Airports are a bit like a doctor’s office or an outpatient healthcare clinic.

That analogy might seem a little strange at first, but think of it this way: A medical clinic functions as a facility that offers a service from tenant care providers — specifically, to provide healthcare to patients. Patients enter the building each day, receive the care they need and then depart. Like a well-oiled machine, staff clean the facility after-hours, restock the cabinets with supplies and continue the routine all over again with new patients the next day.

An airport follows a similar pattern, but with passengers instead of patients. And, much like a healthcare facility with its tenants serving a daily influx of different patients, it isn’t easy for airports to connect with their passengers as people, or as customers who need the service they and their tenants supply — in this case, air travel. Airlines and other travel industry stakeholders have loyalty programs and various touchpoints to aide them in personalizing the journey, but in many instances, governance models and the transient nature of operations make this degree of personalization very difficult for airports to achieve.

But what if that didn’t have to be the case?

To give you another analogy: Airports are a lot like cities. These entities share many of the same characteristics: passengers (residents), terminals (city buildings), airside/landside infrastructure (roads, bridges), utilities (water, electricity), retail concessions (local businesses) and security (police and fire) for public safety.

Cities around the world are transforming their organizations through the application of new technologies that are designed to solve real business challenges. This transformation is driven by outcome-based strategies to connect devices, collect and manage data, and create a unified view of the city. These initiatives will allow residents to personally interact with objects in their environment to access new experiences, information and services. By gathering data from residents and then applying that data in intelligent ways, these smart cities are providing a new experience that is making public spaces more livable and secure.

Given the similarities between cities and airports, the aviation industry is benefiting from these technologies and discovering ways that data can be utilized to improve the overall passenger experience and make operations more efficient. Much like smart city initiatives, smart airports are discovering that a similar approach to passenger terminals and other airport infrastructure can lead to a digital transformation in parking and retail concessions revenue as well as potential premium data service offerings. Additionally, smart airports are finding new opportunities for connected devices and data to support sustainability and resilience goals and to improve financial and operational performance.  

How Airports Can Accelerate Transformation

Aviation security remains at the heart of the industry’s concerns. Beyond this fundamental, airports are focused on safe and efficient operations that allow tenant stakeholders (airlines) to get passengers on the plane and up in the air. As consumer expectations shift, those expectations naturally begin to apply to experiences in the travel journey. Airports not prepared to accommodate these shifts face potential service gaps.

Passengers arrive and depart through an airport. In fact, passengers mostly do only that. The nature of large capital projects with long-term operating horizons, paired with stakeholder requirements, makes it very difficult to satisfy differing or competing demands, especially over time. In many cases, trade-offs in design cultivate environments that satisfy in broad terms but are unable to adapt to rapidly changing trends. Individualized passenger services are often superseded by higher priorities related to security or operations. Passenger terminals that are designed with infrastructure to support innovative personalization can ultimately provide a more enjoyable end-to-end travel journey.

By designing facilities to enhance and customize the passenger experience, airports can put some joy back into what can sometimes be viewed as a neutral or sterile environment.

Airports are benefitting from lessons learned in complex urban settings where cities are adapting their infrastructure, service offerings and data to the changing needs of their residents. Airport planners, architects and designers are considering the infrastructure and applications that make data collection and use in cities possible. Cities are accounting for environmental amenities like lighting, sound, temperature and even entertainment in their design and construction considerations; passengers think about these things in an airport and desire the technology it takes to control each step of their journey, to the greatest extent possible.

Allowing control of these variables makes a passenger’s journey less anxious. Connectivity between all things — the Internet of Airport Things — generates data on how passengers are using those things and how they are interacting with their surroundings. In this world, every device, whether wireless or wired, will record data about its surroundings and its use. Once devices are connected, data can be generated, aggregated and correlated. This correlation — the ability to draw conclusions from disparate data sources — will enable airports to better serve passengers and operate more efficiently.

From trash cans to HVAC systems, even the seats the passengers sit in during their wait, building a network infrastructure between the things in an airport and passenger devices enables data to be gathered and analyzed to make better decisions that lower operational costs and create efficiencies that give passengers what they want.

Where to Start

It’s commonly perceived that travel is not particularly joyous — but the aviation industry is working hard to reduce anxiety and improve the overall experience. Making airport spaces more personalized and intelligent is the logical evolution of the smart facility trend. But how should the process start?

Working with design or consulting firms that can provide a single solution, such as a piece of technology or the beginnings of a data center, will only take an airport’s smart approach so far. But finding a partner that understands all the inner workings of an airport’s systems and operational goals will bring more to the project.

Partnering with a firm that grasps not only how airports operate but also how smart cities are thinking and planning means that the implementation of new technology or the design of a new facility can boost opportunities to capitalize on innovation trends. A firm that understands how the ecosystem of an airport functions and also understands how to overlay the technology of a smart city can help transform what the public experiences by providing a “system of systems” approach capable of achieving the potential of smart facilities.

Today’s passenger expects their lives to be convenient, immersive and enjoyable in every way, even at an airport. Factoring in new trends in smart city technology and partnering with a firm that can offer a comprehensive approach will give airports that Google-fast, Apple-easy and Amazon-efficient feel that today’s demanding consumers expect.


Smart cities are defined in various ways around the globe, but the common thread among all definitions is the end goal of creating a better place in the world. A safer place.  

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Stu Garrett specializes in aviation information technology and special systems. He has more than 17 years of experience in enhancing 16 of the world’s largest airports, helping clients find new technology solutions that provide passenger convenience and operational efficiency.