Automation and innovation will play a key role in enhancing the passenger experience in future

By Patrick Appleton

Most recently in 2019, successive editions of the annual IATA Global Passenger Survey (GPS) have shown that people traveling by air want a quicker, less intrusive and even partially-automated service at the airport. A joint program between the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Airports Council International (ACI) is working to make that request a reality.

From off-airport check-in right through to boarding the plane, the New Experience Travel Technologies (NEXTT) program has all the elements of the air transport industry covered, including cargo. According to its creators, NEXTT is designed “to develop a common vision to enhance the on-ground transport experience, guide industry investments and help governments improve the regulatory framework”.

“Passenger have told us that they are looking to technology to improve their travel experience. That is what we are trying to deliver in cooperation with airports,” says Nick Careen, IATA Senior Vice President, Airport Passenger Cargo & Security.

“NEXTT is an integrated vision for the future of and ongoing aspects of air travel. It was to address that we are quite a siloed industry in terms of operation or location and we wanted to make sure that we best use new technology and alternative processes and in a scalable and interoperable way,” adds Anne Carnall, IATA’s NEXTT Program Manager.

“Therefore, having an industry consensus on what we want to achieve helps us look across different aspects and different technologies and see how they might need to operate in future.”

Initially, NEXTT began life as a project with a technology focus, Carnall says. As the initiative has progressed, that focus has broadened and now looks at business and cultural change as well as how airports and airlines can develop their operations to achieve additional efficiencies and ultimately increase the capacity. Carnall is keen to point out that the NEXTT vision should not be driven by a monopolistic technology framework.

With passenger numbers forecast to double over the next 20 years and service expectations continuing to evolve, new ways need to be found to generate capacity and make better use of infrastructure

- Nina Brooks, NEXTT Development Manager, ACI

“IATA is not mandating that a specific provider is used globally, so it is important that as a vision it is more focused on describing what the outcome is,” she says.

ACI’s NEXTT Development Manager Nina Brooks points out that NEXTT does not have formal governance or working groups, but rather relies on the project structures contributing to and upholding the long-term vision of the initiative.

“In ACI’s Smart Security, we have a management group comprising airports, airlines and governments, who drive development. Smart Security contributes directly to the NEXTT vision,” says Brooks.

Trends such as augmented reality, drones, robotics and automated systems, big data and the Internet of Things (IoT) are revolutionizing air freight facilities, but it is at passenger level where NEXTT is expected to make its greatest impact.

ONE ID is a NEXTT initiative aimed at offering a secure, seamless and efficient journey using a trusted digital identity, implementing biometric recognition technology at various touchpoints, and sharing a single set of passenger identity information among authorized stakeholders in accordance with data privacy rules. Biometric capture is close to becoming a reality, but Carnall warns that issues surrounding privacy and data standards are a bigger concern.

“Global practices and standards are required to support the harmonization and interoperability of frameworks, processes, data models, and data interchange protocols,” she says. “There are many parties involved, including technology providers, airports, and governments.”

Initially designed to run for three years, the NEXTT program does not have a finite end point due to the central mantra of innovation that underpins the initiative.

As digitalization progresses across the globe at a rapid rate, airlines, airports and the wider air transport industry must keep pace if the sector is to thrive.

Connecting airports to city centers is a key tenet of the initiative, guided by the creation of locations for cargo drop-off/pick-up and spaces where commercial passengers can do the same for personal baggage

“We fully expect the vision to keep evolving, and we will keep learning and sharing as we move through the initiative,” says Brooks. “Not all innovations or technologies will be suitable for all operations either, so it’s difficult to define ‘fully implemented’. However, if we consider widescale uptake of a concept as implementation, then we would expect to see this wave of evolution based on current ideas and technologies come to fruition in the next 10-15 years.”

