For passengers, airports are waypoints on a journey to somewhere else. But for the people who work at them, airports are communities – small cities in their own right. Where I work, the airport authority is just one of more than 400 employers. Our airlines, subcontractors, government agencies and commercial partners provide more than 95 percent of the jobs at Toronto Pearson. It’s one of Canada’s largest employment zones.
Of course, we had a much more vibrant community before COVID-19. Aviation employers are still working to rebuild the workforces they lost three years ago, a task made more difficult by labor shortages, pandemic retirements and demographic trends. As global air traffic approaches its pre-pandemic volume, talent may be the most critical of all the challenges facing our industry partners.
This is where airports have an opportunity to reimagine the approach: through innovation.
Traditionally, airports have not been thought of as aviation’s service providers. But the infrastructure we build plays a key service role – it enables journeys, creates connections and sets the stage for the airlines, retailers and government agencies that operate in our terminals. While our partners staff up and train, airports can help by harnessing a host of new technologies that are designed to create more seamless processes and improve the passenger experience.
Not everyone is happy to see AI making inroads at the airport. While computers are ubiquitous in airline cockpits, the idea of robot pilots still makes many passengers queasy. Others are suspicious of facial recognition at check-in and security – Air Canada recently faced backlash on social media simply for introducing a biometric option at boarding – available only to traveller’s who choose to use it. But this, too, is increasingly in use, including at U.S. airports. To be sure, safety and personal privacy are issues that need to be rigorously addressed. But as long as they continue to be dealt with smartly and sensitively, public opinion will continue to evolve.
AI also has many applications where the benefit dramatically outweighs such concerns. For example, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration pairs algorithms with X-rays to speed travelers and their carry-on through security. Frankfurt's airport has tested autonomous robots as luggage porters.
The Greater Toronto Airports Authority uses AI for predictive maintenance on our baggage-handling system, allowing us to replace parts before they break down and cause delays. We're also enhancing our security processes by becoming the first airport in the world to use HEXWAVE, a contactless, walkthrough security portal that detects concealed weapons in real time. And along with airports like Seattle, John F. Kennedy International, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International and London Gatwick, we recently partnered with Assaia, an AI company whose software uses cameras and AI to track the physical preparation of aircraft at gates to relay updated data about baggage and departure times to airline operators and passengers.
One of the most visible operational concerns for travelers is baggage. Hardly a day has gone by this year without yet another story of people reuniting with their lost belongings – or not. Baggage handling is a joint responsibility between airport teams, government agencies and airline ground crews, and technology innovation will be a huge factor in fostering more efficient collaboration.
We're seeing several tools tackling this issue on the tech front. Apple's Bluetooth digital tracking helps passengers keep track of their bags while in transit or after arrival at an airline storage facility. Start-ups like Bag Tag work with carriers such as Qatar Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, and Swiss. Bag Tag's technology lets travelers use their airline app to check in, label their bag electronically and drop it off, with the bar code stored on the user's smartphone.
Data is the fuel for all kinds of innovation at the world’s airports, where complex webs of partners work together in close proximity. Shared transparently, data can tell passengers what’s happening, reveal bottlenecks in the system and hold everyone to account, reducing delays, improving performance and creating predictability for passengers.
Some jurisdictions share aviation data better than others. In Europe and the United States, airlines and public agencies are mandated by law to share operational data with airport authorities. The European Union has adopted clear regulatory language that mandates the collection of statistics at airports above a minimum size threshold. And Amsterdam’ Schiphol Airport has used an open system to provide business partners and stakeholders with real-time data for various airport processes since 2019.
There is an opportunity to improve in Canada – airports here recently banded together to ask our federal government to mandate systemic data-sharing and shared service standards across the aviation ecosystem to serve passengers better. In the meantime, Toronto Pearson will be working with Copenhagen Optimization, a Danish software company, to introduce a platform called Better Airport. Together with new work processes such as Total Airport Management, the goal is to create an integrated airport-wide system that supports more sharing and collaboration plus faster check-in, baggage, security and border processes in collaboration with airlines and government agencies.
Why innovation matters
AI, digital baggage, shared data – your airport may not properly be responsible for most of the service you receive while traveling by air, but it can take a leadership role by bringing partners together so that the more digital aviation becomes, the smoother passenger experience can be.
This is more important than ever at a time when talent comes at a premium. As the industry staffs up and trains the next generation of flight attendants, baggage handlers, security screeners and border agents, it’s about making travel more enjoyable for all – the people who fly with us and the workers who are so central to the experience.