Will Squires explains how data and new technology is helping airports meet the growing demand for air travel

Will Squires BW 2019

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), demand for air travel is expected to almost double by the year 2037, with passenger numbers set to reach 8.2 billion. How do we ensure that our airport infrastructure is capable of handling this demand? And more importantly, how can our infrastructure be improved to meet the demand in an affordable and sustainable way?

If we were to create new infrastructure to meet this demand it would cost an estimated $1.3 trillion according to McKinsey Global Institute. What if technology could help us alleviate some of these costs, so instead of building new we get better at maximising what we have? As part of the New Experience in Travel and Technologies (NEXTT) programme, SNC Lavalin’s Atkins supported IATA in a cost-benefit analysis to understand the potential impact of emerging technology on the aviation sector.

The programme compared the implementation of technology in airport infrastructure to a ‘do nothing’ scenario, which would see airports respond to the increasing demand on infrastructure with physical actions, rather than using technology.

The results were clear: the transformational impact of technology when delivered in a coordinated, holistic way as described by NEXTT could deliver significant, long-term benefits. With a $130 billion investment to implement the technology, airports, airlines and passengers could see a present value benefit that would greatly outweigh the fee, of around $1.8 trillion. In particular, the key drivers for cost savings could be found through the implementation of improved data sharing, analytics and processing, and automation.

So what does this mean for airports, airlines and passengers? Through a coordinated and collaborative approach to upgrades, all key stakeholders will benefit. For example:


By making the most of their current assets through the NEXTT vision, our cost benefit analysis estimated optimisation of existing terminal capacity could lead to a reduction in demand for new global terminal infrastructure of up to 65%. This reflects a culmination of technologies, such as passenger automation, more efficient routing and wayfinding leading to a reduction in the need for extensive waiting areas, and the ability to more precisely move individuals through terminal infrastructure.

Savings can also be made thanks to increased staff productivity, allowing airports and airlines to meet demand through augmenting their existing staff with technology. Through improved data processing activities, such as providing passengers with their flight information on mobile devices, staff can be redeployed to more productive tasks. Further efficiencies can arise from automating the likes security searches and aircraft turnaround activities.


The optimisation of airport functions through better data, smarter technology and automation of manual processes can lead to significant benefits. Through better global understanding of aircraft movements, the number of aircraft take-offs and landings per hour could drastically improve to be closer to each airport’s capacity. Better systems to manage loading, baggage location and transfer connections, will lead to fewer flight delays and subsequently a flight crew cost saving of 10%. Streamlining these processes will also lead to an improved passenger experience, which is critical for airlines to stay competitive as other modes of transport improve (e.g. emerging technologies such as Hyperloop).


The NEXTT vision demonstrates a number of time-saving benefits for passengers. According to our study, a mix of data and automation technologies could reduce the wait time at the gate by up to 50%. Automated baggage drop-off points could accrue a further 5% in time saving, while the introduction of an off-airport baggage deliveries could halve the baggage pick-up time. With biometric control points and passenger pre-vetting, the time spent in passenger control could be reduced by a massive 80%.

The passenger benefits of automation are already being realised by projects such as PASS2, an Atkins-developed biometric technology that allows passengers to move through the airport without needing to queue for manual checks. Relying on facial recognition technology, the system is currently used at Heathrow for self-boarding gates and pre-security checks, with further use of the system being implemented to speed up the passenger process at every point of departure, from check-in to take-off.

Our findings indicate that the benefits of integrating connected technology into the airport, the airline processes and the passenger journey would greatly outweigh the cost required for installation. And with the NEXTT vision relying on technology that has already been invented and observed to streamline processes, the impact of new technologies could grow to be even greater than imagined.

Will Squires is digital lead at SNC-Lavalin’s Atkins business