Three of the world’s leading airports have spent the past three years transforming their digital architecture with the twin goals of improving the customer experience and boosting revenue. While some of the methods they have come up with are unquestionably state-of-the-art – from using biometric technology to create a seamless flow through the airport to building personalised apps integrated with external partners across the travel industry – it’s not the technology that’s proved the most challenging part of these transformations but rather the business models and behaviours behind it.

The digital set-up of an airport is becoming more important to travellers, who are used to being connected in every other aspect of their lives. The travelling experience is no different, so it’s become an absolute must for airports to direct their attention towards developing integrated digital strategies.

“An ‘outside-in’ approach puts addressing customers’ needs at the centre of everything,” explains Steve Lee, chief information officer at Singapore’s Changi Airport Group, which has been working on its digital transformation for more than three years. “Customers shouldn’t be made to go through multiple or different channels to get the services they need, hence the aim to provide services with just ‘one stop’.”

“You can influence the convenience of the passenger by giving him or her the right information at the right time in a personalised way,” agrees Michael Zaddach, senior vice-president of Munich Airport’s IT division.

“On the one hand,” he continues, “it improves the passenger flow in the terminal, and, on the other, it gives you information about the passenger to increase non-aviation revenues.

“Munich’s revenue is split 50-50 between aviation and non-aviation, and it has the latter in its own hands. There are subsidiaries doing all the retail business at Munich Airport. One of the reasons for developing digital strategies is to increase revenue.”

Put digital first

A key facet of the digital experience at both airports, as well as at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, which has also been taking a digital-first approach and aspires to be the best digital airport in the world by 2019, is the app.

While each has its own standout features (the iChangi app, for example, provides suggestions on things to do, depending on the user’s available time at the airport, as well as allowing people to view their rewards points and get reminders when their iShopChangi collections are ready), they all have one important factor in common – they are tailored to each traveller.

“The app is a brilliant way to personalise the experience, because you have a direct channel to the individual passenger,” says Zaddach. “At Munich, it has been set up so you can register, define a profile for yourself and get very specific information concerning your flight and your trip.” He adds that Munich Airport’s app was created together with other airports in the country to extend its reach. “It’s a community app that currently works for Munich, Hamburg and Düsseldorf, and the idea is to increase the number of participating airports,” he explains.

Of course, personalised services can only be implemented if airports know their passengers, which is why one of Changi Airport’s most important projects is its customer discovery insights (CDI) initiative, which was designed to give the team a 360° view of its customers and improve the way it markets to them. “The idea of the project is to make sure that, no matter how a customer has connected with Changi previously, they can be seen in a single profile,” Lee explains.

“The marketing cloud is being revamped to harmonise all the marketing channels across the various divisions of the airport, including the online shop, our rewards programme, the physical sales channel and the app. A common login has also been implemented across all channels.”

Channel hop

Indeed, crucial to the success of any airport’s digital strategy is that passengers can not only access virtual services on a variety of different devices but also through many different channels, including those external to the airport.

“It will shift more and more from individual apps towards the use of personal assistants, like Amazon Alexa and Siri from Apple,” Zaddach believes. “These virtual assistants must be integrated on the back-end side. Munich Airport doesn’t only want to use its own possibilities to reach the passenger but also partner channels.”

The airport can already present its information on the Lufthansa app, and the team is also working with IBM Watson on a pilot project whereby passengers will be able to ask questions of a robot named Pepper. “It’s a combination of giving information to the passenger and having a bit of fun,” Zaddach says.

At Changi Airport, too, which is home to a 9m-tall ‘social tree’ – an eyecatching interactive installation surrounded by eight photo booths, where passengers can upload their photos and videos through a secure login mechanism to be displayed on a giant screen in the centre – fun is an important part of the digital experience. Yet, in the main, according to Lee, technology should not just be implemented for its own sake.

“Changi Airport wants to ensure it provides the things that customers actually want. It doesn’t just buy technology and implement it,” he stresses. “For example, wayfinding kiosks were implemented because they clearly made customers’ journeys less stressful. The airport is not simply being inundated with technology.”

That said, in order to deliver a truly seamless experience, technology touchpoints are needed throughout the entire passenger journey, albeit subtle ones. Schiphol Group’s ‘Happy Flow’ project provides the best example.

Already launched in collaboration with a number of partners – including the governments of Aruba and the Netherlands, and KLM – at Aruba Airport, the system is based around facial recognition technology. When a passenger checks in at a self-service kiosk, a photo is taken of their face. This is then verified against, and linked with, their electronic passport,while all of the usual border control background checks are performed.

Then, at each of the subsequent checkpoints (bag drop, immigration and boarding) instead of having to present their documents, the passenger simply has to stand in front of a camera that automatically recognises their face and allows them to continue their journey. Each process is completed in seconds.

“This is an extremely exciting project and Schiphol is aiming to test the first seamless flow in a departure hall in 2018,” says Albert van Veen, the airport’s chief digital officer. “Biometrics will change the world,” he continues. “Once your identity and face are checked, there is the potential to use it over the entire journey.

“For example, at your arrival airport, at your hotel for check-in and at your company’s headquarters if you go there the next day, and so on. Everywhere you need to identify yourself, biometrics would come into play and airports could play a great role in enabling that.”

Work together

The success of all three airports’ digital projects has certainly not been down to technology alone. Collaboration at every level – between different departments in the airport, and with external partners and various airline industry partners – has been crucial. “The fact that things are digital doesn’t mean the problem will be solved,” Lee emphasises. “It’s through collaboration that we can come up with genuine innovations.”

Changi Airport Group, which operates Changi Airport, for example, has a ‘community of practice’ for all customer technology projects. “All the relevant departments – marketing, commercial, operations and so on – come together to discuss how we should move forward. Many of the things you see today that are the mainstays of our digital strategy, such as the new mobile app, the CDI project and the revamped iShop, were a result of these discussions,” reveals Lee.

“It’s a paradigm shift,” Zaddach agrees. “Completely new services must be designed for the passenger. In the past, these services were defined by the different business units, but now it’s possible to cross-sell between these business units to passengers and the processes necessary to deliver these services across the organisation must be identified. It’s not just an IT job, but one that can only be done together with all the different departments.”

For van Veen, the biggest challenge for airports is to entirely change people’s mindsets. “It’s not a new digital business that we’re starting; it is about a business transformation in a digital world. And digital-first companies must start with people,” he notes. “Traditionally, airports have been asset-focused – that is, if queues appear, new terminals are built – but now people’s minds must be opened to a digital-first approach; instead of building a new asset, look at a digital solution.”

Airports also need to be open to working closely with external partners, according to Lee. “We have to figure out new ways to work with people we’ve never worked with before,” he says. “The technology is important, of course, but the biggest difficulty is the business model transformation. It’s the crux of this whole digital revolution.”

For all three technology directors, the key is to strike the right balance between agility and stability; you need to be flexible enough to be able to bring in the right technologies at the right time, often with the help of external partners, but still have a solid foundation to work from, rooted in stable legacy operations. As Lee concludes, this is no easy task: “‘Big’ is an understatement. ‘Humongous’ is a better word to describe it.”