Air travel is coming back as consumers shed pandemic inhibitions and indulge in long-delayed wanderlust. That’s a good thing for peoples’ psyches, and for a travel and tourism industry that employs roughly one in every 10 workers globally.
But this rebound won’t be durable or environmentally sustainable without a major upgrade in the aviation industry’s critical hubs — the world’s airports.
Consider just two of the challenges they face. Airports will need to accommodate a near tripling of global passenger traffic to an estimated 19 billion in 2040, according to projections by the trade association Airports Council International (ACI) World. That’s a tall order considering that on-time departures at 20 major airports worldwide last year were down nearly 10% from pre-pandemic levels, according to a recent Oliver Wyman report.
At the same time, airports need to enable the aviation industry’s goal of becoming net zero by 2050 even though airports themselves generate no more than 5% of the industry’s carbon emissions.
The megatrends of tomorrow
Those dates may seem far off, but the scale of the challenge demands that work start now. A new report by the Oliver Wyman Forum, prepared in collaboration with ACI World and Saudi Arabia’s Sustainable Tourism Global Center, helps plot a route forward. Based on interviews with nearly 20 chief executives of global airports, the report identifies five megatrends that will shape the airports of the future:
- Achieving net-zero carbon emissions
- Innovating with technology to improve efficiency
- Making airports intermodal hubs for people and goods
- Raising the workforce’s customer-service and high-tech skills
- Transforming the passenger experience with digitization
Concerted investments in everything from green technology and aviation fuels, to biometrics and robotics for touchless travel, to seamless interconnections with high-speed rail systems, autonomous vehicles, and air taxis can improve performance and transform airports. They can become mini-metropolises — “urban campuses that contain offices, hotel, retail offerings, but also entertainment and different modes of transport to the airport,” in the words of Brisbane Airport CEO Gert-Jan De Graaff.
The route to net zero
Airports will play a key role in reducing the industry’s carbon footprint even though their direct emissions are a fraction of the industry’s. For the rest of this decade, airports can prioritize electrifying ground vehicles, shifting to renewable energy sources like solar and wind, and developing more efficient lighting and cooling systems, which account for nearly half of their energy use. Dallas Fort Worth International Airport embraced several of those strategies to recently become the first carbon-neutral airport in North America, and it aims to achieve net-zero status by 2030.
Further decarbonization will depend on technology developments. By 2040, airport operators will need to scale up sustainable aviation fuels, which will require significant public and private investment buoyed by government incentives. They also should work with governments to promote free route airspace that lets airlines choose energy-efficient routes and start introducing hydrogen technologies and short-haul-capable electric aircraft. By 2050, airports should be scaling those technologies and carbon capture to achieve net zero and become energy producers for the surrounding grid.
Innovating with technology
Advances in biometrics, artificial intelligence, automation, and other tech tools are already driving gains in efficiency. Dubai International Airport uses facial recognition to link passengers with their passports and speed them through check-in, boarding, and immigration. These tools demand heightened cybersecurity, but passengers are ready for them, with nearly three-quarters expressing willingness to share biometric data for a smoother experience. To reap the greatest benefits and make this technology ubiquitous by 2050, airports need to work with the public sector to standardize customs processes and develop rules for safe data-sharing.
Airports will need to adapt their workforces to realize this technological future. That demands a two-pronged strategy: attracting staff with the engineering, digital, and cybersecurity skills to manage increasingly high-tech operations, and improving the customer service skills of passenger-facing workers to assist travelers with directions or serve as welcome ambassadors to foreign arrivals. Done correctly, this adaptation can turn today’s labor shortages into tomorrow’s efficiency gains.
“The emergence of labor shortages is an opportunity to rethink conventional approaches to airport activities,” says Narita Airport’s President and CEO, Akihiko Tamura.
Connecting with wider transport networks
Accommodating growth while meeting green targets will require airports to invest in better connections with public transport networks, both for goods and people. Geneva Airport last year decided not to expand parking. It offers arriving passengers free bus or train tickets and aims to have 60% of passengers use public transport by 2030. High-speed rail connections at the airport will become increasingly important, especially in Europe, where many countries are likely to follow France in banning flights to destinations that can be reached by rail within two and a half hours.
Executives also aim to leverage the growth of electric and autonomous vehicles to enable more individualized public transit. Stefan Schulte, CEO of Frankfurt Airport operator Fraport, envisages passengers “ordering” a mini-bus to take them directly to their destinations.
Transforming the customer experience
A coordinated modernization of airports should pay off in a better customer experience. By 2050, digitization will enable a tailored end-to-end journey, with passengers receiving customized, real-time information, comfortable lounges with food, drink, and e-commerce available at the touch of a smartphone app, and contactless passage from curbside or metro platform to the aircraft seat.
Operators, meanwhile, will leverage growth to expand amenities and develop entertainment complexes, shopping centers, and hotels. Singapore’s Changi Aiport’s dome-shaped Jewel complex, which offers such attractions around lush gardens and the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, provides a glimpse of what’s possible — an airport as a destination and economic center in its own right.
The passengers of the future have much to look forward to.
What happens when you gather 600 mobility leaders from 36 countries to discuss solutions for developing sustainable urban transportation? They agree on one indispensable ingredient: collaboration. There can be no sustainable and resilient mobility business models unless the public and private sectors build them together, participants at the Oliver Wyman Forum’s Global Mobility Executive Forum agreed.
In panel discussions and workshop sessions, conference participants aligned on three major elements for building next-gen mobility:
Revive the innovation mindset
There’s no silver bullet to achieving sustainability and adapting to new commuter travel behaviors. Businesses need to evolve their playbooks with innovative technological advances in areas like hydrogen power and sophisticated artificial intelligence. Those tools can power unique coalitions, but that requires a mindset shift. “We need to believe in inventors, researchers, and engineers,” Oliver Wyman Forum Partner Fabian Brandt said. “Bring the innovation mindset back to companies. Otherwise, mobility challenges won’t be solved for tomorrow.”
Bring all stakeholders to the table
There is power in numbers. Businesses and governments that partner with each other create greater resilience and better solutions.
Choy Yong Cong, vice president of Singapore’s Economic Development Board, explained how the city-state is embracing the private sector in its “45-minute” plan, which aims to enable commuters to get around the city in 45 minutes or less. Allowing the private sector to innovate and experiment, Cong said, lets Singapore use new technologies and solutions to bring its plan to fruition and drive economic growth.
Adapt transit services to new behaviors
Public transit is the most affordable and efficient way of moving large groups of people. An expansion of networks can both lower transportation emissions and increase access for commuters, but operators need to adapt to new patterns of working and commuting.
Consider San Francisco, which ranks first in the Oliver Wyman Forum’s Urban Mobility Readiness Index. Tilly Chang, executive director of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, said the rise of remote work has shifted demand for public transit. The network shouldn’t necessarily feed passengers into the city center anymore but rather focus on more equitable access to transit, neighborhood-to-neighborhood.
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