In February 2023, the Federal Aviation Administration announced that it was awarding nearly $1 billion from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to airports across the country. This comes at a critical time for many airports as air travel demand surges.
Rising Passenger Volumes and Airport Capacity
By the end of the year, passenger volumes in North America are forecasted to reach 2.0 billion 99.8% of the 2019 level. And growth is predicted to continue, with the ACI predicting more than 150% growth in air traffic – both passenger and cargo – by 2040.
That is what makes what has familiarly become known as the Biden Infrastructure Bill such a lifeline to many airports. Many airports need significant investments in their infrastructure and systems to increase the number of airlines and passengers that they can process to meet this newfound demand for air travel.
Looking Beyond Physical Capacity Improvements
However, across the sector, much of the focus has been on the physical infrastructure requirements. And while undoubtedly essential in many instances, such as the $10.8 million that Des Moines International Airport will receive to replace the 1948 terminal that no longer meets the airport's requirements and is currently operating over capacity.
The potential for technology to support the much-needed transformation of airport operations to increase capacity for airlines and maximize the existing physical space available has been overlooked by some. There are two associated risks. The first is that airlines that rely solely on physical infrastructure investments will potentially have to wait years until they can experience these benefits. The second concern is that numerous airports may fail to harness the advantages that technology offers throughout their organization, hindering the enhancement of operational efficiencies and the elevation of the passenger experience. This, in turn, may impede revenue growth by limiting their ability to attract more passengers and encourage spending at the airport.
Beyond Physical Improvements: The Role of Technology
The aviation industry has grappled with its dependence on on-site legacy technology - outdated systems that are ill-suited for their intended purpose, demand on-site maintenance, and fail to leverage the benefits of advanced technology innovations facilitated by the cloud, as exemplified by Des Moines International Airport. In addition to the grant received from the Biden Infrastructure Bill earmarked for replacing its current terminal (scheduled for a partial opening in late 2026), the airport is exploring how technology can enhance its overall capacity utilization. Earlier this year, the airport invested in a new cloud-native gate management platform, which leverages AI and machine learning, to improve its allocation of aircraft to gates and stands. The new harnesses multiple data sources to provide accurate and up-to-date flight information, so the airport operations team can plan and manage their gates, hard stands, or apron operation.
This combination of physical and technological investment will ensure that Des Moines International Airport can drive efficiencies and optimize its resources from day one to the benefit of its passengers. In recent years, passenger demand for business and pleasure has increased at the airport, with the airport reporting that in the first eight months of 2023, it handled 2.1 million passengers, up 11% YoY, with aircraft gates now at capacity.
Overcoming Physical Constraints with Technology
The importance of looking at how technology can increase airport capacity in the face of rising air travel demand is also essential to those airports without more physical space to expand into. Norfolk International Airport, for example, needed to increase its capacity in 2022 after introducing two airlines and adding 20 new destinations. However, the airport operates within an ecological sanctuary, which in turn limits its ability to expand the airport’s physical footprint.
Using technology to optimize and automate many of its gate and flight management processes, such as allocating aircraft parking and tracking both the aerial and ground locations of aircraft arriving and departing the airport, allowed it to increase its capacity. And without any negative impact on the delicate ecological sanctuary that surrounds it.
Shared Resources and Common Use Equipment
Not all the investments that will be made with the Biden Infrastructure Bill are physical investments. Take Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport in Anchorage, Alaska, which plans to increase the capacity of its North Terminal by installing common-use equipment and upgrading the baggage handling system.
The potential for common-use equipment for airports is massive, as they allow different airlines to share resources, including check-in desks. For an airport looking to introduce new airlines without the space in the terminal to add new check-in desks, swapping from dedicated check-in desks per airline to common-use equipment enables them to optimize their usage according to the flight schedule.
Furthermore, airports can introduce common-use equipment that enables passengers to self-service for many airport processes, such as check-in, printing bag tags, and making payments for additional luggage costs. Currently more commonly used in Europe, the use of self-service solutions allows airlines to optimize their processes and reduce their costs.
A More Holistic Solution
While the surge in air travel presents a massive opportunity to the American airport sector, for many airports, it does present immediate challenges for meeting this increased demand amid capacity limitations. That is why airport leaders must not lose sight of the vital role that technology plays, alongside physical investments, in helping them overcome these challenges.