Airport 3:0: How smart technologies are transforming air travel

A growing number of airports use self check-in desks like these. Image: Getty.

This post is brought to you by global IT business solutions provider Comarch.

The past: the small, local airport

Welcome to College Park, Maryland: population, 30,000.

In the mid 19th century, the University of Maryland had been established here – but it was Wilbur Wright, an inventor and the pioneer of aviation, who made the city famous. For it was in College Park that, on 7 October 1909, the Wright Type A biplane was assembled. For this reason, the College Park Airport (KCGS) is still known as the "Cradle of Aviation.”

While it still remains an active airport, after over 100 years, it’s mostly a historical curiosity today. Initially, the field was cleared of brush and a small temporary hangar was erected. But as airports began to offer standard infrastructure and services – check-in gates, boarding area, limited retail and food outlets – this temporary structure soon evolved into something we’d recognise as a traditional airport.

Typically, like the railway stations established at the same time, these smaller airports operate on the so-called landlord model, with an owner and a concession operator. But the problem with such a model is that it was unable to live up to passenger expectations. It’s like flying from Beauvais airport near Paris rather than Charles de Gaulle, or from any other low cost carrier terminal: it might be technically OK, but the experience is far from memorable.

The traditional airport means a small airport with limited facilities. While they were business effective, they didn’t pay much attention to passengers.

The present: the global hub

In January 2009, one hundred year after the establishment of the College Park Airport, the UK government announced that it supported the expansion of Heathrow Airport, to include a third runway and sixth terminal building.

Heathrow is UK’s only global hub airport, and the largest international airport in the country, serving 180 destinations in 90 countries. It’s one of those airports known for their services, great customer experience and enormous business opportunities.

Over 202 out of the UK’s top 300 company HQs are within a 25‑mile radius of Heathrow. This is also an important spot for many Comarch’s clients, including Thomas Cook and BP. New technologies and practical facilities make Heathrow one of the world’s top airports according to the airline customers, too.

So what makes Heathrow so special? Among the most important things are broadband wireless internet, IP telephony, modern video systems, a wide range of well-known shops and restaurants, special events like live music in the terminal buildings, and complimentary stylist-trained shopping assistance. This is why Heathrow adopted the slogan, “Making every journey better”.

One key to the success of Heathrow’s modernisation has been the smart use of new technologies. The “Heathrow Rewards” airport shopping loyalty programme, for example, is based largely on a stable and developing relationship with Comarch – and has enabled businesses at the airport to benefit from a 14 per cent increase in spend per visit. Now program members spend £49 more per visit than non-members.

Moreover, the programme’s operating expenditures have been reduced by 2.5 per cent – despite a 64 per cent growth in membership, and a 27 per cent increase in the number of transactions it covers. Heathrow understands that a reliable technology partner means competitive market prices, without the need to expensively maintain its own IT infrastructure and resources.


The future: the smart aerotropolis

Imagine you’re approaching the airport in a comfortable express train. You’ve already checked the bag at the railway station in the city centre: you don’t have to think about that anymore. You know that the train will arrive on time, and that boarding will start in 95 minutes. Your co-worker who is traveling by car has already previewed available parking spaces and used an exclusive “members only” offer.

As you are approaching the terminal, your mobile sends you a push notification with your flight details and average waiting time in the security area. Thanks to location-based services and beacon technology, local merchandisers can provide you with special dedicated offers – not to mention loyalty points, both from your carrier (e.g. Avios or air miles), and additional airport program.

Smart passengers are more satisfied with multi-partner loyalty programs such as Thanks Again. Oh, wait: did you forget your child’s favorite candy? Beacons and your smartphone will remind you about such basic things from your checklist, and help you to make someone happy.

The airports of the future will fully exploit the power of new technologies, including sensors, processors, mobile apps, gamification and behavioral analytics. The key is a broad integration process among airlines, retailers, restaurants, cafes and parking facilities. In this model, airports can cross-sell and up-sell to the passengers.

It is a common view in the aviation industry that non-aeronautical income – from parking, retail, real estate, advertising, restaurants, cafes and other concessionaires – will be more and more important in the years to come. Airports, as we all know them, are very likely to be replaced with airport cities (aerotropolis) of the future.

Smart Cities cannot exist without Smart Airports – but Smart Airports also needs Smart Cities. That is why the integration with surrounding urban area, and good relationships with transport authorities and local business is so important.

The entire region can benefit from a smart strategy. What will be the first example of such an airport? It will depend on you.

Vincenzo Sinibaldi is a business development manager at Comarch Italy.

Comarch has more than 20 years of experience in helping global companies to achieve higher profitability, and understands the importance of changes taking place in contemporary cities. Its state-of-the art technologies, geolocation with micro-navigation, multi-channel access to the Internet and the growing needs of users, have made it both possible and necessary for the firm to design a comprehensive solution that combines an individual approach to clients, strategic planning and advanced analytical capabilities.

The Smart City concept is based on the company’s past experiences: from loyalty systems, electronic data interchange and sales support, to IT and “Internet of Things” infrastructure and other advanced uses of technology in business. Designing tools for generic location-based services and developing smart strategies are the priorities for every implementation.

Thanks to this, Comarch Smart City can create an integrated space where the experiences and needs of users are linked with events from the participating institutions, including public transportation authorities, city councils and other private partners, regardless of their business profile.

You can find out more here.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.