Changi may be the example to follow, but there are different models for different airports

Sarah Samuel

Head of Airport IT, APAC, Amadeus

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With its high productivity and extraordinary service, “fast and seamless travel” is the proposition boasted by Singapore’s Changi Airport, which impressively, has been named the World’s Best Airport in the Skytrax Awards for seven consecutive years.

One of the largest transformation hubs in Southeast Asia, connected with more than 380 weekly services, Changi is regarded by many as the blueprint to follow when evolving airport technology and enhancing airport environments. And it’s easy to see why, with its rooftop swimming pool, butterfly garden and free, round-the-clock cinema.

Every time I travel through Changi’s Terminal 4 (T4), what strikes me – aside from the stunning structure – is how its investment in innovation is transforming its operations and redefining passengers’ travel experience for the future. In an airport this size that’s definitely a good thing. With the aid of self-service baggage drops, self-service kiosks and advanced facial recognition technology, customers are saving time by casually conquering queues at check-in, bag drop, immigration and boarding, thanks to automated self-service systems. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence is enabling more accurate predicted flight arrival times, enhancing passenger flows and rewarding them peace of mind. 

These are just some of the ways in which new technological solutions are being deployed to build the airport of the future, bringing benefits that improve operational efficiency whilst enhancing the passenger experience. Data analytics and IoT solutions are unlocking similar value with their potential to enable a more accurate and real time perspective of airport operations. For example, Changi Airport has trialled autonomous cleaning robots as well as smart waste bins. With IoT technology, these bins indicated when they were nearly full, benefiting the passenger and relieving operational staff of the need to continually check bins. 

Seeing all this cutting-edge technology in action it’s almost impossible not to envisage a future, perhaps in the next few years from now, in which passports and boarding passes are redundant at airports and – thanks to biometric technology – all a passenger needs to make their trip is their face and fingerprints. 


No one-size-fits-all

Although Changi is coveted around the world for its automation, efficiency and award-winning customer service, it would be a mistake to expect all airports to adopt the Changi technology model. Why? Chiefly, because no airport is the same. 

Unsurprisingly, airports’ needs depend, to a large extent, on unique passenger demands. It’s therefore reasonable to infer that airports’ ‘digital appetites’, now and in the future, will differ in accordance with operational scales.


The barriers to digital evolvement  

To understand more about how digital technology can not only provide cost-savings for airports but also transform their operations, Amadeus commissioned Arthur D. Little (ADL). The subsequent report, Airport Digital Transformation: from operational performance to strategic opportunity, identified various cultural and organisational barriers which are preventing airports from embracing new technologies that could prove transformative for their business, including a failure to recognise or measure the true ROI of new technology. 

Another factor is check-in facilities: they need to cater to a wide variety of airlines, meaning it is sometimes easier for airports to provide lowest common denominator solutions. 

And then, of course, there’s the human factor: transplanting digital concepts into people’s day-to-day roles can be challenging, especially if airports’ employees aren’t familiar or comfortable with digital ways of working.  

Encouragingly, however, the report also found that a major driver of digital transformation was enhanced passenger processing, including flow monitoring, improved operational performance, and closer relationships with stakeholders and partners. 

Whilst variances in the level of technology adopted by airports are to be expected, what most airports do have in common is a shared reality of ever-increasing passenger demand and tough competition, coupled with the pressures of constrained infrastructure and finances. And it’s this dilemma that should make all airports receptive to the role of technology in aiding costly problems that have a direct impact on their reputation and brand, such as missing baggage and severe delays. 


Roadmaps for technology evolution

The opportunity that digital technologies can bring to airports on an operational level has already been made clear. Broadly speaking, collaborative smart machines can enhance the passenger journey and enable more efficient use of airport labour. Biometrics can reduce waiting times for passengers and enhance the efficiency of security and passenger processing. Advanced big data analytics, such as virtual modelling, can enable airports to better predict passenger flows and allocate their human resources accordingly. And cloud technology removes the need for costly hardware and its maintenance.

It’s true (and not surprising) that airports are at different stages on the journey towards adopting new technologies. What is essential, however, is that, regardless of size, all airports have a roadmap for their technology evolution. 


Some practical advice

There are certain practical considerations that airports at different stages of development can adopt when planning their technical strategy. 

Firstly, clarity and leadership is imperative. With limited resources, all airports must overcome organizational siloes and work to a very clear view of who benefits most from the digital strategy. 

Secondly, by investing in the necessary capabilities and collaborative partnerships with technology providers, airports can stay ahead of the game, accelerating their learning about new solutions in a way that’s sustainable, thus helping them to better manage any implementation risks and costs. 

It’s also vital for airports to challenge ‘non-digital’ mind-sets and, finally, to plan now to meet the digital requirements of tomorrow. This means articulating to airport employees how digital technologies can bring value to their daily roles, equipping them with the skills and capabilities to make the transformation a success. 


Undoubtedly, Changi remains a powerful poster child for airport modernity. Its digital strategy may indeed have opened a window on the future, but perhaps the most valuable lesson it can teach us is that, airports, whatever their size, should ensure they have a plan in place for digitization that reflects their specific market and business needs. This is essential if airports are to realise the full benefits digital technology can bring to the wider travel ecosystem in terms of customer experience, airline relations, cost and ultimately revenue.

That in itself is an important conclusion, for it tells us that digital is – and should be – an intrinsic part of an airport’s brand.