The aviation industry has advanced from pioneering first flights in wood and canvas-bodied biplanes to flying faster, further, and more efficiently in aircraft that facilitate the transport and mobility of people, as well as access to goods, services, jobs, and more.
The tsunami created by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 impacted the aviation industry in many ways, dealing a sweeping financial blow and revenue loss to airlines and airports in the billions of dollars. In 2021, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) reported that air passenger travel was reduced by slightly over 60% compared to 2019 and that international and domestic air travel demand dropped by 75.6% and 48.8%, respectively.1 As an example, TSA checkpoint travel numbers per day in 2019 were 1,910,506, declining a whopping 1,261,989 to only 648,517 per day in 2020.2
In the wake of the pandemic, as the commercial aviation industry recovers and leisure air travel demand rebounds to pre-pandemic levels, the number of TSA checkpoint numbers per day has reached close to 2,800,000 in mid-October of this year, and IATA projected overall traveler numbers to reach 4 billion in 2024, exceeding pre-COVID-19 levels at 103% of 2019 totals.3 At the same time, and even before the pandemic, major metropolitan airports are redeveloping and expanding their physical facilities and infrastructures into 21st-century transportation hubs to meet the air travel needs of the 21st century and beyond.
However, the cascading effects of the COVID pandemic and resulting staffing shortages at U.S. airlines and the FAA’s air traffic control operations have caused significant flight delays and cancellations at airports nationwide. Since most delays and cancellations are due to the industry-wide staffing shortages of pilots, aviation mechanics, air traffic controllers, and extreme weather, flights have been consolidated to conserve the pool of staff and reduce operating expenses.
In the post-pandemic era, most national travel restrictions and barriers have been lifted, and people are eager to travel again; much of that travel will be by air. At the same time, as airports and airlines continue to adjust to the rapid influx of meeting the travel demand, this, coupled with the effect of severe weather over the past summer, has caused a ‘perfect storm’ at airports, grounding airplanes, delaying and canceling flights, often creating a chaotic and stressful airport scenario for stranded passengers.
In recognizing the urgency of procuring a pipeline of new employees, U.S. airlines have vigorously established new pilot training programs and incentives to recruit air traffic controllers, mechanics, and other vital crew for operations, but this will not be an overnight remedy, as training and certifying people into these positions, where technical skill and safety is the utmost priority, cannot be accomplished in weeks, months, or even a year.
With that said, the air travel industry and government agencies are striving to heavily implement technology, particularly Artificial Intelligence (AI), to help meet the 21st-century travel demands. Airports are investing in essential technologies to relieve the gravity of staffing challenges and improve the passenger experience, processing travelers safely, quickly, and more efficiently.
Artificial Intelligence & Computer-Vision AI
A technology that is prominent in the media and on everyone’s tongue these days is Artificial Intelligence, better known as AI. The term’ artificial intelligence’ means a machine-based system that can, for a given set of human-defined objectives, make predictions, recommendations, or decisions influencing real or virtual environments.
Computer-Vision AI, or CV AI, is one of the latest AI applications that can help airports and the transportation industry. But what exactly is it? Adam Bennett is a sales director for California-based Matroid, Inc. This computer vision company offers a platform for creating vision models, called detectors, to search visual media for objects, persons, and events. Bennett recently summarized to Metropolitan Airport News that CV AI is camera agnostic, meaning it can be used with any imaging technology, such as CCTV (Closed-circuit TV), cameras, IR (infrared), X-ray, and more. It leverages the latest deep-learning technology based on artificial neural networks such as convolutional neural networks (CNN) and recurrent neural networks (RNN).
CNNs work by having camera technologies that provide visual data through images and videos. The visual data consists of pixels filtered through many layers when inputted and through the layer’s features, such as edges, colors, and combinations of those features, which are extracted by calculations and manipulations. The layers of filters then perform operations to detect patterns in the image that result in detection or classification where the object is identified and localized in the frame, such as people in specific areas or a bridge connected versus disconnected to an aircraft.
