Tech-driven airports to redefine future of aviation

Published: Monday, June 14, 2021

After more than a year of forced shutdown due to the pandemic, airlines have resumed operations and borders across the world have reopened thanks to the roll-out of various COVID-19 vaccines despite the many logistical and financial challenges in equitably distributing them.

Travel between countries and borders are slowly picking up and airports and smart technologies are key to sustaining the momentum and the future of the global aviation industry.

Worldwide, passenger traffic dropped by more than 76% on average during the pandemic while other more severely affected areas saw it plunged by over 90% with all airlines forced to shut down.

With social distancing and contactless activities now the new normal, airports have to fast-track the adoption and implementation of automated biometric contactless technologies such as facial recognition and e-gates.

Smart technology will define future airports

At the recently concluded three-day 20th edition of Airport Show Hybrid+, the largest post-pandemic gathering for the aviation industry held in Dubai and the world’s largest B2B airport industry exhibition, officials and experts underscored the importance of smart technologies in keeping global travel alive.

Major General Khalifa Ibrahim Al Saleis, Chief Executive Officer, Security Industry Regulatory Agency (SIRA), said there will be no place for traditional airports to operate without advanced and smart technologies in the future stressing the necessity for airports of the future to enhance security and facilities enabled with smart devices.

Delivering the keynote speech on Future Technologies Enhancing Airport Security at the Global Airport Leaders Forum (GALF) co-located at Dubai’s Airport Show 2021, he said Dubai airports welcomed 89.1 million travelers in 2019 out of the 8.8 billion people who traveled during the period.

The global trade body Airports Council International (ACI) estimate the number of travelers to reach 19.7 billion by 2040 which will require more simplified travel procedures while maintaining safety and security for all passengers and airports.

“We all know that security emigration and health check procedures which make long hours of delay are necessary and cannot be avoided.  Smart airports are the future of air travel because of the smart devices provided to reduce waiting queue, waiting time, reduction in queue for passport control, security check and at duty-free and other outlets,” Major Al Saleis said.

“Smart counters resulted in reducing waiting time, waiting queues, waiting time for passport control, security check, and duty-free and other outlets. In 2018 and 2019, it was recorded that 78 percent users of these services were economy class passengers, which helped avoid crowding and reduction in waiting time at the terminal.  The use of smart phone application for travel procedure, such as printing boarding pass, advance ticket booking, reduced the waiting time at the airports achieved social distancing,” he added.

He said the use of advance technology, smartgate and smart tunnel, introduction of digital passport supported by biometric technology speed up the travel procedure. The use of smartgate at Dubai airport reduced the time for completing travel procedures at the immigration and passport control to 15 seconds. While smart tunnel reduced the process by 9 seconds.

The digitalization of visa and certificates using blockchain technology and digital encryption makes it very difficult to tamper with the documents, especially when it is linked with biometric and fingerprint identification technology, Major Al Saleis noted.

Across the world, contactless technology is defining passenger experience at an increasing number of airports across.

The global smart airport market size is expected to reach about US$26 billion by 2025, according to a research study and it is projected to reach US$232.88 billion by 2027.

About 97 percent of airlines are working on mobile applications as all essential customer services become contactless. Automated biometric boarding gates are considered a priority by 58 percent of airlines, and are a focus of 64 percent of airports for both border checks and flight boarding.

Biometrics remain the focus for investment with 64 percent of airports aiming to roll out self-boarding gates using biometric and ID documentation by 2023 as well as touchless technology.

Touchless technology will help minimize the spread of viruses and reduce the interaction between passengers and staff through contactless check-in, security processes, inflight entertainment and food and beverage pre-ordering.

Essentials for travel now include contactless kiosks, Passenger Reconciliation System (PRS), contactless payments at the airport and mobile apps.

New fast-track passport control service in Dubai

Major General Mohammed Ahmed Al Marri, Director General, General Directorate of Residency & Foreign Affairs – Dubai (GDRFA-D), credited the wise leadership of the UAE government for its proactive approach and foresight in enhancing public service through innovation and smart technologies.

