Hong Kong joins smart airport trend

January 06, 2020 12:25
The Hong Kong International Airport is continuously striving to improve its efficiency through a digital transformation. Photo: AFP

The Hong Kong International Airport is one of the busiest in the world. It ranked first in cargo volume and eighth in passenger traffic in a recent report of the Airports Council International.

In terms of safety, convenience and efficiency, it is one of the best in the world. This we should all be proud of.

However, the report highlighted another airport for its significant increases in passenger traffic and cargo volume.

This is the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in the United States. Its ranking in cargo volume jumped three places from 13th to 10th last year while rising to No. 4 in passenger traffic from fifth place.

Such achievements – rare in the aviation industry where competition has always been fierce – is attributed to LAX's modernization in recent years.

The airport has attracted attention recently because of a new policy: since the end of October 2019, cars from ride-hailing firms such as Uber and Lyft have been banned from entering the passenger terminal to pick up travellers directly. They have to proceed to the LAX-it area to pick up the passengers.

Through the new regulation, authorities hope to ease the vehicular traffic that has congested access roads to the airport for many years, a problem that is expected to worsen with numerous improvement works in the offing.

When the policy was introduced, there were complaints about inadequate shuttle bus service to pick up and drop off travellers at LAX-it; passengers and their rideshare drivers had to wait for a long time. In response, authorities deployed additional resources to avert a possible crisis.

The matter is but a minor episode in the LAX development. Early in 2010, the airport's authority launched a three-phase US$15 billion development program, which is expected to be completed in 2028.

The geographic information system (GIS) is playing a key role in this development program.

The airport currently has 130 projects in progress, including an upgrade of the passenger terminal, a transportation hub connecting a light rail system to the airport, and a driverless train that can transport 10,000 passengers per hour between terminals.

Necessarily, project implementors need to have a full grasp of the situation, including the location, content, planning and progress of the projects. They have to control costs, streamline various works to avoid clashes, and ensure smooth daily operation of the airport.

The airport is already very busy. With the addition of these projects, authorities decided to consolidate all information at the airport on a comprehensive GIS platform that links and manages some 500,000 documents and construction details.

Just by pressing icons on the computer screen will enable authorized personnel to gain access to a myriad of maps and relevant information.

Apart from monitoring projects and maintaining records, the GIS has been used to model 3D simulations of indoor construction to “see”, from customers’ point of view, the impact of project works on airport operations, such as ticketing, passageways and baggage claim areas.

The digital service has enabled management to recognize potential problems before they happen, and as a result, project contingencies, risks and costs are lowered.

The Hong Kong International Airport is also striving to develop into a smart airport.

As a passenger, I have experienced the continuous efforts of the Airport Authority to improve efficiency.

For example, the check-in baggage procedure has been shortened to 60 seconds from 2-3 minutes. Since 2016, the authority has introduced a number of automation and self-check-in services, including self-service baggage facilities at 120 passenger check-in counters.

Like at LAX, our airport uses digital twin technology to replicate the passenger terminal facilities and monitor all parts in real-time. When an abnormality is discovered, it will automatically issue an early warning and find a suitable solution to ensure smooth operations.

I hope that our authorities will continue to learn from the best practices of other airports, especially in the application of innovative technology, so we can continue to stay ahead of the competition.

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Adjunct Professor, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering; Department of Geography, Faculty of Social Sciences; and Faculty of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong