Not wasting a good crisis: Putting humans at the center of airport innovation

Nathalie Herbelles by Nathalie Herbelles | Jul 12, 2022

Aviation is a resilient industry. Having faced multiple shocks over the last decades, from 9/11 to COVID-19, it has been able to recover, rebound and come back stronger every time. The current shortages of staff, and the severe operational challenges they are bringing to many airports worldwide, present us again with an opportunity to build back better. This time, we must use this perfect storm to rethink, and build, the workforce of the future.

This should focus on two main axes: accelerating the introduction of technology and putting humans back in the center of the travel experience. These are not contradictory. Together, these two axes can help bring about a better travel experience, more satisfied customers, happier and more engaged staff, and more efficient processes that will be essential in meeting future traffic growth.

Accelerating the introduction of technology

The staffing shortages experienced by many aviation stakeholders are due to a combination of factors, some of which may be short-term – such as high seasonal traffic and the effects of pent-up demand following two years of travel restrictions. However, mega-trends such as demographic shifts are likely to continue to impact our workforce in the longer term. More and more baby boomers are retiring while the younger “Gen Z”, and to some extent millennials, are re-evaluating their priorities. In many parts of the world, aviation needs to rebuild its employer brand and make itself attractive to prospective employees.  

Global passenger traffic, in the meantime, is still expected to double by 2040 (using 2019 as a baseline). Unless new employees join the workforce at the same pace, we will need to introduce new solutions to allow airports and their people to continue to operate efficiently and safely. The capacity challenges we foresaw before the pandemic have not gone away—the additional challenge of attracting and retaining talent is only bringing complexity to the equation.

Aviation is a multifaceted environment where safety is top priority. Assisting humans with artificial intelligence (AI), for instance, will guide them in minimizing error and carrying out routine tasks efficiently. Augmented reality and virtual reality are already helping ground service providers train their teams for a job on the apron. Sensors can help monitor ground processes and avoid potentially fatal mistakes. Machine learning (ML) is coming to screening checkpoints, and it can identify certain prohibited items with remarkable accuracy and speed. Automated baggage loading systems can help relieve baggage loaders from heavy lifting tasks, improving work ergonomics.

ACI and IATA are driving the NEXTT (New Experience Travel Technologies) initiative, which ensures that the transport of passengers, baggage, and cargo benefits from the latest technology developments to improve the customer experience, reliability, and efficiency. NEXTT has identified three key emerging concepts around which most aviation innovations can be grouped. One of them is advanced processing—promoting the use of digital identity management, automation, and robotics.

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Putting staff motivation and wellbeing at the center of airport innovation

Technology must serve humans – not the other way round. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to prioritize people’s wellbeing and mental health. A committed, strong workforce is a workforce that is nurtured and motivated. Airports’ sustainability plans also reflect their commitment to social sustainability and inclusion.

Technology and innovation will often require upskilling or reskilling of staff. Airports must properly plan for these transitions. In addition to the IT skills needed to interact with systems and with AI/ML, refocusing on “soft skills” such as interpersonal skills and adaptability is likely to pay off in different ways. As machines are increasingly able to carry out repetitive tasks, humans (staff) will be able to interact more with humans (customers), adding a personal touch and personalization to their experience, as well as solving problems.

Done right, in the long-term, job transitions will lead to a win-win-win:

  • Staff are motivated and their tasks are more rewarding, they are asked to think outside the box and provide customer service, they stay longer in their jobs, and job openings become attractive to outside candidates
  • Passengers are accompanied through efficient, seamless processes, and provided with assistance as and when they need it
  • Airports and the aviation ecosystem can grow sustainably while putting people first

In addition to rethinking the role of workers and their skillsets, we need to review the deployment of automated solutions for passengers. Biometrics and digital identity programs have been heralded as the dawn of a largely self-service future for travellers. But do travellers want their journeys to be dehumanized? Seamless does not necessarily mean contactless, as the theme of this year’s ACI Customer Experience Summit, “Re/Humanizing the Airport Experience,” indicates.

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Airports should demonstrate their resilience by making technology and innovation a means towards a human-centric end – for the benefit of passengers and staff alike.

Nathalie Herbelles

Nathalie Herbelles

Senior Director, Security and Facilitation, ACI World
Nathalie Herbelles' is ACI’s point of contact for global airport security issues, representing the world’s airports and helping deliver the association’s priorities. A French national, Nathalie has over 15 years experience in aviation security in different parts of the world, having worked for IATA, AEA, the European Commission and Air France. 
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