“Recently, we launched a new fast-track passport control service that uses face and iris-recognition technologies.  The new biometric systems deployed at 122 smart gates at arrival and departure terminals in Dubai airports enable passengers to complete passport control procedures between 5 and 9 seconds depending on the movement and steps of the passenger. This system contributed to enhancing travelers’ confidence in the emirate, as such precautionary measures in light of the pandemic formed a safety umbrella for them,” Gen. Al Marri said.

He highlighted the UAE’s efforts in protecting and securing all its ports of entry while providing an exceptional seamless experience for travelers.

“Without the determination of the UAE’s wise leadership and its continuous endeavor to establish the country’s leadership in providing happiness and security for all, it would not have been possible. Today’s aviation sector today is considered one of the most critical sectors that achieved a quantum leap over the past years, as it is considered a major engine for economic growth in the world,” he said.

Dubai is anticipating to welcome more tourists this year as the UAE hosts Expo 2020 Dubai, the first global expo to be held in the Middle East and North Africa, which will run from 01 October 2021 to 31 March 2022.

Gen. Al Marri assured Dubai is fully prepared to welcome visitors intending to participate in Expo 2020 Dubai, saying, “We assure everyone that Dubai is fully prepared and ready to receive visitors to the Expo in October this year…We at the GRDFA Dubai are working to provide all facilities for issuing visas and residency stamping for international participants and exhibitors in Expo 2020 Dubai and giving everything that contributes to the success of this event in cooperation with all concerned parties.”

2021: Year of Transition

UAE General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) Director General Saif Al Suwaidi said signs are pointing to a significant air travel demand in the second half of 2021 and sustainable recovery in air operations.

“I am confident that together we will continue our efforts to make 2021 to be a year of transition for sustainable recovery and growth. Today, despite the catastrophe and the vaccination rollout and increase in supply of vaccines globally more passengers are expected to return to travel and the UAE expects even more,” said Al Suwaidi in his welcome address at the Air Traffic Control (ATC) Forum and Global Airport Leaders Forum (GALF) co-located with the three-day Airport Show 2021 in Dubai.

In 2019, the UAE contributed to around 2.2% (in top 30 countries) in terms of worldwide international flights despite its small population. The country was also heavily relied on by other nations in transporting goods between continents through its robust logistics and air cargo industries.

Al Suwaidi noted the UAE immediately communicated with airports and airlines and formed several internal and national bodies to adjust and adopt safety certification to maintain an acceptable safety and security standards and support the global aviation industry.

“On the aviation safety and security front we have adapted publishing and adopting an unprecedented facilities and provisions and techniques to ensure continuity of services to maintain safe operation of our aircraft, airports and air navigation infrastructure,” he said. “From the time the total suspension of the non-essential operations was started in March 2020, we have started working and planning for the recovery during the peak of the pandemic.”

Ismaeil Al Balooshi, Assistant Director General Aviation Safety Affairs, UAE GCAA, said the UAE community is back to normalcy thanks to an effective vaccination strategy.

“Retail and recreation is an indicator for community normalization. Our recovery will be surging when other states will open up with the UAE, and we are all eyeing at normalcy for 2021. Countries have opened their borders, but with more entry conditions.  It is a hopeful situation towards recovery,” he noted.

Stronger Together

His Highness Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of Dubai Civil Aviation Authority, Chairman of Dubai Airports and Chairman and Chief Executive of Emirates Airline and Group, who opened the 20th edition of the Airport Show said, “The aviation industry has a history of successfully bouncing back from crises and the Covid-19 pandemic is no different. The setback is temporary and we will again be on the tracks of transformation. The overwhelming response to the Airport Show is an indication of the aviation world’s strong confidence in Dubai and its global efforts.”

Like the previous editions, the Airport Show 2021 has three co-located events: Global Airport Leaders Forum (GALF), Airport Security Middle East, Air Traffic Control (ATC) Forum along with and the Women in Aviation (WIA) General Assembly.

The event welcomed the participation of more than 95 exhibitors from 21 countries, 100-plus Hosted Buyers from over 20 countries and 36 exhibitors at five country pavilions by Switzerland, Germany, Italy, France and the UK.

