To overcome the limitations of the point-to-point system, airlines have typically relied on hub airports to route their plane traffic. By combining demand and regular flights, carriers can provide more extensive route networks for lower fares. Important developments in passenger experience, financial and logistical advantages sustained the popularity of the hub-and-spoke system. However, with the eruption of the Coronavirus, the growth in demand for connecting flights on key intercontinental routes abruptly slowed down. Regions such as Europe and Latin America experienced drops in connectivity levels close to 90%. This has brought great challenges in terms of airport management, testing the ability of hubs to adapt and build resilience.
In 2019, around 8.5 million people flew from the United Kingdom to the United States. It is estimated that 46% of those were making a connection as part of their journey. Around 1.2 million passengers landing in the US were even transferring to another point. The dependency on connecting traffic varies certainly from carrier to carrier according to the type and operational size of each. But what is undeniable is the increasing importance of those passengers as the aviation industry rebuilds. Meeting pent-up demand this summer will be critical for hubs to remain in the market. As connection traffic turns more and more complex, so do operations. In order to build a strategy, there are some areas which demand greater focus.
Airport management at hubs: building a strategy beyond Covid
1. Operating at scale
When we talk about airport management, it would be a mistake to view it as an exact science. No two airports in the world are the same. Factors such as location, size, and passenger demand are key differentiators. The more an airport contributes to creating economies of scale, the more attractive it becomes for carriers as a strategical point for consolidating their route networks.
At large hubs, thousands of processes, staff, and equipment are needed to ensure that flights depart on time. Those airports that previously were the busiest before the pandemic are especially vulnerable now due to the scarcity of resources, which limits their capacity to react to constantly changing traffic. The Airports Council International (ACI) Europe estimates that passenger volumes in the region were set to increase from 47 million passengers in the month of May to 125 million passengers in August. To prepare for demand rebound, operators should run as many processes in parallel as feasible. This is a way to help improve passenger processing, reduce costs, allocate resources optimally, and enhance on-time performance.
2. Passenger transportation
Nearly everyone has experienced walking through concourses for one to two miles, which could easily become a nightmare when carrying heavy bags. Absent an adequate transportation system, transfer connections can present irregularities, which ultimately undermine an airport´s efforts to improve its on-time performance. Efficient planning and use of resources such as gates, belt conveyors, sky trains, stairs, and escalators, are thus crucial.
3. Special Services
Assisting Passengers with Reduced Mobility (PRM) is a fundamental part of airport management. Particularly in times where demand changes rapidly, harnessing technology is key to improve the PRM experience. In the past few years, the number of travelers requiring these services showed an upward trend. Despite the drop in numbers registered due to the pandemic, data indicates that PRM traffic is returning to the skies at a faster rate than total passenger traffic.
Wheelchair services to help passengers move throughout the around is not only time-consuming but also requires adapting to individual needs. Although this assistance is usually booked in advance, passengers sometimes forget to do this on time and ask spontaneously for help. To minimize inefficiencies, hubs and special care providers must flexibly plan and coordinate in real-time all staff and equipment required.
Bottlenecking at counters may cause passengers to stand in line for hours. With social distancing in force, such scenarios must be avoided. To deal with this airport management issue, hubs are increasingly relying on automation. Travelers now have more alternatives to get their boarding passes in advance. They can use, for instance, the self-service machines available in the terminals. Most airlines also have apps to download these documents on smartphones even several hours before the flight departs. Another measure is to prioritize in the queues those travelers who need to check a suitcase or change their seat. Another innovation being implemented are the so-called “virtual queues”. These allow travelers to approach the counter at a certain time and be served directly.
5. Security control
A series of incidents in the past years have led to the creation of the modern airport security system. During peak periods, this system is often inefficient, generating very long wait times. To make this process as easy and quick as possible, some large airports are focusing on:
- Implementing simple signs to inform travelers what products to take out of the suitcase and put separately.
- Letting people who are getting ready to go through the security checkpoint stand in parallel – safeguarding the distance.
- Inspecting bags containing prohibited items or excess liquids aside from the normal flow.
- Installing automatic tray return systems to increase passenger throughput.
6. Boarding process
Congestion before boarding is one of the most critical issues affecting punctuality. To optimize this process, there are certain variables coming into play including the number of agents required at the gate. Given the fluctuations in the flow of passenger traffic, planning and deploying gate agents is a tricky task. Factors like flight times, staff schedules, possible delays, gate availability, and unforeseen disruptions have also to be considered. Manual planning methods are not optimal for dynamically managing boarding processes.
Technology is boosting the airport management market
The demand for more sophisticated solutions is one of the strongest drivers for change of hub airports in the next years. Those that cannot reshape their operations to satisfy the requirements of the new air travel reality are at risk of not surviving the challenging years that are still to come. It is no longer enough to just attain increased efficiency. It is more about developing strategies for sustaining optimal performance,
Deploying advanced software can empower airport management, delivering valuable tools to keep processes under control. In a few clicks, milestone activities presenting some irregularities are easy to detect. Functions such as the estimation of possible delays and their related costs can help improve the overall airport operation. Armed with optimization software, dispatchers and planners can reduce time and effort, while making more informed, data-driven decisions.