dubai airport with emirates plane

View from India: Airports adapt to post-pandemic travel

Image credit: reuters

A futuristic view of airports suggests that they could function like integrated townships. Besides being smart and digitised, they also require resilient measures for meteorological challenges.

Nowadays, the airport is more like a city. Looking ahead, large airports could start to resemble an integrated township, complete with shopping malls, hospitality brands and hospital units.

“As the airport will have all the tech updates of a smart city, operational efficiencies will improve and sustenance will become profitable. Sustenance takes into account the electricity-water usage and wastage,” suggested Sanjay Sudhakaran, CEO, Schneider Electric Infrastructure Limited, speaking at a recent webinar hosted by CII/Schneider, titled 'Sustainable and Resilient Airports of Tomorrow'.

Software solutions could help in the management of electricity and water, with software tools and data analytics to enable ease of operations. A data-centric approach could help in creating a seamless experience, while also ensuring electricity-water wastage is lowered or reduced to nil. Moves have already been made in this direction.

“Our software and analytics help in ease of operations through data analytics and automation. We have created a cloud-control nerve centre in airports to take decisions, many of which are preventive in nature. We have also packed in features to take care of cyber-security threats as well,” added Sudhakaran.

When we look at the implication of Covid-19 on air travel, flight occupancy levels have decreased. Although business has been adversely affected, there are opportunities to explore in the future.

“Digitisation and automation are being increasingly leveraged due to Covid. Going ahead, we can look forward to days of contactless approach. The shift will be more towards digital procedures with less human interface and more data-oriented decisions. To that extent, manual procedures will be streamlined,” explained Dr M Muthukrishnan, head of sustainability (airport sector), GMR Group.

Social distancing and sanitisers will almost certainly remain regular must-dos in airports. The impact of the pandemic can already be seen in terms of additional infrastructure inside terminals, such as a proliferation of contactless devices. Safety and security measures will be implemented through data-driven knowledge, while innovation will lead the way to open up airport lounges that have limited space to have higher capacity. The new ways of operating will become standard procedure.

For aircrafts to fly high, certain ground realities will have to be met. Airports will have to become resilient for disruptions created by extreme climatic conditions. Consequently, a business contingency plan needs to be in place. “Appropriate measures need to be taken to ensure that airports operations don’t cease due to extreme weather conditions. When temperatures soar, it can adversely affect the aircraft runway takeoff. Probably the flights can be rescheduled to take off during a cooler part of the day,” reasoned Prabhat Mahapatra, EVP (operations), Mumbai International Airport Limited (MIAL).

When local conditions get too hot, technically the wings of the plane are difficult to lift. This hampers the propulsion of the jet engines, creating a serious aerodynamic issue. However, it may not be feasible for all airports to reconstruct their runways due to spiraling cost and space constraints. If average annual temperatures continue to rise because of global warming, in all likelihood commercial aircrafts will have to impose weight restrictions on the cargo to facilitate better takeoff speeds.

Usually, flights are planned depending on the wind pattern along the journey. There are different types of winds and not all winds are bad. For instance, the headwind is wind blowing towards the aircraft, which aids flight landing and takeoff, while the tailwind, as the name suggests, blows towards the rear of the aircraft, thus assisting an aircraft’s propulsion systems. Crosswinds, meanwhile, come at an angle and can affect fuel burn, making it important to calculate the fuel requirements depending on the crosswind impact.

Naturally, there are tech tools and algorithms already widely used to determine the atmospheric conditions. Even so, strong and sudden gusts of wind can delay takeoff or landing, while the wind velocity can often become higher than anticipated mid-flight, depending on the region it is crossing. This can result in the familiar turbulent bumps: please remain seated.  

Rising sea levels along with high tides and hurricanes already cause alarm for low-lying airports in coastal regions. These natural disasters ravage the navigation and lighting systems of shoreline aviation hubs and airport infrastructure such as flood walls and rainwater pumps will quite likely need to be scaled up if the impacts of climate change grow stronger. Likewise, the electrical substations, navigation and radar installations may need to be upgraded. If the necessary steps aren't taken, airports could find themselves increasingly shut down by bad weather, creating a snowball effect. Other airports find themselves affected, where they function as transit hubs for connecting flights. To avoid flight delays and cancellations, all airport operations need to be function like clockwork.

“Technology is being tapped to identify the potential climate change along with its inherent risk. The drainage system is a key area that calls for attention and needs to be modernised. It needs to be designed in such a way that water clogging and runway flooding (even if temporary) should be avoided,” highlighted Mahapatra. 

The pandemic has taught humankind how air travel can nearly come to a grinding halt, but the lessons learned are already suggesting a road map for the future involving a high level of digitisation and contactless operations.

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