The event’s organizer, Reed Exhibitions, said the numbers are overwhelming given the prevailing travel restrictions across the globe following the 21st century’s second pandemic and the massive impact it has on the airports and airlines businesses on the planet.

Adding, the response to the Airport Show is a clear indication of a possible journey of the aviation industry on the road to recovery and its unfaltering confidence and tremendous efforts to revive and restore the lost business levels and the growth momentum.

France’s Pavilion had 10 companies participating highlighting innovations and smart solutions in technologies. Before the pandemic, the French airport sector has a turnover of €63.5 billion globally. In France alone the sector consists of 530 companies employing about 100,000 people.

Italy’s pavilion was the largest at the event with 24 companies participating through the collaboration of the Italian Trade Agency (ITA), the Embassy of Italy to the United Arab Emirates and the Employers’ Association for Italian engineering, architectural and technical economic consulting organizations (OICE).

Amedeo Scarpa, ICE Director, Dubai, described the UAE and Italy’s bilateral trade relations as robust and expressed hope for brighter prospects in the future.

“The fact that trade fairs have resumed, and that Italy has more exhibitors than any other country this week, is an immensely important sign. The construction and infrastructure sectors have always played a fundamental part in Dubai’s market, and the UAE’s,” said Scarpa.

“Across the public and private sector, there are over 30,000 active projects, and as the country has already launched into its post-pandemic phase, it’s an honour to initiate direct channels of communication with Emirati contractors and foster collaborations with Italian companies, including small and medium-sized ones in the fields of design, engineering, construction and software services, that are connected to activation and operation airport hubs in the UAE. Working with the vital support of our Embassy and the Consulate General, the ICE is hoping to reactivate these business channels,” he added.


Italy’s Ambassador to the UAE, Nicola Lener, said: “The partnership established between the OICE and ICE at the Airport Show Hybrid+ 2021 further confirms how vital internationalisation is within the engineering, architecture and technical-economic consultancy. As a highly strategic sector, it completely directs and activates the entire Italian chain of infrastructures and related services.”

Hope and Optimism

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) forecasts some 2.8 billion people to travel this year with the opening of the borders.

IATA, which represents 290 airlines accounting for over 82 percent of the total global air traffic, says people have not lost their desire to travel, and that travel has returned to its near-normal levels in several places where the travel restrictions have been removed. It had been earlier expected that the Arabian Gulf airports would handle 450 million passengers annually once travel returns to its previous levels.

Key decision-makers from major airports in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia (MENASA) have come to the Show in search of exploring and acquiring the newest products and services for their facilities for enhancing and safer passenger facilitation.

“There have been strong positive signs of recovery all over the world. Hopefully, 2021 will be a better year for the aviation/airport industry. The new standard for services at the airport will be seamless and contactless. The aviation industry will regain the lost momentum soon, especially in Dubai which is always ready to overcome all type of challenges. emaratech is showcasing this year a complete paperless/seamless experience to ease the passenger’s journey towards a safe flight and circulation within the airport,” said Thani Alzaffin, Group CEO, emaratech.

Ali Salim Al Midfa, Chairman of Sharjah International Airport Authority, said expects gradual return in the aviation industry in the region after experiencing exceptionally challenging times due to the Covid-19 pandemic. He called for the strengthening of communication and cooperation in the industry to share plans and ideas and learn about the newest technologies.

IATA continues to urge governments to make data-driven decisions to manage the risks of COVID-19 when reopening borders to international travel. Strategies without quarantine measures can enable international travel to restart with a low risk of introduction of COVID-19 to the travel destination, it noted.

“Data can and should drive policies on restarting global travel that manage COVID-19 risks to protect populations, revive livelihoods and boost economies. We call on the G7 governments meeting later this month to agree on the use of data to safely plan and coordinate the return of the freedom to travel which is so important to people, livelihoods and businesses,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s Director General.

IATA had since teamed-up with Airbus and Boeing to demonstrate potential methodologies to manage the risks of COVID-19 to keep populations safe while restarting global connectivity. Aviation, including manufacturers, effectively manages and mitigates risk every day to keep air travel safe. Using these skills, Airbus and Boeing have developed data-driven risk-management models to understand the impact of various options.