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From using algorithms to meet the challenge of allocating aircraft stands to developing solutions for its passengers, operations and commercial partners, the Finnish airport company Finavia harnesses digital innovation to make travelling smooth and sustainable.
In airports all around the world, aircraft stands are allocated daily based on flight schedules and airport data. Calculations for these allocations – which comprise aircraft activities such as arrival, departure and intermediate parking – are made to facilitate smooth operations for airlines and handling agents on the one hand, and ensure airport safety and passenger convenience on the other. How can peak-hour operations be further optimised, taking into account limited resources, unpredictable weather and other constraints?
At Helsinki Airport, the challenge of allocating aircraft stands has grown too complicated for a person to do effectively. The number of gates has increased over the past few years, and rules regarding what plane can be assigned to which of the airport’s 100 stands makes the problem hard enough. Then add the preferences of airlines and commercial partners to the mix – all while maintaining safe and efficient passenger flows throughout – and everything becomes even trickier.
"There is a limit to how much people-centric processes can expand and be more efficient without technology"
At Kittilä Airport in Northern Finland, meanwhile, close to 60 flights arrive and depart on the busiest days, normally around the Christmas season. At this airport, which has excellent connections to major holiday attractions and ski resorts in Lapland, a shortage of parking spots isn’t the only issue. The airport constantly needs to look for ways to provide enough buses, staff and check-in counters to meet the increase in air traffic during this time.
Serious mathematics to the rescue
The answer to both these conundrums? Let an algorithm do the hard work.
When a computer does the plan at Helsinki Airport, we open up the possibility of looking at different scenarios. The algorithm can build new alternatives and offer the best possible stand allocation when, say, the weather is bad or if parts of the airport are closed.
When it comes to Kittilä Airport, this AI application has cut the time it takes to calculate a stand allocation from three hours to a mere 30 seconds. The new parking plan created by the solution has already proven to be more robust against schedule changes. It has also improved collaboration and simplified coordination between different parties at the airport.
Furthermore, the algorithm has allowed for greater transparency: parking spots, planes and buses are now shown on a single screen, which makes it easy to understand what is happening at the airport at a glance. Its use has likewise enabled lower CO2 emissions – the likelihood that a plane has to circle Kittilä before a parking space becomes available has been reduced, saving tones of fuel.
Core digital projects at Finavia
Algorithm use and situational awareness are two of Finavia’s key digital projects. We have noticed that algorithm-based thinking is something that other airports and airport operators could also use to optimise their workforce or fixed assets and thereby save money. We are now looking into commercial cooperation with these groups or the commercialisation of our intellectual property rights.
As far as operational effectiveness is concerned, the main development has been done around the AOS (Aiport Operational Status) tool. It provides a shared situational understanding on the keys to the future of successful airport operations: how the airport performs, how operative challenges can be mitigated before they arise, and how data can be harnessed to make better decisions in the ecosystem.
To support this operational status tool, we at Finavia are implementing machine vision. The most relevant example is when we use queue measurements to calculate how many persons are going through the process points – such as security control – and how long it takes them to do so. This is done with a video feed captured from a bird’s eye view and real time visualisation. Situational awareness allows us to make calculations for future efficiency reporting and planning activities.
Solutions for passengers, operations and commercial partners
In terms of digital development, we are concentrating on two fronts. First, we have digital solutions for passengers. This consists mainly of communication channels and solutions like our chatbots, web pages and applications. We are, for instance, streamlining parking booking and improving website accessibility.
Second, we continuously work on digital solutions to improve the efficiency of our key operations, a theme that will continue to be important for us in the years to come. This part involves optimising resource allocation of any kind.
In addition, we can provide certain services for our commercial partners, such as creating passenger journeys for them. Going back to stand allocation, if we have certain airlines and certain passengers coming from a specific country, and we know that these passengers are more likely to be interested in particular brands, then we may decide to park those planes near those stores. This allows said passengers to walk through that part of the airport when they proceed to security check, for example.
Responsible and profitable growth made possible by technology
The Covid-19 crisis has made it clear that efficiency is even more important for us. Efficient operations at our airports enable a fast and smooth experience for the customer and directly impact customer satisfaction. Digital solutions will continue to help automate processes and optimise them.
There is a limit to how much people-centric processes can expand and be more efficient without technology. When you want to scale up and handle larger numbers of passengers, you need to automate something at some point. Technology will be the key enabler for that sustainable growth.