A Brave New World

April 15, 2021
Technology plays a key role as airports adjust to a post-pandemic world.

Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) leaders have put a priority on addressing air quality inside the terminal as they address safety and security of the public during the pandemic.

But getting an off-the-shelf product wasn’t going to meet their goals, so they’ve worked with Honeywell to develop a system and test in the airport’s xBridge area to ensure they’re protecting the public well after the pandemic subsides.  

“Everyone started to take a look at air quality and the team had to make sure there’s a heightened focus at all levels,” said Russell Hottenfeller, director of facilities and airline services at Pittsburgh International Airport.

Honeywell’s Healthy Buildings systems are designed to address current challenges inside facilities like airport terminals without having to replace existing infrastructure. It provides a holistic view of a building’s health based on factors such as indoor air quality, occupant flow, PPE analytics, thermal screening, body temperature monitoring, social distancing and sanitation efficacy.

“We want the airport to operate efficiently and make the airport safe and know it’s safe while continuing to ensure it’s safe and we want passengers to be confident when they go to the airport that they feel safe,” said Colin Dorsett, global airports business leader for Honeywell. “All of the technology solutions being deployed in Pittsburgh and other airports are all centered on that foundation of efficient and safe operations and increasing the confidence of the passenger community, because that’s what’s going to lead to a recovery.”

Pittsburgh’s xBridge is a 10,000-square-foot innovation area built to nurture the evolution of the aviation industry and inspire creative solutions to challenges. It allows PIT to test equipment to see what a post-pandemic airport can look like before implementing widespread adoption of a technology.

Installation began in July with completion in November. Testing has been successful so far and Hottenfeller said there is discussion on implementing the system on a larger scale throughout the airport. “They’ve kept their current 30-year-old technology and they’re on a refresh cycle to keep it best in class,” John Isherwood, sales leader for the Americas for Honeywell, said. “They don’t let the systems lag behind what’s best in class in today’s current world.”

The system at xBridge measures indoor air quality parameters such as temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds (VOC). A network of 16 IAQ multi-spectrum sensors connected to the Healthy Buildings dashboard provides real-time updates on the airport’s air quality performance to help the facilities staff identify and correct critical building controls issues.

The system follows ASHRAE standards to define the best approach to indoor air quality coupled with data on when to best replace filters. 

“If a filter starts to get clogged, the differential pressure changes and it has an alarm on the building management system that would trigger that for someone to look at the air handler and the filter in particular,” Isherwood said.

Carbon dioxide is a predictor of how many people are in a room. Rising levels indicate the airport needs to move air into the area or check for social distancing, Isherwood said.

The concept looks at condition-based maintenance for air handlers as well. Isherwood said a lot of jet fuel and dust is kicked into the air hander units during normal operations, which means filters need to be replaced more often than they normally have been.

“Instead of changing the filters every quarter, semi-annually or annually based on a maintenance schedule, you’re now changing the filter based on the condition of the filter and when it becomes clogged,” Isherwood said.

Airports deal with different pollutants compared to other commercial facilities due to the continual turnover of people inside the terminal.

There’s ways to use data in the building management system to maintain the building better. The system at PIT looks at the mechanical systems and the automation system. When the algorithm sees something out of parameter, it signifies a work order needs to issued.

“If a valve got stuck open or closed, that would create an environment where a hot or cold call would be placed at an airport to go do,” Isherwood. “This system would pick that up before the problem occurred. It would see the stuck or open valve, you’d dispatch a maintenance person and they’d go take care of it.”

Isherwood said Honeywell is also testing filtration technology like ionization as part of the pilot, which the airport viewed as the best way to address virus concerns.

PIT plans to use Honeywell Forge to conduct condition-based maintenance focused on MERV 13 filters in its air-handling units. By monitoring particulate matter and volatile organic compounds using a dashboard, airport personnel can identify filters that require changing based on need versus a maintenance schedule.

