Big data enables an entirely new design of airport

Big data applied to the massive problem area of airport logistics? Dubai Airports looks set to get this problem nailed.

Credit: flik via Flickr

At the recent Air Transport Industry Summit, Dubai Airports CEO Paul Griffiths spoke about his company's plans for the future. Dubai Airports, along with other airports in the region, are a shining example of what the future of airports looks like. Of course, having an almost unlimited budget with which to create an operation makes life easier. And a lack of robust labor standards in the UAE means that Dubai can literally and figuratively move mountains to realize its vision.

But regardless of whether other airport operators can affect the sort of changes that Dubai can, Griffiths' thoughts were an insight into the future of airport operations. Griffiths comes from a highly pragmatic and commercial background. Formerly of both Virgin Air and Gatwick Airport, Griffiths knows that airports need to deliver the highest levels of service to their customers, while making travelers' airport experiences as rich as possible. The new Dubai airport is an example of this.

Dubai is build a much-heralded mega-airport that will be able to handle 120 million annual passengers. That sort of traffic creates the need to build something that is epic in proportions, but with that scale comes a highly degraded customer experience. The sort of physical size that can handle that quantity of travelers necessitates long transit distances. This is sub-optimal for the traveler who has to wear out shoe leather to get to connecting flights, and it's not ideal for the airlines that need to factor in longer transfer times into their planning.

Perhaps seeing the benefits that Star Alliance members saw through collaborating on the mass adoption of Heathrow's new Queen's Terminal (Star Alliance reports that transfer times have reduces from 120 to 60 minutes), Dubai is thinking smarter rather than bigger.

Griffiths says Dubai's intention to build what is essentially a series of modular individual airports that all fall within one mega-footprint. The real smarts of the model, though, are in the intelligent systems that Dubai is adopting to make that approach work.

Griffiths told of projects that use deep analytics to assign gates in a dynamic way. Since Dubai has some visibility into the onward flights of customers on incoming planes, it can assign gates in a far more efficient manner - where two flights are at the airport that have significant numbers of passengers in-common between them, the airport will dynamically assign gate positions as physically close as possible.

Griffiths also talked of another initiative, one which is simple yet powerful. Many travelers route through Dubai because of the shopping the operation offers, but while that is a lucrative aspect, it creates problems with some passengers missing their flights - flight instructions are given in Arabic and English, but a lot of travelers who come to Dubai specifically for shopping don't speak those languages. Under a new program, retail stores in the airport scan passengers' boarding passes and deliver notifications about departure gates, times, and the time required to move from the customer's current position to the gate. Simple, yet powerful.

Of course, the elephant in the room is that Dubai is in a somewhat unique position in that there is far higher collaboration between its primary airline and the airport itself. That is yet another example of the value that can be generated when airlines and airports - often adversarial parties - work together for their mutual benefit. 

The Dubai approach is an excellent example of using data to improve the efficiency and reduce the cost structure of air industry operations. I'm looking forward to seeing how the development progresses and what additional technologies Dubai uses to further improve its performance.

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