CV AI & Improving Airport Operations and Its Impact On Customer Experience
Before an airplane’s safe take-off, multiple tasks must be completed by different teams in a timely manner, including deplaning passengers, cleaning, refueling, resupplying, inspecting, and then communicating to the teams on the status of each turnaround. CV AI monitors video at each gate with detectors running that are ‘trained’ to identify each element of the airplane’s turnaround procedures, such as bridge connection status, refueling, catering truck status, luggage loading, and unloading. Every operation is captured and timed, and all event data is collected and passed on. Operation teams can then capture inconsistencies in procedures or how long an operation takes, empowering operational teams to improve workflow and keep an optimal and safe turnaround time, increasing the number of flights at terminals.
Adam Bennett also discussed how CV AI can capture security line wait times and how real-time data informs TSA if additional security lines need to open, moving passengers through the process faster without compromising on thorough screenings. Scan tunnels use x-ray imaging to look inside passenger baggage without unloading them, monitoring the image data layer by layer and identifying banned objects or substances of interest. The CV AI can be trained to ID the same things operators monitor for, freeing human resources to help move passengers through security quickly while lessening subjective decisions.
Loss Detection and Other Factors
If a child is lost, their image can be uploaded into a CCTV system, and it can find when and where the child has been across the whole premises. CV AI uses various features to identify people and objects of interest. Also, while foreign objects on runways are a part of flight safety inspections, CV AI can amplify the detection of objects in real-time that may delay take-offs or make take-offs unsafe; this includes animals, tools left on the ground, and cracks in concrete.
Another advanced technology that airports have, or are soon to implement, is biometrics and facial recognition. As airport operators and passengers seek a more contactless experience, major airport hubs throughout the country and the world are installing self-check-in and self-serve bag drop kiosks where passengers can access or scan their boarding documents, tag their luggage and place them on the conveyor belt without the assistance or interaction with airline staff. As biometric recognition becomes more broadly used to identify a traveler as they move through an airport, the need to present physical documents at various points will support a more seamless journey and greatly assist with risk-based screening.
At Newark Liberty International Airport, the new Terminal A features E-gates, employing biometric information using facial recognition software that can verify a traveler’s identity for checking in and at self-boarding e-gates, comparing the passenger’s face to the photo on file with their driver’s license or passport, also cross-referencing it with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
In June of 2023, JFKIAT, the operator of Terminal 4 at John F. Kennedy International Airport, announced the deployment of the Amadeus’ Auto Bag Drop (ABD) and Next Generation Kiosk (NGK) self-service technology to deliver a smooth and efficient passenger flow through the airport. With the new self-service experience, passengers can check in and print their baggage tag at one of 86 Amadeus kiosks before introducing their bag to one of 42 Series & Auto Bag Drop Units. All Kiosks and bag drops are equipped with a biometric function, which, once activated, will simplify the self-serve experience by identifying passengers through facial recognition.
At the new Terminal B at LaGuardia Airport, passengers can take advantage of B-FAST, allowing them to skip the security line. The pass can be purchased ahead of departure day or at the airport. Colorful, eye-catching displays then tell travelers if they have time to relax or need to go to the gate, along with how long the walk will take. Terminal B also offers contactless and mobile ordering options and table-equipped concierges who can assist with directions and retail and dining information.
Smart Devices and Apps
Smartphone technology will be an essential aide in assisting passengers with a positive airport experience and can be utilized to trace the status of high-traffic areas such as security lines, baggage operations, airline lounges, and even to monitor the levels of soap and sanitizer dispensers when installed in airport restrooms. In 2021, Google Maps launched Live View to transform navigation through large and complex indoor facilities, providing travelers with an interactive tool to easily navigate the largest terminal at JFK International Airport, JFKIAT Terminal 4. In September 2023, JFKIAT announced the availability of Google Indoor Live View at T4, becoming the first New York metropolitan area airport with this innovative technology. Live View in Google Maps is powered by global localization technology, which uses AI to scan billions of Street View images to understand the user’s orientation. The new functionality, which can be accessed through Google Maps, utilizes the user’s camera’s live feed and augmented reality to point people in the right direction with arrows and directions overlaid right on top of the space they are in, quickly leading them to the closest restrooms, lounges, taxi stands, and more.
