The Aerotropolis: Managing the Airport of the Future
Evolving passenger behavior patterns are transforming airports.
is the IT&T Director of Athens airport, overseeing the technology that keeps the airport running 24 x 7 x 365. He manages a team of 51 internal and 45 external employees.
George Demtriades, in his own words:
I am the director of the Information Technology and Telecommunications Business Unit at the Athens International Airport. Our unit has the exclusive right to provide IT&T services for the community. This means the airport company, the airlines in the airport, the ground handlers, the shops in the airport, as well as the various establishments within the airport campus. We are responsible for all the infrastructure: telephony, networks, internet provision, for the equipment that is used within the airport by the airlines to allow check-in and baggage handling processes, as well as the rest of the VIP equipment within the airport vicinity. I have a team of more than 50 people, and we also employ another 40 to 50 outsourcers who deal mainly with issues of first-level support and help desk. We have quite a job on our hands, since the airport works 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. It works more on holidays than on normal days.
You're managing a pretty big team — 50-plus people on board and 40–50 outsourced. One of the subjects we'll be discussing at the Summit in Warsaw is talent management, which I'm sure must be very important to you.
Yes, it is. When I joined the airport in 2014, one main mandate was that the IT unit should lead digital innovation and provide alternative revenue streams to the business. In other words, it should progress from being a trusted operator to becoming a business partner. This is important because one of the main pillars of the airport is the operation, obviously, and in this sense, we've done exceptionally well. The airport has never had any issues, never stopped operating, never had any major IT incidents. … But as time goes on, we've had to expand our horizons and embrace what's happening in technology. We've worked from the beginning to organize a reskilling process for some people. Complemented by new hires and internal changes, we were able to introduce a new organizational schema, which was leaner and able to address challenges in an even more efficient way.
Many of our IT people have been here since the opening of the airport, and it's been very important for us to take advantage of this experience. We've mixed and matched these people with people from the outside, who can bring in the fresh air, the ideas, the innovation, all the things we needed to become a business partner. There was a lot of training, there was a lot of connecting with vendors — IBM, HP, Microsoft, Oracle, CISCO, Dell, Lenovo, NetApp. We brought them in, attended seminars and events, and gradually we transformed the internal organization to better utilize all the latest technologies in the marketplace. This has led to a new organizational plan with distinct roles. Now we have the pleasure and the luxury of having specialty areas like project management, business analysts and innovation engineers, as well as traditional ones like network engineers and operators.
You said most of your team has been in place since the beginning of the airport. How do you handle the need for all the new skills that are now in demand? Do you look for experts and outsource, or do you invest a lot in training your team?
Actually, we do both — for the very simple reason that we cannot go out and simply hire more people. We have built significant human capital since 2000, which we want to use. An airport operation is a very complex business. There are a lot of stakeholders, a lot of systems involved. In our case, the people who built it also have the expertise. It is very important that you keep this expertise and take advantage of it. Therefore, we decided we will do a lot of training and, at the same time, we will outsource projects and use our internal resources as resources within the project. In this way, our people will learn about new technologies and how to implement things, and get acquainted with new methodologies and stuff like the Internet of Things (IoT). They can enrich their own capital and become more accomplished professionals.
You mentioned how the airport has been changing as a venue, as an organization, and this, of course, probably reflects the massive growth in general air traffic. What is really transforming airports today?
What is changing airports today is not simply the growing traffic, but rather the changing patterns in passenger behavior. In previous years, what was important was that people would come to the airport, probably buy some duty-free goods, get on the plane safely, and leave. This model has changed now, and the primary reason it has changed is because airports, as businesses, have realized that there is a lot of revenue potential in the presence of passengers within the airport premises. … This is the famous "dwelling time." In this context, airports have realized that they need to cooperate with retail stores that have expertise that comes from their ongoing relationship with customers outside the network. And slowly, airports have started becoming like little shopping malls. This is one way that airports started changing. The second way, which happened practically in parallel, resulted from a need for increased accessibility. More people needed the airport and more often, so airports started having different means of accessibility. In previous years you could go by car or by bus.
But take the example of Heathrow, which has Heathrow Direct. In 12 minutes, you're in the center of London — which is quite impressive if you think that 15 to 20 years ago you needed 40 minutes. Now we are talking about hyperloop, and if this really arrives the way it has been planned, it will practically replace everything else in terms of forms of communication between the airport and nearby cities, or even those farther away. So, on the one hand, you have the change in the patterns of the customers, the passengers, and on the other hand you have the evolution of transport and the different means of transport, along with the need for accessibility. And then airports realized the benefit of real estate, that they have additional space that can be taken advantage of. Then you get hotels, you get big retail stores like outlets, you get exhibition centers … and slowly the airport transforms into a small city. And it's not a simple, small city, it's a Smart City. Why? Because there is a lot of technology involved in all the aspects of running the city. At Athens Airport, we are the entity responsible for the provision of telecommunications, water, power, heating and air conditioning within all the buildings that are in the airport. This means that we don't just have to provide these things, we have to maintain and measure them. With the advent of IoT, all these things become a little bit simpler to use, but also more integrated. So, a building management system that was expensive 20 years ago is now a not-so-expensive system, because you do not need to use expensive sensors anymore, you can use IoT sensors. So, we see that something that was mostly plain infrastructure has changed into a city, and that city turned into a Smart City, and considering it now amasses a lot of people — a lot of travellers, a lot of visitors, a lot of locals, a lot of retail customers — it becomes like a metropolis. And, given the fact that it is an airport, the metropolis turns into an aerotropolis.
