Growth – A Case for Change

Chris Norton

It seems that everywhere we go, at every conference, and in every meeting with an airport, we talk about unprecedented growth. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) released a report earlier this year showing that global passenger traffic rose 7.6% in 2017. Both SITA and IATA have published reports predicting that global passenger travel will double within the next 20 years. 

Chris Norton  

Chris Norton is chief executive officer and an owner of VTC, a company that specializes in designing baggage handling and checked baggage inspection systems. She also serves as board chair of the International Association of Baggage System Companies. 

Although a lot of that growth is elsewhere, the United States is the second largest individual market. Passenger traffic in Florida increased 10% this year and is expected to keep on growing. As the number of passengers and their baggage doubles, how can airports keep up? We already have infrastructure and funding challenges. If we simply build larger terminals with longer concourses, walking distances will increase and the passenger experience will suffer. At some point, building bigger won’t work; we also need to build smarter.

Infrastructure also takes time…five to seven years. Many airports are expanding currently or plan to in the near future. Will it be enough? Maybe… if we couple current expansion plans with technology advancements, off-site processing and slightly slower traffic growth due to rising oil prices. 

Other aviation groups seeing the growth forecasts are working toward building consensus around an industry vision for the future. Their vision includes increased focus on effective data use, automation, machine learning and some yet-to-be-determined level of off-site processing. They see the passenger journey becoming more customized and personal to the point that a number of airport processes we take for granted today will become exceptions in the future. We have already seen this to some degree as an increasing number of passengers bypass the ticket counter for on-line check-in and self-tagging kiosks. Many within the industry predict that the travel experience will change even more radically and extend way beyond the terminal. I urge everyone to visit nextt.iata.org for a fuller picture of this vision.

TSA is currently focusing on checkpoint improvements because passenger growth has exposed the twin constraints of infrastructure and current screening technologies. What do many passengers see? Long lines and wait times. Are they shy about registering complaints? No. Checked bags don’t complain…yet. Will that change when a bag can “tell” you and the airline where it is and that it has been waiting past a given threshold of time for security screening? Is that crazy? Given our technological future…probably not. 

Creating strategic plans for growth and delivering appropriately sized airport infrastructure is a big challenge. Not only are there unplanned vagaries in the market, airlines often treat their forecasts and future plans as closely guarded secrets to maintain a competitive advantage. How do we as an industry develop more transparency, or at least a common language, that will allow us to trust each other enough to plan for the future together?  

If growth is a case for change, what needs to change? In the short-term, many aviation companies are exploring how to leverage technology and/or new processes to make better use of current infrastructure. Digitization is a large part of that. We also need to understand how off-site processing is going to change airports.

In addition, we need to embrace technology and champion development and experimentation. In order to better utilize technology, stakeholders need to be willing to share data and information with each other. When we find ways to cooperate as well as compete, the industry as a whole will benefit. As part of that process, we need to work with our federal partners to ensure that over-regulation does not stymie technology innovation or further hinder the time-to-market through arduous procurement and certification processes. In our tiny corner of the industry, we are seeing a change in baggage handling because we are finally at a tipping point in the United States where alternative technologies seem more beneficial than frightening. 

Finally, we need to work together as an industry toward a shared vision for the future. To do that, we need a better consensus regarding long-term demand, what we are building toward, and when that will come. 




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