Untethering Airports the freedom to go digital


Richard van Wijk, aviation global practice lead at Nokia Enterprise, says now is the time for airports to embark on a higher tech journey

Gateway to the skies’. ‘A symbol of freedom’. ‘Defying obstacles.’ The airline industry is filled with slogans and taglines designed to capture the freedom of flying. And why not? Air travel represents a liberating experience, be it a weekend getaway, time with friends and family or a new business opportunity. Quite rightly, airports are hotbeds of anticipation and expectation, offering the lure of wide-open skies while temporarily severing everyday ties. 

Which means it’s a little ironic that airports are such tethered places. Many hubs conceal hundreds of miles of cabling to support operations, which – when new runways, terminals or services are introduced – can create an integration challenge to their operators. 

However, private wireless networking offers a break for freedom that not only overcomes tethering constraints, but which also paves the way for digital airports and a host of innovative, digitally enabled services.

Transformation approach 

As airports embark on their digital journey, we first need to acknowledge the place where the industry presently finds itself. Without doubt, there is a need for airports to become more operationally efficient and to reduce costs. 

One compelling solution is to digitise an increasing number of existing processes. To do so, airports will need the assurance, security, speed, flexibility and bandwidth of private 5G wireless connectivity to support the vast array of data-based airport applications. 

While Wi-Fi or public wireless broadband is ‘good enough’ for some digital apps and an important part of the customer experience, it cannot ultimately provide the quality of broadband service that is needed to underpin pervasive airport-wide services, operational and critical comms. 

Of course, airports are currently paperintensive places. From check-in, ground handling, take-off, landing and aircraft turnaround, airport operators deal with arduous, detailed paper-based processes that require immense data collection, distribution and recording. 

Transformation from these processes to a more cost-saving and efficient, digitised, paperless approach will need to be underpinned by high-performance private wireless networks that can ensure reliability, predictability and security, thus making a wireless strategy an essential part of a successful digital journey for the airport.

Operational boost 

Investment in private 5G wireless can deliver a further boost to airport facilities and amenities by taking the operational services workload off current airport Wi-Fi services, improving its performance for guests and passengers. 

Wirelessenabled digital technology not only improves airport operations but also improves the customer experience 

A private wireless network also paves the way to introduce or expand an airport’s operational awareness by enabling sensors or cameras across the airport perimeter. 

One early adopter pioneering a private wireless approach is Brussels Airport, in collaboration with Nokia and local operator Citymesh. Arnaud Feist, CEO of Brussels Airport Company, said: “Brussels confirmed its pioneering position in digital innovation by installing its own 5G-ready network as one of the first sites in Belgium and one of the first airports in Europe. In addition to allowing a further optimisation of the airport’s operations, 5G will also enable us to accelerate digital innovations and facilitate the integration of future technologies.”

Innovation investment 

So what of digital innovation investment post-COVID-19? The first green shoots of what will be a long-term recovery are showing. As airlines and airports gear up to resume operations, air travel as we know it will evolve. 

Somewhat starkly, International Airlines Group chief executive Willie Walsh was reported recently as saying that a third runway at Heathrow was now “impossible”, given the financial constraints COVID-19 has put on the industry. At Nokia, we believe the picture is not quite so bleak. It makes sense for airports to shift from concrete investment and turn to wireless-enabled digital innovation as a more affordable and game-changing near-term choice. 

Once again drawing on the industry’s narrative for the flying experience, with a private 5G wireless there is perhaps ‘Something special in the air’.