The Power of Data: How to Plan Terminal Operations in the New Normal

The concept of data-driven business intelligence is not new in the aviation industry. Since airports produce millions of bytes of data daily, operators find it challenging to manage and use it to its full potential. Therefore, they secure to technological solutions that facilitate its collection and analysis. Having the right information at the right moment is crucial for accurate planning. It enables companies to attain greater productivity. The Coronavirus, however, has brought major disruptions in the use of data. Traditional decision-making methods based on pre-defined rules and historical information appear to be ineffective. How can airports plan terminal operations in such a dynamic environment?

More than ever, processes need to be agile. The Airports Council International forecasts global passenger traffic may reach 2.2 billion for the first half of 2021. Volume trends differ from region to region. Asia-Pacific, for instance, is already experiencing an increasing return of travelers to the skies. Then, what is the task for operators in the upcoming months? They must prepare now to optimally react to the fluctuations in booking numbers. There is also a need for a renewed focus on the passenger journey; a focus in which the implementation of safety guidelines must remain flexible.

Adaptative approach to plan terminal operations

1. Analyze your data requirements

Capacity constraints are one of the main challenges when planning terminal operations. Being able to quickly adjust infrastructure and resource utilization to the dynamic demand adds a certain complexity to the decision-making process. To best cope with this, efficient data management is crucial.

Part of the information being generated today may not necessarily reflect what will happen in the upcoming weeks. Operators should determine which data they require to make plans more accurate. Important is maintaining quality over quantity. Paying special attention to real-time data will help make smarter resource deployments. This enables analysts to better deal with the more than ever frequently changing input.

2. Explore alternative sources and get the most out of less

Even airports striving to the highest performance levels cannot ensure full data coverage. In times where relevant data is scarce, dispatchers should tap into new sources to get the information they need. Filtering the data properly will spare time and costs. If the input gathered is not relevant enough, managers must learn to work with what they have. Developing strategies to get as much insight as possible from it will help enhance productivity.

Let´s take a look at planning for social distancing at gates. Airports can use surveys to better predict show-up profiles. Depending on the methodology, managers can find out, for instance, how much time in advance passengers arrive at the airport to take their flights. With this valuable input, operators could evaluate the option of starting the boarding process earlier to avoid long queues. Complementing this with the information provided through baggage tag scans fosters cross-validation.

A strategy to plan terminal operations is paramount to deliver efficiency and provide a safe passenger experience.

3. Keep data sharing in focus

Finding the right data is just the first part of the job. Sharing it with other stakeholders is the key to a more coordinated way to plan terminal operations. So-called collaborative decision making (CDM) is gaining more and more relevance in the New Normal. This approach helps to improve efficiency by integrating processes among airlines, airports, and ground handling companies. The goal is to understand and translate data relationships into reduced delays and a better allocation of resources.

Make data-driven planning the strategy for the future

There is some good news like the latest vaccine developments that let us expect a slow but progressive return to normal. The still high uncertainty relies also on how countries handle travel restrictions. At this point, it is recommended that airports consider a non-linear return to operations. How well they can ramp up operations depends on a dynamic planning approach. Therefore, decision makers should consider the evaluation of multiple recovery scenarios.

In the current context, we can suppose that travelers will continue booking their flights at short notice. This means, instead of buying their tickets four or five months in advance, they will do so closer to the departing day. That is an understandable reaction as passengers try to cope with the instability. For airports and airlines, however, this is an issue. To plan terminal operations efficiently, managers must determine what resources are necessary at different traffic levels.

Dedicated software helps evaluate how hypotheses on the recovery of flight schedules translate into required capacities:

  • Optimizing resource allocation according to different flight types (e.g., leisure vs. business)
  • Enabling a quick visualization of demand profiles for each recovery level
  • Managing qualified assumptions on processing times at check-in counters, social distancing requirements and size of queue areas
  • Facilitating the continuous adjustment of input parameters following operational reality
  • Boosting data sharing and cooperation with key stakeholders

Scenario planning in times of COVID-19 can be seen as an opportunity to take advantage of the power of data and analytic tools at airports. A foundation for planning terminal operations these days is to develop a data optimization strategy. The right collection and processing of information saves time and costs. With the combination of analytics and machine learning, airports will be able to master the science of creating value.

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