Airplane against the sky; Airplane against the sky;

Future-proofing aviation: How to navigate change in turbulent times

For the past two decades, the aviation industry has weathered crisis after crisis, from terrorist attacks to major pandemics to the deepest worldwide depression in more than 80 years. Thankfully, aviation professionals have not only risen to meet these challenges, they have managed to make significant strides along the way — leveraging advances in technology to make airplanes quieter and more fuel efficient and improve airport design and functionality. All of this is good news for the industry and the environment, but with more turbulence on the horizon, it’s not yet time for aviation executives to push their seats back and take a well-earned rest. 

We are currently witnessing unprecedented rates of innovation across many industries, and experts predict that the ways that we work, communicate, and travel will radically transform over the next 15 to 20 years. Paradigm shifts always entail challenges, but it’s important to remember that they also bring an abundance of opportunity. 

The technology advantage

The airline business sprang out of one of the most important technological breakthroughs of the 20th century, and that same innovative spirit still drives it today. Faced with the challenges of climate change, the industry has invested in the development of revolutionary new materials that promise to make next generation aircraft lighter, faster, and more fuel efficient. Not content to stop there, they are also helping to spearhead breakthroughs in biofuel technology and solar power that will one day make airplanes dramatically cleaner, and deliver big dividends to the environment.

Many of today’s airports are also embracing change by implementing a range of technology-driven improvements, such as self check-in, that are transforming the passenger experience and improving operational performance. Continuing advancements in sensor technology and augmented intelligence point toward a future where “touchless airports” become a reality. 

We are already seeing the first steps down this path, with some airports rolling out wayfinding and personalization apps that can be accessed from your smart device, and others introducing apps that allow passengers with electronically enabled passports to bypass time-consuming immigration and customs checks. 

Innovations like self check-in and mobile app processing are doing more than improving the travel experience, they are also helping airports to make better use of available space. For instance, Arup assisted JetBlue with the implementation of a “queue-less lobby” at their JFK terminal. The innovative kiosk and self-service bag drop system developed for this project have enabled the airline to process twice as many passengers within the same space. 

Technology is transforming other areas of the airport as well. Amsterdam’s Schiphol is one of several airports introducing robotic baggage handling — a sign of things to come. And the widespread availability of autonomous vehicles is predicted to further improve operations by making tasks, such as snow removal, debris detection, deicing, and aircraft towing, cheaper, safer, and more environmentally friendly. 

Retail in Amsterdam airport Retail in Amsterdam airport
Retail at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport.

Navigating change

Accelerated cultural change is also having a significant impact on airports. The best performing airports currently get half of their total revenue from non-aeronautical sources. These include conventional and duty-free retail, vehicle rental, and food sales. But with the “Amazon-ation” of retail, this revenue model is becoming less reliable. Online retail has already begun to take a bite out of conventional retail sales at airports, and this trend shows no sign of reversing. There is no denying that customer habits are changing, and the airports that continue to thrive will be the ones that change along with them. Airports are natural distribution centers, and as more people opt to shop online, airport executives would be wise to consider ways to generate new revenue streams by partnering with online retailers.

Empty parking lot Empty parking lot

Parking is another significant source of revenue for airports. This revenue stream, like airport retail, is being impacted by broad-reaching cultural shifts. Personal car ownership is in decline, and even among those who do own cars, we are seeing increased reliance on ride-sharing services and public transport. Many airports have instituted access charges to make up for shortfalls in parking revenues, but that is not a long-term solution, with parking revenue expected to dip still further after autonomous vehicles are fully online. This is a cultural change that should be exploited, rather than resisted. With airport parking facilities cleared of personal vehicles, there will be plenty of space available for other revenue-generating activities, such as storing and servicing growing ride-share fleets.

Beyond flight

Sustainability and responsiveness are key priorities for many of today’s travelers. People want a variety of options that meet a variety of needs, and they want them to be options they feel good about. This means that airports must begin to prioritize access to public transit and other modal options. The most direct competition to airline business on the horizon is high-speed rail services, like Hyperloop. These services provide travelers with a viable alternative to mid- and long-range air travel and will likely impact the profits of smaller regional airports, in particular. The resilience of these airports will depend on their ability to reinvent themselves as intermodal hubs. Larger airports too will benefit from starting to view themselves as central nodes in an increasingly complex transportation network. State-sponsored high-speed rail networks in Europe have already spurred large-scale changes at airports, and they offer lessons that can be put to use here in America.

Passenger drones will soon offer people yet another flight alternative. Operating over very short distances, these drones won’t directly compete with airlines for business. But as they become more commonplace, they will begin to complicate airport access. To circumvent problems and create new revenue opportunities, airports could serve as drone hubs, a role they are uniquely positioned to fill.

Tomorrow’s aviation industry

Thanks to technological progress, tomorrow’s airplanes will be lighter, faster, and far more sustainable, and tomorrow’s airports will harness the power of an array of virtual tools to transform the travel experience. While these changes will inevitably bring growing pains and substantial upfront investments, they will also provide clear benefits. Early adopters are, in fact, already beginning to reap rewards.

The cultural forces currently reshaping the industry will be trickier to navigate. From our current vantage point, it’s difficult to predict the long-term effects of shifts in consumer spending habits, the growth of public transportation and ride-sharing, and the introduction of alternatives to flight. But this much we do know: resistance is futile. Disruptions of this nature will bring challenges, but they will also provide chances to optimize airport design and operations, and to create novel revenue models. The airports that embrace our new reality will have an advantage when it comes to mining future revenue streams.

Smart airport managers will recognize this moment for what it is — an inflection point for the aviation industry. Careful planning and strategic positioning will be the key to weathering the storm. Luckily, airport people are a resilient lot who understand that you often need to withstand a few bumps on the way to your ultimate destination.