Connecting airports to city centers is a key tenet of the initiative, with the hope that in the near future there will be locations for cargo drop-off/pick-up and spaces where commercial passengers can do the same for personal baggage. Allowing passengers to commence their journey from secure entry gates within a city is also a desire of those invested in the program, to improve upon the passenger experience and offer a greater level of seamless travel.

Airports working together with IATA and ACI on NEXXT technologies include Dubai, (London) Heathrow, (Amsterdam) Schiphol, Bangalore and Shenzhen.

“Big data and new technologies will completely change the way an airport operates in the future,” says Henk Jan Gerzee, Chief Digital Officer, Schiphol Group. “This has an impact on all of us and that is why working and innovating together is essential.”

It is hoped that in time, the benefits will also aid an enhanced air freight industry by driving a safe, secure, profitable and sustainable air cargo supply chain through the development of ONE Order.

“It was really important that we put all aspects of infrastructure side by side and you start to see the parallels,” explains Carnall. “Potential new ways of working in future—should cargo facilities be handling baggage? We are far away from that, but it has triggered questions.”

On the passenger side, biometric identification is aimed at achieving a fully interoperable and coordinated system between airports, airlines and governments using validated passenger information. Another advantage of NEXTT includes pre-travel disruption notifications to help passengers manage their journeys if affected by delays, in turn relaxing pressures on an airport that could otherwise become overcrowded.

“With passenger numbers forecast to double over the next 20 years and service expectations continuing to rise and evolve, new ways need to be found to generate capacity and make better use of facilities and infrastructure,” says Brooks.

“We need to deal both with ageing populations and millennial expectations, as well as a more mobile global population. We need to consider trends such as Smart Cities, multi-modal transportation connections and energy efficient solutions. NEXTT will help to make the most of the technologies that provide opportunities to innovate to address these challenges.”

An overriding theme is the need for collaboration. “Industry can’t achieve this alone,” Careen warns. “Government support is essential to create the correct regulatory environment so the industry can fully transform.”

Carnall adds that it’s clear to see that as an industry, “we are all trying to achieve the same thing”. Returning to an earlier point, Carnall explains that the technologies and processes within the program can be adapted and applied at different points within the industry, with minor tweaks to serve that particular domain.

“You can start to see where one solution that has been developed initially for passengers can be very swiftly applied in cargo or as you see with elements of aircraft turnaround—how data usage or changes in processes will affect a wider array of stakeholders than those implementing or trialling a new proof of concept or way of working,” she says.

For airports and airlines, the aircraft journey is also an area where NEXTT can revolutionize the travel experience for operators. Airport collaborative decision making (A-CDM) and information exchange platforms allow for an integrated approach toward harnessing the power of operational data. With contribution from multiple sources, stakeholders are able to work from a single Airport Operations Plan, incorporating both arrival and departures flows.

This approach also has a sustainability element to it, with enhanced taxiing systems (electric landing gear drives or remotely controlled tugs) avoiding jet fuel burn, noise and pollution whilst the aircraft moves on the ground.

Working together is vital and in that respect, IATA, the ACI, and a number of airports and carriers have recognized the importance of NEXTT and taking aviation into the future. Now, they hope others will follow, at all levels of the industry value chain.

Case study… Fast Travel in China

NEXTT initiatives are plentiful and they continue to develop day-by-day, but Carnall warns that it is a “slow road” to digitalization. A positive example is a Fast Travel initiative piloted in China in early 2019, where there is a strong demand for self-service processing among international passengers.

Working with China’s Civil Aviation Administration, IATA Beijing trialed the process with Shanghai Pudong Airport (PVG) and Cathay Pacific Airways (CX) Pudong Station.

With a QR Code EBP (mobile, personal ID or biometrics in the future) obtained from off-site check-in, Cathay Pacific passengers were able to complete the border control, security check and boarding procedures at the Pudong T2 terminal in just 10 minutes, saving up to a third of the processing time. For business travelers without checked baggage or operating on a time sensitive schedule, this was even quicker.

Picture Credit | Getty Images