The Digital Airport: Why Airport Operations Will No Longer Be the Same in the Next Decade

By Jean Luc Devisscher
2nd February, 2022

Since the beginning of COVID-19, there is a growing trend that one no longer needs to be in a specific location to be able to work or represent their company. The same is true for all functions that use clearly defined processes. This is the reason why digital towers can easily assume the role of multiple air traffic control (ATC) setups.

In smaller airports, having a dedicated (and expensive) air traffic control tower does not make sense. This is why digital towers have been introduced to assume ownership of the air traffic control function for multiple – at first – smaller airports.

A digital tower strategy also makes sense for the bigger ATC setups as indicated by SAAB’s Niclas Gustavsson on the sixth episode of 'The Aviation Reporter'.

It is important for airports to work with similar processes including an operational approach which uses a platform that gives a unique view on all processes. All stakeholders should have access to this platform. They should be able to update data, make changes, inform other stakeholders and delegate responsibilities. At the end of the day, the location where the operational side of the airport resides does not matter. What counts is that people on the ground have access to all the information they need to have at their disposal, understand the full mode of operations and can inform those who need to be informed to manage all operations smoothly.

There are two elements which are critical towards inspiring a new airport setup. These are:

  • Processes and ownership: Clearly defined processes are the basis for an approach that does not leave room for any confusion. Well-defined ownership of each task (who does what) in different scenarios is key.
  • The right tooling to support operations: Airport operators need to be able to manage and follow up on processes. They need to get the right overview, adapt if things change (late arrivals of planes, fueling, etc.) and understand the impact of what they do on the rest of the airport stakeholders.

Advanced collaborative decision-making (A-CDM) can be the centerpiece for a new era of airport setups. Why is there a need to keep airport operations in the smallest of airports if the same can be done virtually from another location or a different airport?

Efficiency gains are the main reason why airports move to an A-CDM environment, but efficiency gains can go one step further if similar processes exist at similar airports.

Airports are moving to full automation of a lot of the functions (from check-in to boarding). If all stakeholders who need to handle planes - when they arrive and before they depart - know exactly where they need to be at a given time, there could be substantial savings in terms of time and effort.

Turnaround management is never about guessing. We know exactly when a plane leaves its location and when it is due at its destination. We know where a plane will park (based on its size and priority) and can thus make sure that staff arrive on time with the passenger boarding bridge, fueling truck, catering items, etc.

If we control this process and manage it using the right procedures, the operational center need not be located in the same area as the airport. It may even control the same processes for several airports.

The move to automation – even with some form of uncertainty still existing – is a logical move for airport management teams who want to take full control of efficiency improvements and cost control. Where such a system will reside and whether airport operations will be combined with those of the ATC (in a centralized setup) is still open for discussion.

Can air traffic control become a general function where people understand all that there is to understand from en route traffic to parking planes at the apron? This might not be clear at this time. However, does it make sense to keep on working in silos if we can align all processes and the people that understand them?

Is ‘airport generalist’ the new aviation function of the future?

It has never made sense to have many people handling a small part of the business of accommodating planes and getting them back in the air. In terms of technology, a digital tower approach is feasible and beneficial. Even in terms of manpower, we can consolidate the end-to-end process with experts who understand it.

The technological future of aviation will be different than the present. Like everything in life, those (airports) on the cutting edge will be the ones reaping the most benefits. To discuss how EMMA can help build the airport of the future, contact us here.