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The Future of Travel

Cloud technology is helping airports transform the passenger experience.

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From the time travelers check in and drop off their bags to when they board an aircraft, there are several touchpoints — and several opportunities — for airports to make the experience more seamless.

However, there are still points of friction within the traveler journey, whether it is long lines at check-in, a lost bag, or a delayed flight. A global pandemic has made it even more challenging for airports to meet travelers’ expectations, as health and safety concerns increase and airports contend with reduced passenger traffic and declining revenue.

But times of crisis often spur innovation. Several airports have seized on this moment to leverage the cloud to both recover from the pandemic and create a path toward modernization, resiliency, and cost savings. Houston Airports, which operates and manages George Bush Intercontinental, IAH, William P. Hobby, HOU, and Ellington Airport/Houston Spaceport, EFD in Texas, and Avalon Airport in Melbourne, Australia, are harnessing the cloud to streamline operations and provide a touchless passenger experience.

Both airports have collaborated with an Amazon Web Services (AWS) Advanced Consulting Partner — iOLAP for Houston and AWS Advanced Technology Partner Elenium Automation for Avalon — to modernize their IT infrastructure, transform data and analytics into strategic assets, and pivot during the pandemic. With the help of these partners and AWS Cloud solutions and services, these airports are accelerating innovation, cost-effectively modernizing their operations, and laying the foundation for a better experience once the public begins to travel en masse again.

Dealing with disruption in air travel

Like many industries, airports have faced massive disruption due to the pandemic. Lockdowns and stay-at-home orders led to a huge decline in passenger traffic in the first quarter of 2020 — amounting to the equivalent of a 620 million passenger reduction in air travel. In April 2020, this trend continued, as passenger traffic dropped 90 percent globally.

However, hope is now on the horizon thanks to the ongoing rollout of several vaccines worldwide. Though the pandemic has caused airports to rethink their modernization strategies, even without this once-in-a-century event, forward-thinking airports already had begun to incorporate advanced technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), and analytics into their operations. That’s because rising customer expectations all but necessitated it.

International Air Transport Association (IATA) research indicates passengers’ most desire:

  • Increased innovation
  • Reduced travel disruptions
  • A seamless travel journey
  • Streamlined baggage handling
  • Greater accessibility for passengers with disabilities

It is against this backdrop that Houston Airports and Avalon Airport have sought to innovate their operations. Houston Airports, which served nearly 60 million passengers in 2019, faced challenges accessing real-time insights into airport performance for things such as aircraft taxi times, arrival and departure rates, and understanding the factors that contributed to airport traffic delays and incidents.

Diego Parra, Director of the IT Program Management Office at Houston Airports, says his organization needed real-time data to improve decision-making and better serve travelers.

“Our vision really is to deliver the best possible passenger experience. Technology is a great tool to achieve this, especially with the current environment that’s so focused on health and safety,” Parra says.

However, Houston Airports lacked a flexible, scalable infrastructure to process large amounts of data rapidly, maximize advanced analytics, and access insights in real time. The system also needed to integrate emerging technologies like voice-based applications.

Avalon Airport also has sought to deliver the best passenger experience and has focused its efforts over the past year on creating a touchless passenger experience — an alternative to the traditional check-in process that involves touching screens and inserting passports or other forms of identification into a slot in a machine. Like Houston, Avalon also experienced declining passenger traffic.

The airport sees innovation as not only critical to helping it resume normal operations once the pandemic wanes, but also as essential to restoring passenger confidence.

“This is really about creating consumer confidence and confidence for people to travel again and to do it safely,” says Avalon Airport CEO Justin Giddings.

Through their collaborations with AWS Partners iOLAP and Elenium, Avalon and Houston Airports are both leveraging the cloud to achieve mission-critical priorities. From enabling a touchless passenger experience to facilitating data integration and predictive analytics, the cloud has provided the robust technology infrastructure these airports need to transform their operations and the traveler experience.

Harnessing the cloud for innovation

Houston Airports: maximizing data to improve airport operations Houston Airports began working with iOLAP more than two years ago to transition from an on-premises environment to a cloud-based architecture.

iOLAP, a big data and advanced analytics consultancy that provides guidance and solutions for clients undergoing IT innovation, worked with Houston Airports to migrate the organization’s data to data warehouse solutions on the AWS Cloud. iOLAP, which leverages AWS Cloud services for its technology solutions, suggested a shift to the cloud to help Houston Airports scale data processing and more easily integrate data from different sources.

“They helped us build the architecture for our data warehouse. We had data in multiple places and wanted to channel it toward one place, clean it, and be able to present it to our users. They were able to help us build that,” Parra says.

Adam Hofmann, VP of Growth and Client Success at iOLAP, says the company leverages a range of AWS Cloud services to help clients innovate. Its solutions are built on AWS Cloud infrastructure using the AWS well-architected framework, which ensures cloud applications are designed with operational excellence, security, reliability, performance efficiency, and cost optimization in mind. iOLAP’s use of the data warehouse solutions allows its customers to analyze structured and unstructured data across different data repositories, including data lakes. They can easily query data in their data lake and transfer information back to this data store in an open format, allowing them to make their data available to other analytics and machine learning applications. iOLAP also uses AWS’s fully managed machine learning services to build, test, and deploy machine learning models, along with AWS Cloud services to ingest and process real-time video, audio, IoT, and other multimedia data. This allows the company to run code more efficiently and cost-effectively without having to manage and provision servers. It also ensures iOLAP’s applications are highly available and reliable.

