Airport innovation against all odds

Hannah Meredith by Hannah Meredith | Apr 28, 2021

In the past year, technological innovation in the aviation industry has seen more challenges than ever before.  Many airports have had to set these efforts and initiatives aside to focus on operational efficiency and safety.  And yet, innovation remains a critical component for airport success.  In this 3-part blog series I will be interviewing different aviation innovation leaders to look at some examples of challenges they have experienced when implementing innovative change and how they navigated their way to success despite many hurdles.  I will also get their thoughts on how these digital transformations have fared over the last year and how it can continue to propel airports further, especially as we recover from the effects of the pandemic.

In this first blog I will be speaking with Stephen Saunders from the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG).

Tell us about your role with your company?

My name is Stephen Saunders and I am the Director of IT and Innovation at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG).  I have been with CVG for 10 years and have held different roles during my tenure.  For the past 4 years I have been primarily focused on technology in the airport environment, including implementation and idea creation.

Can you tell us of a project or instance where there were many obstacles to innovation/project success? 

Several years ago we were introduced to wearable technology.  We wondered how we could implement this technology into the airport space.  We had seen it successfully implemented in other industries – restaurants, for example, were successfully using them.  We worked with our partner in wearable tech to identify processes in the airport that required frequent updating as part of their daily routine.  Housekeeping was selected to be the group that we would introduce this technology to.  In essence, the wearable technology called Taskwatch would notify our housekeepers when a restroom needed attention.  This notification was triggered by the volume of people entering the restroom, which was captured by sensors located at the entrance of the restroom.  A housekeeper would receive the notification and accept the task, then report to the restroom to clean.  This method allows our housekeepers to focus on the facilities that are more heavily traversed – needing the most attention – rather than treating all of the restrooms the same as if they all experienced the same level of use.  Our housekeeping department was a great group to work with because they are receptive to new technology that could potentially make their time more efficient.  Once housekeeping was on board, our focus became answering the question of “how do you clean the facility?”  We needed to understand a day in the life of a housekeeper.  How do they manage time?  Is there a defined process they follow?  Do they respond to cleaning needs on demand?  We needed to understand the baseline of staff efficiency.

What was the desired outcome of the project? Increasing operational efficiency, supporting sustainability, revenue generation, policy change, or something else?

Housekeeping, like other airport tenants, is competing for staffing with our other vendors.  Historically, the answer to problems with cleanliness was to hire more housekeepers, but this took time and was costly to the airport.  Instead, we questioned if that was the best solution to housekeeping problems, or could we ensure efficiency with current staffing levels and see a better result. 

What were your benchmarks for success?

We have a couple of different data sources that could tell us if our methods were working.  Positive results from ACI’s ASQ Questionnaire , by increasing our cleanliness score, was a good indicator that we were onto something.  We established a historic baseline restroom score for each restroom through a cleanliness inspection platform that we have called Orange QC.  Once the wearable tech was implemented, we compared current scores with historic scores and discovered that the scores were increasing with the aid of Taskwatch.

Tell us about the obstacles you faced with this project.  Were they policy or resource related, or something else?

We experienced several hurdles with Taskwatch.  I would categorize them as technology, people, and process hurdles.  The technology was not aviation-centric technology.  This became a custom build around managing assets (restrooms).  We had to come up with a way to trigger the alert for the restroom to be cleaned (sensors).  It had to be wireless to reduce the amount of infrastructure changes that might be required.  We had to determine volume throughput, meaning, the more people that would enter a restroom, the dirtier it would become.  But at what point should it trigger an alert to be cleaned?  If it triggers too early, that might be a waste of time for a housekeeper.  If it triggers too late, the restroom could look like a disaster.  We had some issues identifying the right type of sensor to use as we discovered some connectivity and hardware issues.  In order to scale up, we would need to ensure we had stable connectivity.  This led to another project where we worked to improve our airport wifi.  On the people side, getting the buy-in from housekeeping was critical.  I was familiar with the houskeeping department as we all worked under the Customer Service branch.  I told them the background for the project, explaining that passenger traffic is increasing and our housekeeping services are essential, presenting Taskwatch as a new tool that could help them address staffing issues and support their future staffing needs.  We needed their honest feedback and ideas once they were on board and implementing the Taskwatch solution.  It became a constant conversation between us and housekeeping.  The process hurdle was identifying the process for the housekeeper.  This is something that is still evolving today.  We are asking ourselves what we expect the housekeeper to do when they receive an alert.  Do they need to do a deep cleaning of the facility or can the job be satisfied by going in and investigating the trigger?  Should the airport go to demand-based cleaning instead of scheduled cleaning?  How much throughput warrants a housekeepers attention?  These are all questions we are still pondering, but we look to the data to let it tell us the story and drive decision making.

