Feature Story

Airport CxOs Creating a Non-Stop Passenger Experience

At major airports, digital technologies cut turbulence for airlines, retailers, and especially, travelers.

Picture a major airport. Tens of millions of passengers race through each year, expecting the most efficient and seamless experience.

But they are just one element of a highly-complex and intricate airport ecosystem (albeit a very important one).

Everything from security checkpoints and terminal gates to baggage conveyers and digital signs must run at peak efficiency. Then there are the numerous restaurants and kiosks selling all types of goods. And that’s just inside the terminal. All kinds of vehicles bring customers to and from the airport—or search for parking spots.

Not to mention those 200-ton jets—dozens of them, taking off and landing every hour. So, safety and security are a life-and-death matter.

It’s a scene that demands digital transformation.

“When you think about the total assets that are here at the airport, we have equipment everywhere,” said Lynette DuJohn, chief digital officer of Vancouver International Airport (YVR) There’s a lot of opportunity to leverage technology to manage those assets, so that they are running efficiently—and so that passengers, planes, and bags move through the airport as quickly as possible,” she added.

Since technology is also moving at a rapid pace, DuJohn needs to make sure she is staying ahead of technology while implementing new ideas and always innovating.

DuJohn is not alone. Frederick McDowell, the chief technology officer for the Houston Airport System (HAS) can relate.

“The challenge with IT is that we absolutely have to keep the lights on,” said McDowell. “But at the same time, we have to be on the leading edge of technology in trying to shape that passenger experience.”

McDowell echoed that. It’s all about the customer, he said: “You have to connect technology with people, and it has to be the right technology at the right time.”

Creating a rich passenger experience means leveraging data in creative new ways. But with torrents of ones and zeros streaming in from vast numbers of people, devices, and things, that is no simple task.

“Our biggest challenge right now,” McDowell stressed, “has been to give insight, to make sense of the data that we have, so our security staff, our executives, and our passengers get the right information at the right time.”

That includes using Wi-Fi, beacons, video, advanced analytics, Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, and other technologies to gain a precise picture of what passengers, workers, baggage, planes, vehicles, and other assets are up to at any given moment—and beyond that, to anticipate where they will be, moving forward.

“Taking all of those data points and pulling them together is where the gold is,” DuJohn said.

But the resulting insights and innovations must be aligned with business outcomes. “In every part of what we do,” DuJohn said, “we are trying to leverage business analytics and intelligence to drive the business forward.”

A Network Core that Soars

Both leaders know that an updated, modern, and agile network is the foundation for innovation, security, and growth.

“Getting the infrastructure right is not a sexy project from a passenger or executive standpoint,” McDowell said. “But we have to continue to revisit and ensure we have a solid infrastructure and continue as always to strengthen our core.”

Without a strong, modern network, these successful IT executives would not be able to create the robust customer experience and exciting new innovations. But unfortunately, things like the network go unnoticed, until it’s too late.

“It’s not important until it’s important,” he said. “You know, the radio systems, the phone systems, the network, those core technology platforms where I think people just expect those systems to work, and they should. But it’s almost like the A/C in your office. You don’t pay attention to it until it’s not working.”

A modernized network is also critical to meeting another of the biggest airport challenges today: cybersecurity.

“Safety and security is the number one priority at YVR,” DuJohn said. “We take a multilayered approach to all of our systems and all our access points. We are constantly vigilant about how we monitor those systems, and are always ready for any possibility from a cybersecurity point of view.”

Since cyberattacks are a when, not an if, constant visibility into the network is essential.

“There are tons of things that we’re doing to ensure that our network is rock solid,” McDowell stressed. “We know you can’t always prevent 100 percent, but we can definitely ensure that we have alarms set. We’re running periodic scans, and we have deployed a number of tools to help us use that insight of our environment.”

It’s no secret that “just” keeping the lights on is a massive challenge in a major airport.

But DuJohn and McDowell are transformative technology leaders. And both keep their eyes on the horizon for new technologies that may impact their customers in the near, or far, future.

“We have three main pillars,” McDowell explained. “That’s to strengthen our core, secure our environment, and then be forward compatible. We will explore the feasibility of artificial intelligence, augmented reality, biometrics, those type of forward-thinking technologies that would help us with passenger flow, with our operations.”

DuJohn, too, is excited about Vancouver Airport’s trajectory.

“We’ve worked with a futurist and had some fun with how virtual reality and augmented reality and robotics could be used in the context of an airport,” she said. “Nobody can predict the future, but we are certainly aware of where these trends are going.”