“They’re also looking at LoRaWAN sensor that goes beyond what we discussed,” Isherwood said. “They want to look into sound to measure sound in a particular area as well.”

Hottenfeller said the airport is currently testing ionization to enhance air quality.

“The science keeps leading us back to ionization,” he said. “It hits all the bullet points. It kills living pathogens, the lifecycle costs are low, it’s ozone friendly and it communicates with our system.”

Dorsett said airports needs easily operatable systems that can provide the value they want, so they should consider a holistic approach.

Isherwood said airports should make sure their partners communicate with them throughout the project. The system needs to handle ASHRAE standards and they need to consider how they plan to filter the building.

“ACI has a lot of information out there about airport health accreditation and to me, this is a journey,” Isherwood said. “Air quality is one element. Social distancing is another element. Deep cleaning is another element. All of that combined makes us feel better about going on an airport, getting on a plane, landing at another airport, getting in a car and going on vacation.”

The pandemic is impacting all aspect of travel to and through the airport. Social distancing and touchless technology options are transforming the passenger experience in the terminal and these technologies are here to stay well after COVID-19 becomes a memory.

“From what we can tell and from the interviews with airport executives, the low touch experience is here to stay,” Katya Bulatova, engagement manager, Alton Aviation Consulting said. “It was already being implemented before the pandemic at many airports and there was already a business care for it.”

According to SITA’s 2020 Air Transport IT Insights, airlines are prioritizing a completely touchless check-in process to improve passenger experience and protect travelers. Seventy percent of airlines plan to offer automatic check-in by 2023. About 91 percent of airlines are planning to provide unassisted bag drop within the next two years.

The report states airlines plan to double investment for self-boarding biometric and ID documentation. Almost 60 percent of airlines are focused on investing on biometric self-boarding gates. Airline IT investment will grow by 2023 to adjust for the new normal of travel in a post-pandemic world.

SITA’s report states the majority of airports plan to have self-boarding gates and automated border controls installed by 2023. Airport leaders plan to accelerate digital airport processes, such as increasing services via mobile apps while also investing in data exchanges, cloud services and business intelligence services.

Bulatova said there’s a broad spectrum of measures already being implemented in North American airports. Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is implementing a full technology roadmap by implementing touchless kiosk and camera technology; John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) has rapid testing available and smart cameras to measure if there are too many people in one particular area.

Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) put housekeeping crews in bright colored vests so they stand out to the public.

“I think airports definitely need to work together with the airlines as everyone needs to play their roles in convincing the public that traveling is safe,” Bulatova said. “A lot of people are scared of going to the airport and touching surfaces, so airports need to do their part in making sure it’s safe for travelers inside the airport and airlines need to ensure it’s a safe environment they’re providing during the flight.”

Touchless technology is available across all steps of the airport journey. Bulatova said there’s a big push in self-bag drop implementation and making sure travelers can check in without having to touch a screen at a kiosk. Technology is already available to reduce touch at security queues and lessen crowding.

“Biometrics is probably the largest area where there’s a lot of potential to make an impact,” she said.

A New Normal in Wayfinding Technology

Wayfinding and information boards will continue to evolve as airports find new ways to use digital signage technology in a post-pandemic world.

Rob Meiner, technical sales engineer for Peerless-AV, said the pandemic has brought to light the need for disseminating news and updates quickly, effectively and to the masses. This can be done by incorporating digital signage to share updates surrounding pandemic procedural changes in the airport or even surrounding the various locations for which travelers are in route.

“Anything static in digital signage will most certainly be swapped out to be a more engaging and adaptable form of digital signage,” he said. “Interactivity is still reigning supreme as far as capturing consumer attention, so displays will need to use higher forms of technology, like AI, to meet the level of sophistication that consumers, as well as business owners, are expecting.”

Meiner said touchless digital signage will take off in the near future. Kiosks will be able to scan passengers’ boarding passes or phone applications to guide them in the direction of their gate, send updates on delays or how much time they have left until their flight starts to board, and, in the same vein, offer insight into restaurants and food recommendations near departure locations.

