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It may be difficult to imagine at this moment, but the International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts that air travel will double by 2036—from 4 billion travelers in 2019 to 8 billion in 2036. While the pandemic-induced reduction in air travel has caused steep reduction in air traffic, Ty Osbaugh, director of aviation and transportation projects at architecture firm Gensler, believes now is the ideal time to rethink airport transportation and implement new solutions. With airports emptier, disruption can be minimized.


Every projection I’ve seen says airport traffic will rebound to pre-COVID levels in 2022 or 2023,Osbaugh said. Why not build when passenger volumes are down?


Doubling the number of air travelers, whenever it happens, will impact all aspects of airport design and operations–including groundside and airside traffic. Airports’ iconic control tower, already strained at peak travel times, will accommodate even more planes and passengers. It’s time, Osbaugh said, to imagine, “What do we want the airport experience to be” years from now.


The challenge is huge. Airlines’ customer satisfaction ratings ranked in the bottom 20 percent,” according to Forbes. Complaints about poor service, nitpicky fees, small seats, germs and delayed flights have dogged the industry for years. Now they have to contend with general public anxiety about getting into a cramped space with hundreds of other people who might or might not have COVID-19.


It’s also important to note that as travel returns to pre-pandemic levels, airport logistics will also be impacted by social distancing requirements, flipping the script from moving more people with fewer vehicles to moving fewer people with the same or more vehicles. Efficiency is paramount in either case, as the cost, emissions, and congestion at airports are critical to customer satisfaction and financial performance.



Multiple Autonomous Use Cases

Airports have been viewed and used as testing grounds for autonomous vehicles and technologies for several years. The IATA noted over 40 use cases for driverless technology in 2018. The list included self-driving jet bridges, aircraft tugs, baggage carts, de-icing and snow clearing, employee buses, maintenance vehicles, and passenger shuttles. Airports are viewed as safer because they offer more controlled, low-speed environments–like dedicated lanes for different types of groundside vehicles and open tarmacs with high visibility airside–that reduce the risk of accidents.


Touchless booking and autonomous vehicles also provide a means of enforcing social distancing health requirements. Driverless service vehicles like tugs take humans out of the equation, while passenger shuttles can control occupancy by disallowing bookings beyond maximum capacity and giving travelers a view of real-time occupancy to allow them to select the safest option.



It’s Already Happening

Osbaugh proposes a fleet of single-passenger autonomous pods to transport passengers from outdoor health screenings to gates, with touchless booking and frequent cleaning scheduled in. While this might seem far-fetched, Heathrow airport already uses autonomous electric pods to take travelers from a parking lot to Terminal 5. Called Personal Rapid Transit (PRT), the pods carry up to four passengers and run on a separate guideway, enabling a fully automated system that has replaced some 50,000 bus trips. Note: the service has been suspended during the pandemic due to lack of demand.


Also at Heathrow, British Airways tested autonomous electric tugs to automate taxiing and get approaches and exits. The system reduced pushback-related delays by 53 percent. Indeed, taxiing is a significant point of airport inefficiency. Driving at 5-10 miles per hour powered by giant jet engines burns precious and polluting fuel not needed for those speeds.


A demonstration of autonomous snow removal equipment at Fagernes Airport in Norway cleared 357,500 square meters of snow in an hour, reducing costs, emissions, and delays. A fleet of autonomous luggage carts at Dallas’ airport handled 450 bags per hour, using half the energy of conventional baggage handling systems.



Stitching It All Together

In most scenarios, multiple fleets of autonomous vehicles will serve numerous purposes, carrying everything from passengers to spare parts around airports. Services will need to be coordinated. Vehicles must be told where to go, when to go, and what to do upon arrival. They will also have to be aware of other vehicles and their routes–no small feat on a facility with thousands of vehicles and people at any given time.


Michelle Fong, an architect at San Francisco’s airport, said that integration of technologies and solutions is key. “There are entities involved outside of the airports,” she said, and “existing technologies, but nobody has put them all together.” The industry will be best served by approaching autonomous vehicles methodically and integrating the technology into existing systems first before expanding it into more operations.



Another Control Tower

Perhaps the solution for airports is to have a ground vehicle control tower akin to the one used to direct air traffic. A command center where the various fleets and vehicles can be monitored, dispatched, routed, and matched with passengers or goods could play a key role in integrating technologies and services as they emerge. This “control tower” is the missing link between autonomous vehicles and fleet operations, and is what Bestmile’s Fleet Orchestration Platform offers. The platform receives ride requests in real-time, intelligently dispatches vehicles with optimized routes, and allows operators to control operational and customer experience requirements while continuously monitoring and updating instructions based on fleet status, traffic, and changing demand.



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