Houston Airports has taken advantage of all these capabilities to modernize its operations. It has deployed Responsum, iOLAP’s AI-powered platform for automating customer and employee communication, on its website and on mobile to provide real-time answers to customers’ questions. Through thousands of real traveler interactions, Responsum has built a highly trained conversational AI model that can now be deployed to other airports in a few days. The model was proven to be an effective tool during the February 2021 winter event in the Houston area, where usage increased by 43 percent from the previous month.

Responsum also securely integrates with core internal applications and systems, allowing the airports’ internal teams to retrieve information from the organization’s data warehouse via voice or text queries. These metrics include passenger traffic stats, information from federal partners, customer satisfaction data and on-time information for flights. This same voice technology will be integrated into its forthcoming airport app, which will allow its internal teams to ask questions and get up-to-the-minute information about current airport operations.

Houston Airports has developed a platform where its operational teams can access real-time metrics such as passenger traffic stats, flight information to analyze on-time arrivals, taxi times and gate utilization, journey time through the airport security check points, international arrivals processing time, parking occupancy, and other data. Responsum, which securely integrates with Houston Airports’ core internal applications and systems, even allows the airports’ internal teams to retrieve information from the organization’s data warehouse via voice queries.

“We’ve focused on being able to help them enhance traveler engagement and internal operational metrics, so their internal team can actually access these real-time metrics just by speaking to the system and using natural language processing,” Hofmann says. Parra says improving data management and implementing these technologies has helped reduce call volume in the airports’ call centers and has allowed his organization to better deploy resources and staff members when passenger traffic increases. It has also enabled them to plan maintenance activities on days when traffic is low to reduce disruption for travelers and gain insight into areas of its business where it can deliver better service.

“One of our main goals is to improve the customer experience. We want to get to know our customer better — what their wants and needs are and how we can make them happy,” Parra says. “We’re constantly exploring how we can leverage technology to ensure they’re successful in traveling through the airport. As an industry, we want to make people feel safe and let them know they can travel again.”

Avalon airport: introducing a touchless traveler experience Similar to Houston, the cloud is helping another airport nearly 9,000 miles away transform its passenger experience.

Avalon Airport, a regional airport in Melbourne, is the first airport in Australia to implement touchless, self-service technology. Avalon has worked with Elenium, an AWS Partner, to make this happen.

Elenium uses computer vision, voice recognition, biometrics, and cloud platforms to deliver self-service tools to airports, and offers a suite of cutting-edge automation technologies called Elenium Voyager. Giddings, Avalon’s CEO, says his team was most concerned with reliability and data protection. Elenium’s advanced technology and partnership with AWS gave him confidence his airport could successfully modernize its check-in experience and other parts of the passenger journey.

Giddings and his team wanted to ensure the traveler experience was as simple as possible. Though Elenium uses voice technologies to enable touchless interactions, the touchless experience at Avalon is unique in the sense that it doesn’t rely solely on voice — it also uses head control and eye movement detection. Aaron Hornlimann, Elenium’s CEO, says passengers can just look at a screen in the airport to select an item and AI does the rest. The company uses AWS machine learning services to build AI models that facilitate these interactions and to understand customer intent when passengers look at their check-in screen. Facial recognition technology also aids this process. Using Elenium’s Voyager app, passengers can take a selfie when they check in. The photo is then submitted to Amazon Rekognition, an automated, machine learning-based image and video analysis service. These images then undergo facial analysis for the purpose of identity verification. Once a passenger is authenticated, he or she receives an ID to use throughout the check-in process. All this data is securely stored in an AWS key-value and document database that can call up passenger information in milliseconds.

Hornlimann says building and deploying Elenium’s solutions using AWS Cloud services comes with several advantages. “One is the ability to rapidly deploy. If you think about an airport like Avalon, we were able to put in our kiosks and [auto] bag drops without having to put any local infrastructure in place,” Hornlimann says. “From a service perspective, all Avalon had to provide us with was a good, redundant internet connection and a connection back to the airline. That’s the real differentiator with using a cloud service provider like AWS.”

Elenium’s technology is helping airports replace traditional check-in methods like scanning boarding passes and manual data entry of passenger information. “People can come in, they can go to the kiosk, and they don’t have to touch it at all. They can get their ticket, check in, and then go to the auto-bag drops, which are also touchless, and it’s really quick,” Giddings says. “It’s all about reducing congestion in that check-in area. It has really freed up a lot of space. It’s probably doubled our capacity in the check-in area just by installing these products.”

Giddings says providing a touchless experience is also a great long-term investment because it improves accessibility for a range of travelers, including those with disabilities. At a time when people are more weary than ever of physical contact, it also allows Avalon to provide a safe travel experience and differentiate itself from other airports.

“In a COVID environment, where people are sensitive about touching things and nervous about airports and travel, that’s the real benefit,” Giddings says. “Regardless of the vaccines and when COVID goes away, for a long time people are going to be very conscious about protecting their health, so this is a good long-term investment. It’s only a matter of time before other airports do it.”

Paving the way for the airport of the future

Over the last year, airports have had to become much more agile and responsive.

But even amid these challenges, many airports are laying the groundwork for lasting changes that will transform their operations and the passenger experience. The cloud offers an invaluable opportunity to bring more innovation to airports, helping them recover from the pandemic in the short term and modernize for greater resiliency and cost savings in the long term. Self-service touchless technologies, voice-enabled chatbots, and better data management aren’t just capabilities that will serve airports well during a major public health crisis — they are key capabilities airports must embrace to better serve the public.

Avalon and Houston both demonstrate the steps airports can take to better prepare for a return to travel. By harnessing a flexible, scalable cloud infrastructure and leveraging secure, highly efficient, well-architected cloud applications, airports can resume their normal operations and assure the public it is safe — and even enjoyable — to travel again.

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