Airports should be looking towards multifunctional digital signage solutions, such as an Occupancy Kiosk. It not only monitors the safe distance of people in an area, but can also display important information about flights status, current temperature conditions, marketing for airport restaurants and more. Investing in technology that has more than one purpose will extend the investment even further than a simple display screen.

“Airports will need to consider that many passengers may not feel comfortable with touchscreens as public health continues to remain priority,” he said. “Finding ways for scanning phones, boarding passes, and utilizing AI for optimized flight experience, whether that be to help with cancelled flights, new boarding times and more.”

A Strong Connection to New Initiatives

Boingo Wireless shifted its priorities when the COVID-19 pandemic began to help airports focus on and ensure the health and safety of passengers and staff. Danielle Aiello, vice president of account management at Boingo, said the future of airport travel will rely on better wireless connectivity solutions to support a touchless, personalized passenger experience.

“A recent passenger satisfaction survey from ACI found that travelers are less concerned with contracting the virus at their actual destination, but they were asked, ‘as of today, where would you be most afraid of contracting COVID-19 during your journey?’ Their biggest concern is the high traffic areas of the airport – so the security checkpoints, the commercial areas and the airplane itself,” Aiello said.

Technology plays a key role in the recovery of the aviation sector to power the contactless passenger experience, Aiello noted. Boingo’s networks support the airport’s new health and wellness measures like contactless entry and concessions to help keep passengers safe.

“A few examples would be at O’Hare, for example. Boingo’s secure wireless network supports the airport’s proprietary biometric system to process touchless passenger boarding,” Aiello said. “At Dallas Love Field, our network is powering kiosks that take temperature of staff before they return to work.”

Boingo also partners with Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX), John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and others. Airports use Boingo’s Wi-Fi connection portal to communicate PSAs reminding passengers of specific health and safety protocols. This technology also directs passengers to the airport’s website where they can find all the information they need during their journey.

Aiello said precheck kiosks at LAX are powered by Boingo’s network. These kiosks – provided by Clear – use biometrics to confirm their identity instead of using traditional ID documents, allowing for a more touchless passenger experience.

“Connectivity has never been more important so implementing the right wireless technology is crucial for future-proofing airports. We’re seeing that future-proofing really means creating a smart airport – one that utilizes technology to streamline operations while also creating a safe, fluid touchless experience for passengers throughout their entire journey,” Aiello said.

A major part of Boingo’s future goals for improving the passenger experience revolve around mobile edge computing, which allows for faster internet speeds.

“We’re always working on new technologies. Mobile edge computing (MEC) enables airports to manage networks with even more control, reliability, security and speed. The hybrid offering combines Boingo’s on-premise infrastructure with cloud technology to enable use cases that demand real-time data processing including video streaming and analytics, security operations, robotics, predictive maintenance and more – so that basically means that our networks run faster.”

Boingo is working to expand its mmWave 5G capabilities to offer passengers faster, more reliable and more secure connectivity. These networks have high-frequency signals that travel in narrow wavelengths to deliver increased capacity and ultra-fast speeds for applications like HD video streaming and gaming, according to Aiello.

“It’s not hard to believe that Wi-Fi is the number one requested amenity among travelers,” Aiello said. “So additionally we continue to build out the next generation of wireless networks at airports around the world. Private networks over CBRS is an exciting opportunity for airports and what’s great about these networks is that they’re custom-designed to deliver improved network efficiency, new data insights, decreased costs, enhanced capacity, improved security and all of that lends to improving the passenger experience.

“Our CBRS footprint continues to expand and for passengers that means faster, more secure and seamless connectivity for their devices and new experiences like personalized wayfinding and smart luggage tracking. These use cases are really just the beginning. Just as 4G sparked new innovations like ride-share services and Netflix for streaming, 5G will lead to new inventions and opportunities.”