The smart, experiential airport of the future

A new model for airports has emerged. Some of the world’s most cutting-edge aviation gateways are rethinking the customer experience by transforming their spaces into attractions in their own right and incorporating digital solutions that extend passenger engagement beyond the confines of arrival and departure halls.

As functional aviation hubs evolve into destinations for today’s high-tempo and experience-driven travellers, lines are blurring between airport and destination, physical and digital customer experience, and the different stages of air travel.

The Rain Vortex is a centrepiece at Singapore’s newly opened Jewel Changi Airport

To adapt to new needs of today’s travellers, airports are increasingly incorporating entertainment features, immersive retail experiences, as well as design or product elements that evoke a sense of place.

The concept of airports as experience hubs was brought to fruition, arguably in its most complete form to-date, when Jewel Changi Airport was launched this year as a massive lifestyle destination with multi-dimensional offerings (see sidebar).

In Hong Kong, the SkyCity megaproject is underway, scheduled to be completed in phases between 2023 and 2027. Connected to Hong Kong International Airport, the landmark will boast 35ha of floor area, comprising 19.5ha for dining and retail outlets and 5.3ha each for experience-based entertainment facilities and office space.

New World Development was awarded the tender for the project, which it hopes would serve as a commercial-retail-entertainment hub for locals and visitors from the Greater Bay Area and abroad. The project is expected to introduce an array of international “technovation” brands to the city and region, including Hong Kong’s first indoor and outdoor go-kart track, AR and VR interactive game facilities and an “experiential zone” for kids.

With Airport Authority Hong Kong’s acquisition of AsiaWorld-Expo (AWE), located within a multi-modal transport hub and fully integrated with the city’s airport, opportunities for larger-scale events such as sporting events, concerts and exhibitions could also open up within the airport’s vicinity and make the airport “a destination in itself”, said Fred Lam, CEO, Airport Authority Hong Kong (AAHK).

He added: “The concept (of SkyCity) goes far beyond the traditional notion of a shopping mall and will provides a full range of retail, dining and entertainment facilities plus offices and hotels. Right next to it is AWE which offers a wide range of facilities for conventions, exhibitions, entertainment and sporting events.

At Sydney Airport, manager for service strategy and customer experience, Claire Donnellan, also shared that a lifestyle precinct opened in Terminal 2 recently, encompassing new F&B concepts as well as fresh experience for passengers.

Airports are also aspiring to reflect a sense of place. Donnellan said: “Years ago a standard bathroom was considered fine, then travellers started expecting more (motion-activated) functions – and now, people actually want a sense of place and experience even when they go to the bathroom.”

The need to serve as more than just embarkation and disembarkation points is perhaps most pronounced in transit hubs.

Abu Dhabi International Airport’s head of airport service quality, Muna Al-Ghanim, said: “Customer experience has changed dramatically. Passengers used to travel day-to-day and thought of it as transport from point A to B. Over time, it has evolved into a total experience. Nowadays, they don’t just pass through airports, but go and look at airport websites, roam social media platforms and even download the airport apps to know what the offerings are in terms of service and facilities.”

For Plaza Premium Group, brand director, Mei Mei Song, the growing transit volume has placed increasing importance on rest-stop amenities, beyond simply F&B and retail experiences.

Meanwhile, the digital era has ushered in new demands for information at travellers’ fingertips across different stages of the air travel journey.

Song said: “Now with technology advancement through Amazon, Uber, or WeChat, people are accustomed to a level of convenience that was unheard of even two years ago.”

Indeed, the airport experience today spans pre- to post-arrival. Carlos Criado, business development director at Corporacion Quiport, which manages a brand-new airport outside Ecuador’s capital city, believes that customer experience starts from as early as beginning of trip planning.

Now, the task ahead of those in the game of improving customer experience for travellers is to be able to provide real-time, up-to-date information to travellers. Social media has bred an expectation for fast and easy access to information, making it “vital” that travellers get timely flight updates even before arriving at the airport, Criado stressed.

Similarly, AAHK, general manager, Terminal 1, Chapman Fong, remarked that the social media and greater computation power of smart have drastically changed the customer expectations. “Big giants in e-commerce or digital platforms like Google and Apple offer very good user experience, so we are not competing with airports but with these giants in user experience. This presents a big challenge to airport operators.”

Through surveying customers, AAHK has found that customers expect personalised information delivered to them before they even arrive at the airport. “We want to turn these challenges into opportunities for us to improve further,” Fong said.

For Texas’ San Antonio International Airport, chief customer experience officer, Karen Ellis, greater convenience also includes having the option of self service. “We need to include the ability to have self-service function while having somebody provide assistance if needed. We know some millennials want simply to be able to go through airport processes as quickly as possible.”

A shift to cloud technologies has also lessened the reliance on hardware within airport premises, according to Amadeus’ head of airport IT, Sarah Samuel.

Samuel said: “Digital transformation, as well a shift to cloud technology, removes the need for costly hardware within the premises, helping free up valuable space and eliminate the costs associated with hardware maintenance. This in turn also reduces an airport’s environment impact by lowering emissions. Cloud technologies are also being implemented for cyber security purposes, as protecting on-site servers is a complex, expensive task. Airports are choosing to outsource via the cloud to highly-secure data centers, such as Amadeus’.

“While optimising processes inside the airport can have a significant effect on passenger management and customer experience, the more innovative airports are those who are investing beyond the four walls and collaborating with external stakeholders or third-party providers,” Samuel expressed in a statement.

Examples of innovations that take air travel processes beyond the airport are curbside check-in, Samuel said. Off Airport Check-In Solutions provide pop-up check-in and baggage drop service. The system uses Amadeus’ Airport Common Use Service cloud technology to communicate with Virgin Australia’s system, providing travellers with off-site check-in at areas such as cruise terminals, hotel and sporting events. She also foresees door-to-door bag drop service being a viable solution down the line.

Yixin Ng also contributed to this report.

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