How did you overcome these obstacles to continue the project?  Did the outcome of the project change because of the necessary adjustments made in the process?

Overall, our goal didn’t change.  We made small pivots around different deliverables to continue towards our goal.  We went in with some assumptions but didn’t have the process defined yet.  We observed the process and design, then set benchmarks once we had data and a proof of concept.

Tell us about innovation in the past year?  How have challenges been met and overcome? Are they being handled differently than they were before the pandemic?

Innovation has been more focused in the past year.  We came from record breaking years and innovation was focused on solving for capacity problems.  When the pandemic began, we focused on different initiatives within innovation.  Health and wellness came to the forefront, naturally.  We could also focus hard on what our innovation initiatives were, asking ourselves why it was an initiative.  Will these initiatives really help us meet our goals?  Will these initiatives help us “survive” the pandemic?  Innovation became a bit of a target in the industry.  People asked “how valuable is innovation really?”  In my opinion, COVID has really validated the need for innovation.  What was perhaps formerly seen as a frivolous nice-to-have has been realized as a necessity in our industry.  If you have a good innovation team in place, these are the folks you should be leaning on to drive your business into the future.  We have also seen the criticality of revenue diversification.  Being able to look ahead and find new ways to boost revenue and new business processes helps the business survive.

Finally, what innovations have you excited for the future of the aviation industry?

The opportunity for stakeholders to work together.  Going through the pandemic has made us realize that while we all have our own interests, we can come together to collaborate to ensure joint success.  People are more willing now to come to the table and collaborate.  On the tech side, of course robotics, biometrics, new tech for sustainability are all very exciting.  I really enjoy trying to find things that are not necessarily aviation focused, bringing them in, and finding ways that they can benefit the industry.  Collaborating with solution-makers for other industries and discovering new data, not just for data’s sake, but leveraging it for true business change.  On the horizon, I look forward to getting some type of agreement in place around how the industry recovers.  People will always travel, that will not go away, but being open to new modes of transportation.  Aviation professionals should not see that as a threat but should see the benefits of multi-modal transportation.  Because of our long history in transport, we have a valuable piece of knowledge of how it is done and have a grasp on the likes and dislikes of our passengers and people that we serve.  We can be more open to things like hyperloop.  It is not a threat, but an evolution.  If our passion is connecting people, we should be open to all modes that support that.

Thank you so much for chatting with me today.  Any final thoughts?

When innovating, have clear metrics, but be willing to do things in a grassroots effort way to find success in innovation.  Be okay with a level of risk that is involved and don’t be afraid of failure.

For further discussion on the Taskwatch project and other CVG Innovation initiatives, contact Stephen Saunders at ssaunders@cvgairport.com


The article was provided by a third party and, as such, the views expressed therein and/or presented are their own and may not represent or reflect the views of ACI, its management, Board, or members. Readers should not act on the basis of any information contained in the blog without referring to applicable laws and regulations and/or without appropriate professional advice.

Hannah Meredith

Hannah Meredith

Advisor, NEXTT
Hannah Meredith serves as an advisor for the New Experience Travel Technologies (NEXTT) Initiative, formed by ACI and IATA. Hannah is the Manager of Terminal Services for the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) where she focuses on elevating the customer experience and increasing terminal operation efficiency. Before joining CVG, Hannah held roles in Airport Operations at Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) and Asheville Regional Airport (AVL). She holds a BS in Aerospace Management from Eastern Kentucky University.
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