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Airport sustainability is an imperative
Passenger growth poses many challenges
Globally, airports handle billions of travelers each year. The number is only rising.
Estimates show that the demand for air passenger transport in 2050 could exceed 10 billion. As air traffic grows, airports will have to deal with multiple challenges—increasing capacity amid growing passenger demand, improving operational efficiency and employee productivity, strengthening safety and security measures—to provide superior experiences to passengers and drive revenue.
And as the aviation industry grows, so will its carbon footprint. In 2021, aviation accounted for over 2% of global energy-related carbon emissions. As new terminals, ground transportation infrastructure, and facilities like runways, taxiways, and strips are built, energy demand and emissions from airports will also increase. Airports are estimated to account for only 2-5% of global aviation emissions. However, they act as a key link between various aviation and non-aviation stakeholders. By actively reducing emissions, airports can drive effective sustainability management across the stakeholder ecosystem.
Consequently, many airports globally have incorporated greener elements into their design and operations strategies besides pledging to support environmentally sustainable initiatives. However, to stay ahead of the curve, airports must transform themselves into smart systems that adapt to real-time operational and customer requirements, all the while keeping an eye on the larger goal–sustainability.
Digitalize, get smart
Digitalization is a gamechanger for airports
With digitalization, airports reduce silos among various stakeholders of the airport ecosystem—airlines, airports, passengers, cargo, security agencies, vendors, and others—and create an environment where real-time information is freely exchanged to enable collaborative decision-making and optimized operations.
Digitalization has paved the way for the smart airport concept. Smart airports with connected, automated, and intelligent systems help drive superior passenger experience, enhance capacity, improve operational efficiency, drive revenue generation, ensure regulatory compliance, and enhance value propositions at airports. It relies on extensive digital infrastructure powered by ultra-high-speed networks, cloud, internet of Things (IoT), and AI to connect various stakeholders across the airport ecosystem to enable sustainable performance.
Smart operations enable effective resource use
Connected airports contribute significantly towards a sustainable economy
Smart, connected airports can work with stakeholders across the airport ecosystem and beyond to create a truly sustainable economy. It can help make an impact across the three key pillars of sustainability—planet, people, and prosperity.
Smart airports optimize resource utilization at airports, thus helping the planet. IoT-based energy management systems offer comprehensive data analytics on electricity, water, and HVAC usage, to ensure continuous operation at optimal levels. Energy harvesting that enables self-powered IoT sensors utilizing renewable energy is a crucial technology that can make smart airports sustainable. Optimized traffic routing, including optimized parking space utilization, as well as the elimination of boarding delays using big data and prediction models, can enable airports to maximize on-time performance (OTP), improve operational efficiencies, reduce fuel burn, and thereby lower environmental emissions. By using intelligent sensors for condition monitoring, airports can pick up performance trends and signs of impending failure to enable more targeted maintenance. Optimizing power grid operations can enable airports to efficiently electrify buildings and support-vehicle fleets, thus reducing reliance on fossil fuels.
Smart airports can impact people by enabling safer operations. Holistic airport management systems that work seamlessly together using cloud technology can offer live information to employees, driving agile decisions and workplace safety. A social intranet can help in targeted internal communication and collaboration. Smart use of big data and AI can complement the day-to-day work of humans within airports and power driverless, self-directed machines for support tasks, improving the efficiency and safety of aircraft fueling and many other operational processes. Robots and autonomous technologies can also assist effectively during aircraft incidents.
Smart airports can ensure prosperity through community and ecosystem apps. These apps can provide dynamic business intelligence to all stakeholders and support instant decision-making to ensure efficient passenger flow and airport asset management. Airports can further partner with and encourage taxis and shuttles to use fuel-efficient or alternative-fuel vehicles, as well as engage with towns to improve public transport for airport passengers. They can also work with governments on mobility innovations such as urban air mobility (UAM) and autonomous driving services, in the creation of AR navigation and interactive services for tourists, and partner in the realization of smart cities.
Figure 1: Smart, sustainable airport of the future
Airport ecosystem of the future
Create new opportunities by adopting technology
As technologies for sensors, connectivity, and processing power advance, and AI takes a quantum leap, new solutions will emerge to make airport operations more robust and resilient.
Breakthroughs in technologies like 5G, quantum computing, AI and autonomous systems, and cloud will further strengthen collaboration across the airport ecosystem to generate varied forms of aviation and non-aviation revenue. At the same time, securing smart airports and staying ahead of evolving cyber threats will be a shared responsibility of the whole ecosystem involving airlines, airports, vendors, and others.
The long-term development of smart airports will include the use of more autonomous solutions, further optimizing airport operations and enhancing safety. Activities such as delivering baggage, fueling planes, traffic control, security processes, and immigration will continue to be performed with increasing autonomy. Airports of the future will be smart and sustainable, focusing on real-time operations by connecting all airport stakeholders and customers in one fully integrated, intelligent digital ecosystem.