COVID-19: Taking a technology-based approach in supporting the recovery of airport business

David Whitely by David Whitely | May 20, 2020

Technology will play an increasingly important role in supporting the recovery of airports following the COVID-19 pandemic.

But which new technologies should be adopted and what impact will they have on operations and, importantly, how will they affect customer experience?

To answer these questions and look ahead to the future of Airport IT, ACI World’s Director of Communications David Whitely spoke with Miami International Airport’s Division Director for information Systems, Maurice Jenkins.

Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, could technology have been better deployed so far?

Each year we see the industry and ourselves impacted by natural events like hurricanes, tornados, fires, or earthquakes, and this is also not the first time that the industry has faced a health-related crisis – we have dealt with issue around SARS, Ebola, H1N1, for instance – but none of those have been at the magnitude or scale that we’re facing today.

If containment strategies or measures could have been made available more quickly, that would have allowed us to return to some level of predictable operations and without the tragic loss of life or economic woe that we’re now seeing and experiencing.

Even to date, many processes are still paper-based or high-touch which we can clearly see contributes to the spread of germs and bacteria as well as viruses. That will remain a problem until regulation is changed to allow solutions like e-Gates and biometrics, similar to trials other airports have engaged in and what we have engaged in with SITA and Smart Path.

This allows for movement from a ticket counter to the security checkpoint or, in the US, the arrivals hall, in lieu of an officer having to collect and touch your boarding pass and/or passport. Certain measures could certainly be taken, but many are much more dependent on regulation.

What do you see as the role of Airport IT going forward?

Central to an airport’s success is investing in technology services that can be shared across all airlines and services via our core common-use technology platform. This is the optimum way to ensure continuity of experience throughout the airport and make the widest array of services available to all of our airline partners.

We see this being one of the core technologies we rely upon most as it offers a great way for us to maximize our ability to deliver the latest in technology innovation to our airlines in the most efficient way possible.

Certainly, in this new paradigm that we are experiencing, I am not surprised to see the rapid re-positioning of biometrics and the frictionless seamless travel experience now include an emphasis on contactless and touchless solutions. I think that new emphasis resonates and will continue to resonate with the traveling public for some time.

We are exploring solutions such as using sensors in a kiosk to evaluate customer temperature at a distance but will need to satisfy ourselves as to their efficacy as to accuracy and security. The solution includes a camera that can be used to read the passport data from a distance. This seems like a great solution to reduce the need for a traveller to lay his or her passport on the kiosk during the check-in process.

To verify passport authenticity, an RFID reader is built into the kiosk for verification of the e-chip data, embedded in the passport.

Coupled with the normal APIS or Secure-Flight checks, when this is used in a biometric-enabled solution, the digitized image can then be cross-matched against a live image capture to provide a higher level of trusted identity verification without introducing unintended security risks.

I have no doubt we’ll continue to see accelerated entries into the market, so due diligence will be critical in ensuring new vulnerabilities and security risks are not introduced that lead to bigger issues later.

Colorful windows in the Miami International Airport

With growing threats on cyber-security and digital hackers, how can we best safeguard the future of airport IT?

In response to the growing threat of cyber-attacks around the world impacting every industry, including airports, ACI World has developed a comprehensive offering on cyber security to help airports prepare for and mitigate cyber-attacks.

Cybersecurity Implementation Handbook
Read more

Cybersecurity practices and technical due diligence need to be at the heart of airport IT security policies and practices. As more and more of us move to adopt cloud-based infrastructure, Internet of Things (IoT) and smart-airport devices and capabilities – not to mention a more digital and interactive approach to customer engagement – we need to be conscious of the responsibilities in safeguarding and protecting our customers and our infrastructure from vulnerabilities. 

When considering new technologies, partners, or engaging with start-ups, it’s important to think about mitigation strategies as well as core non-functional requirements such as resiliency, reliability, scalability, stability – all of those things that help create a world-class “always on” system that can serve customers’ needs without introducing weaknesses that would leave us vulnerable to outages or issues that would impact operations.

Airports should be working with our industry partners, and associations like ACI World, to leverage support and best practices.

Which areas of airport IT do you think need to be discussed and explored further?

In 2020, the aviation community should continue to focus on the exploration of technologies that support business strategies. Obviously COVID-19 will have an influence on the prioritization of new innovations such as thermal-sensing and an even a greater focus on biometrics, all with the goal of offering more touchless and contactless solutions.

Through the Miami International Airport app, we offer a mobile passport control solution in collaboration with US Customs and Border Protection that allows travelers to submit their customs declaration forms in advance of arrival to the US. Our solution, developed with one of our business partners, SITA, allows these forms to be easily configurable and customizable to create additional questions that might aid in vetting travelers before their arrival to the US from visiting countries. This feature is worthy of additional dialogue with one of our most engaged business partners.

How can we collectively act more quickly in response to pandemics like this in the future?

We need a more dynamic way of adapting our operations, implementing new technology, and greater collaboration to ensure new technology and operational improvements can be implemented more swiftly.

When the market rebounds – and it will rebound – we’ll undoubtedly see a resurgence first for US domestic travel with a slower rise in international travel. We need to be sure that we have solutions ready that can serve the domestic customer-base and are not exclusive to our international customers.

Bringing the touchless, contactless realm to the domestic terminals is one of those areas that is important to our strategy and will likely require regulatory focus and collaboration with TSA, Congress, and our industry organizations to drive the change that will enable technology solutions, like our SITA Smart Path implementation, to move beyond US Exit and be made available to the domestic population to allow us the ability to protect our TSA officers from having to physically touch and review traveler documents.

Many systems are accessible only while on-site due to the sensitive nature of the data, which limits the ability to offer remote-working solutions that can protect staff. We’re looking at how common-use solutions like SITA’s Airport Connect FLEX could offer support for a BYOD (bring your own device) model and remote connectivity to authorized staff and devices, which can minimize the use of shared devices, workstations. If there are additional providers offering similar technologies, it is incumbent on them to introduce to airports or via industry.

As the current chairman of ACI World’s IT Committee, I welcome insight as we work to deliver IT best practices for our system of airports.

At Miami International Airport, Maurice Jenkins serves as principal advisor to the Aviation Director on all matters related to Information Management and Technology since September 2000.  Mr. Jenkins provides strategic and tactical direction, planning, development and operation of the Aviation Department’s information technology infrastructure, telecommunications services, application support, end-user support services and training.

Mr. Jenkins graduated from the University of Miami with a bachelor’s degree in business and computer information systems. He has earned certifications in Strategic Management from Florida International University and Human Resources Management from Nova Southeastern University. He takes pride in providing proven successful practices through  presentations on implementation solutions to key IT leaders and during airport IT conferences in the U.S. and internationally.

David Whitely

David Whitely

Senior Director, FTI Consulting
David Whitely is a ACI World Business Partner with more than 25 years’ experience in journalism, corporate, media, and public relations in the UK, Canada and Australia. He has held in roles with HSBC, and with the governments of the UK and Western Australia. In aviation, David has served in the senior leadership teams of London Gatwick Airport and ACI World. He is currently a Senior Director with FTI Consulting based in the Asia-Pacific region and supports clients on strategic communications matters including ESG, crisis and reputation management, and change communication.
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