Artificial Intelligence Remote Assistance (AIRA) – AIRA is a mobile app designed for visually impaired or low-vision customers to navigate independently with the assistance of a Live Remote ‘Agent.’ AIRA is a free service provided by the Port Authority NYNJ at LaGuardia, JFK, and Newark International Airports. All you need to do is download the app. The Agent will assist you and know what is in front or near you using the camera on your smartphone.
FAA Technology – NextGen
The Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) is the FAA’s multibillion-dollar program to modernize the U.S. National Airspace System (NAS). Recognized as one of U.S. history’s most ambitious infrastructure projects, NextGen aims to increase American aviation’s safety, efficiency, capacity, predictability, and resiliency.
NextGen incorporates leading-edge technologies and policies that make air travel even safer and more efficient. New digital communications enable more efficient and timely communications between air traffic controllers and pilots. Performance Based Navigation allows shorter, more precise flight paths that can save fuel. Satellite-enabled surveillance more accurately shows aircraft location information to controllers. State-of-the-art automation systems support air traffic controllers in managing individual aircraft in the flow to efficiently use every available slot on our most congested air routes. Enterprise-level integrated information management improves shared decision-making, scheduling, and analysis. Today’s NextGen is delivering benefits and accommodating a roll-out, or operationalization, of NextGen capabilities across the U.S. National Airspace System that will fully implement innovative capabilities at the right places across the country.
In addition to NextGen, other major capital programs under development by the FAA that are on track include programs that provide navigation, surveillance, computer processing capabilities, tools for air traffic controllers, telecommunications infrastructure, and weather information to make the national airspace system run smoother. These essential programs are listed on the FAA’s official website and include Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B); Airport Surface Detection Equipment Model X (ASDE-X); Airport Surveillance Radar (ASR-11); Air Traffic Management Modernization and En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM); Integrated Terminal Weather System (ITWS); and Terminal Flight Data Manager (TFDM), to name a few. Visit www.faa.gov/air_traffic/technology for additional information on all the programs
Common Use Passenger Processing Solutions (CUPPS) at Commercial & General Aviation Airports
AeroCloud is a UK-based software company with U.S. offices in Delaware, and Florida. The company’s niche is providing common-use products to airports with 5 million or fewer annual passengers; however, they can work with facilities of all sizes. Their passenger processing solutions allow passengers to move efficiently and smoothly from arrival to boarding and are employed by commercial and general aviation airports, ground handlers, airlines, and Fixed Based Operators (FBOs).
George Richardson is the co-founder and CEO of AeroCloud. He is a retired professional race car driver who, in 2019, traded racing fast cars for a fast-rising venture in aviation support technology. Mr. Richardson recently discussed how AeroCloud Optic represents a groundbreaking leap in airport passenger tracking and how this revolutionary Computer Vision technology intelligently, anonymously, and accurately tracks passengers from curb to gate in real time. “The real-time monitoring of passenger flow means that alerts are triggered in response to bottlenecks in operations, such as extended wait times at check-in or security, which can be immediately addressed with additional resources,” said Richardson. He added, “Using AeroCloud Optic, airport staff can identify trends and predict future scenarios for longer-term planning. This supports better resource management and enhanced retail opportunities for concession partners, which in turn improves the passenger experience in the airport.”
In the past, smaller airports were often priced out of such services because other vendors primarily focused on the needs of major airports, where information technology resources and budgets are greater. AeroCloud Optic clients include Liverpool John Lennon Airport (LPL) and Sarasota Bradenton International Airport (SRQ) in Florida.
“At AeroCloud, we are passionate about our Common Use Passenger Processing Solutions (CUPPS), which enables airports, FBOs, ground handlers, and airlines to access and share common technology, maximizing the utilization of hardware and space in terminals,” said Richardson. “They enable airports to increase operational efficiency and improve their capacity to introduce new airlines into busy terminals, as they are not reliant on establishing a whole new set of hardware for each new airline.”
1 – https://airlines.iata.org/2021/08/08/airlines-struggle-through-worst-year-record
2 – https://www.tsa.gov/travel/passenger-volumes
3 – IATA Press Release No. 10; 01March2022