is the immigration agency and the airlines that have access to passenger data but it is important that airports can match all of the data together for a streamlined process through airports. HKIA is aiming to do just this with its new data centre (due to be completed in 2020) that will be able to effectively store and use data efficiently.

Transitioning to 5G

5G is imperative to the future of airports, though not for personal communications. It will be necessary for machine-to-machine communication and the development of autonomous vehicles. 5G can be of great use for more control, for example it can be used to stop a vehicle in an emergency.

HKIA is currently focusing on machine-to-machine communication or ‘autonomous chatter’, especially in the use of autonomous vehicles. Autonomous vehicles are an effective way to transfer baggage. The technology is already there, it’s now the application of this technology that needs to be focused on, for example trialling durability and weather impacts on these vehicles.

Autonomous vehicles are not new. Right now the only challenge in terms of the full scale application of autonomous vehicles are the interface and safety aspects. In the controlled environment of, say baggage halls, this isn’t such a problem. The technology needs to be fully tested before application to ensure it is safe, which can be aided through GPS and CCTV.

Robotics in the terminal – interfacing with passengers

Safety is paramount for an airport and so is passenger satisfaction. Robotics within terminals are an exciting new technology that can aid with the latter. They would be able to give directions, deliver purchases made in stores and guide passengers around the airports. Delving further, they can even complete temperature checks within the airport and check for cleanliness.

However, functionality is critical. Some airports may focus on how good robots look but HKIA is investing its time and money into functionality to ensure good passenger experience. It has bought 10 robots to do just this already and it is planning to invest in more in the future.

Flexibility is key

Smart investment of new technology is incredibly important with regards to new digital initiatives. There is a lot of new technology out there so airports need to invest wisely. Technology is moving at an incredibly fast pace and a lot of these new digital initiatives have a huge impact on the day-to-day running of an airport.

To ensure the effective implementation of new digital initiatives, airports need to be flexible. It takes three years to build a new terminal and the technology that was relevant at the beginning of those three years will not be once the terminal is complete. Therefore, even at the design stage there needs to be room to fix specifications. For instance, if an airport implements the wide-spread use of autonomous vehicles, where will they be charged?

Airports have to make sure they can adapt and be continuously updated to take full advantage of exciting new technologies and ultimately ensure passengers have a safe and satisfactory experience. There are some very interesting years ahead.