You mentioned IoT and data analytics as some of the technologies that are being used to support, in essence, a Smart City. Which technologies are most crucial for you today?
In the era that we live, all these technologies are important — you cannot say one is more important than the other. IoT is something you have to look at if you want to run a whole complex like this as a Smart City, because it's got all these sensors. If you want your lights to be turned on and off according to the daylight, or you want temperatures in different areas to be different, if you want to utilize traffic lights in pedestrian crossings, you need to have sensors. So again, you're talking about IoT. Then you need to implement biometrics, because it facilitates passenger travel. Biometrics creates a lot of data, so then in combination with the data you collect from the sensors you start having Big Data that can be used for analysis and exploitation. The next obvious step is to use data analytics to reach educated conclusions about the traffic within your airport, about the mix of passengers, which affects how you manage your marketing activities and how you coordinate with your concessionaires. And the best way to do that is with machine learning through Big Data, and eventually with artificial intelligence, which will enable you to implement, let's say, a lot of bots that will facilitate passenger traffic and provide all of them with a personalized experience in terms of food and beverage or retail, or how easy is to get through security, or where they need to go. So, it's not a single specific technology. One must look at the spectrum of technology and identify which segments of the business relate to which technology and try to implement everything under an integrated masterplan.
You mentioned the transformative impact of passenger behavior, so isn’t social media also important to you? Have you been using it to track passenger needs or behaviors as well?
I don't think there is any business nowadays that can afford not to take social media into consideration. Because social media can make or break your reputation. So, it is important for us, but maybe in different forms and means of use than for an airline like Air France, for example. One distinction that exists between our airport and an airline is that we do not have so much direct contact with the end customer, the passenger. The airline has the direct contact, we have an “incidental” contact. The passenger needs to come through our smart infrastructure to travel. However, it is very important to be able to monitor how this passenger feels within this infrastructure. Is the airport clean? Is it easy to navigate? Does it have enough concessionaires? Is there something that causes distress? These are things you can definitely extract from social media feeds, and yes, we are using social media to extrapolate the sentiment about what passengers would like to see in the future. This is one of the contributing factors in deciding to renew things at the airport. The renovations and new constructions don't happen simply because there is not enough space. You can always find enough space if you make the right adjustments. It is mainly because you understand that customers want something else, something additional, something new, so you make some construction or renovation. Then you suddenly see that, through these changes, there is a vast change in the way that your airport is perceived.
We had such an example at Athens International Airport. We completely renewed the inter-Schengen area, and we did the same with the extra-Schengen area. Suddenly, sales revenues from all the stores in these areas went up more than 20%.
You have a lot of changing factors within the airport structure, such as flight delays, summer holiday peaks, and changing weather conditions, that can be much more dramatic than in past years. Which of these, for you, is the most impactful from a technology perspective?
I can tell you which one is the most fearful: weather conditions. A heavy winter condition that will suddenly hit the roads and stop traffic and things like that. Then you need to have a very fast mobilization of people and resources to address various issues within the airport. Accessibility becomes an issue. This is why we have developed notification systems that allow us to interact with all the community — not just airport employees, but all the community — in cases of emergency, be it an emergency of weather, an emergency of safety, an emergency of security, or simply a notification that everybody needs to be aware of. And these are the things that you worry about, more than peaks, more than flight delays, because even more than technology, it's about physical resource utilization.
Are you a heavy technology user? Do you have some technologies that you use most often at home or that you enjoy most?
I think that all of us who are involved in technology for years become addicted to it. I cannot stop myself uploading new apps on my mobile and testing them, and my colleagues here take advantage of me. So, if there is a new app or anything like that, they always ask me to test it myself. Because it usually happens that the app will not work for me, but it will work for everybody else. Yes, I use technology in practically every aspect of my personal life — at home, in the office.
I like voice assistants very much. I try to use them as much as I can. I book all my appointments through Siri. Or at least I used to, until it hit a bug somewhere in my iPhone. Now it uses more than 26% of my battery, so I turn Siri off and go back to the traditional keyboard, awaiting for a promised fix that will allow me to go back to using such an excellent facility.
Do you enjoy flying?
It would sound strange for the IT director of an airport not to enjoy flying. But I can tell you that, until 2003, I was really scared of flying — not scared, terrified. Then, in 2003, I got a job that involved a lot of travelling, and I had to make up my mind that I will either quit my job or get used to going on planes. And now, getting on a plane is one of the best experiences for me.