Much as it’s always been at the airport, from the lit-cigarette 1950s to the coffee and mobile-obsessed present, there are perhaps only two key drivers for change. The first is to modernize the passenger experience to meet or surpass customer expectations. The second is to achieve faster and more efficient – and, today, sustainable – adaptation of service, exploiting modern technology. To put it differently, to do better things in better ways.
However, to achieve this today, we also have to contend with the explosion of digital technology, and its opportunities, threats, and alarming rate of change. To harness and control digital and stand a chance of delivering tangible outcomes – to say nothing of differentiation or even operational survival – requires a well-considered digital transformation strategy. Many airports have one in place or, at least, have begun experimenting with proof of value projects.
Strategies address challenges, and airports face many of them – decarbonization, expansion, growth in aeronautical and non-aeronautical revenue, passenger satisfaction, operational efficiency, automation and staffing, and battling cyber and terminal security. The digital strategy needs to absorb these challenges and roadmap solutions for them, but also in parallel explore unexpected solutions to previously unforeseen opportunities which only digital technology can realize. In the face of this duality, two interrelated high-priority areas for review for IT and the business arise: innovation and integration.
Why are innovation and integration important to airport digital strategy?
Innovation opportunities are at their broadest in “low-specificity domains” – that is to say environments where market solutions are typically niche or there is a high need for bespoke solutions. Banking, telco, and energy and utilities, for example, might be seen as medium-to-high specificity. Although innovation is important there, core needs can often be met through a wide range of mature, commercial off-the-shelf products.
In the airport terminal environment and many landside and airside operational processes, solutions are often built bespoke for a localized airport use case, or low implementation volume market solutions emerge from organizations with recent productization from just one or two other airports.
Why is integration particularly important to the airport digital strategy? The integration domain grew out of the need for organizations to connect their once purely business silo IT system developments. Historically, the air travel sector is particularly guilty of silos, with IT projects often included in airport terminal physical works as an afterthought.
As the significance of IT to air travel grew, the need for integration intensified. With today’s addition of digital transformation’s cloud hosting concerns, coupled with the need to supply enterprise data to innovation projects, integration becomes an imperative for airports to get right, delivered to modern best practice.
Creating an innovation-led approach
It was once the mantra of the IT department, learned through the repeated failure of technology-led projects to deliver business value, to focus on business requirement first and respond with relevant and recognized IT solutions later. This is still essential, certainly for managing change to operation-critical systems.
But digital transformation has introduced the need for a parallel philosophy faced with digital technology trends: innovation-led exploration, to differentiate. Understanding the benefits that today’s tech trends – AI, analytics, API-first, cloud-first, mobile-first, robotic process automation (RPA), ledgers, IoT – bring to the airport lies often in low-ceremony proofs of value, not calculated business case for waterfall projects.
As large organizations race to find competitive advantage through these trends, an innovation-led approach is needed to complement traditional delivery methodology. Like other organizations, many international airports are seeing value from an innovation function and/or chief innovation role and often the services which catch the attention of the public are those driven from innovation challenge lists.
Key questions when reviewing your approach to innovation:
- Are your highest priority business challenges open to ideas across your staff and supplier base?
- Do you have an innovation function delivering newsworthy outcomes from a regularly refreshed challenge list?
- How straightforwardly can low-ceremony projects be kickstarted to evaluate success outcomes?
- Are your innovation projects unique and differentiating, or simply applying new technology?
Implementing integration initiatives
Digital transformation initiatives are dependent on reliable and performant access to core airport entity data across passenger, flight, and bag. Most large airports and organizations have implemented application integration initiatives over the past decade, enabling systems of record to share their data and functionality in support of airport process. This has largely been for on-premises systems. For the digital era, integration architectures need modernization to meet the high performance, cloud-distributed demands introduced by innovation-led technology.
At the same time, the means by which the IT department governs integration and serves the business also needs to adapt toward a more evangelistic role, promoting sometime delivery directly by the business and their suppliers.
In recognition of the growing ease with which cloud IT services can be enabled without large team IT expertise, business units become less dependent on technical resource purely from IT. Corporate IT standards and best practice remain important to impose through centralized governance, but in the cloud-hosted digital world, IT can no longer expect to directly conceive and deliver all IT deployment.
The cornerstone for digital integration is the much-celebrated application programming interface (API) – a standards-based, high-performance means by which applications can expose their data to other systems, either internal or external to the organization boundary.
APIs enable websites, mobile apps and enterprise systems to get the data they need from each other. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos mandated, on pain of dismissal, the use of APIs and service interfaces for all connectivity within his organization. The digital transformation strategy looks at integration strategy and ways to use APIs, which helps with not only connectivity, but security, legacy modernization and monetization opportunity, where APIs can be sold as services to external use.
Successful integration strategy boosts traditional and innovation-led delivery. Enterprise integration, like IT itself, has moved away from purely on-premises concerns toward hybrid cloud, delivering connectivity between corporate data center and cloud-hosted systems.
A decade ago, the on-premises enterprise service bus (ESB) delivered a service-oriented architecture. Today it’s a hybrid integration platform (HIP) delivering an API-led architecture across cloud and ground. Airports need to process a lot of operational data quickly and accurately. As cloud adoption grows, the need for hybrid integration becomes a priority.
Key questions when reviewing your approach to integration:
- Do you have an integration strategy, covering on-premises, cloud, and third-party system data share, with airline, government, control authority, and destination airport interests incorporated?
- Do your IT principles promote APIs?
- How are you governing integration delivery? Centralized specialist teams, or have you or can you broaden responsibility across the business?
Digital strategy means opening up to a greater level of exploration and uncertainty than may seem comfortable. Innovation means welcoming discovery and accepting possible repeated failure, but with the potential of uncovering differentiating service outcomes. Integration, while always a critical IT concern, becomes ever more important in the digital era due to the need to connect with cloud systems and provide innovation projects with the data they need from passenger, flight, and bag airport and third-party systems of record.
Whether your airport digital transformation strategy is conceptual or mature, adapting to the opportunities of innovation is something you must be prepared for. Recognizing where outcomes can seize competitive advantage and evolving the means by which digital and traditional systems integrate to deliver fast changing, often airport-specific operational processes, is highly recommended to keep under close review.