When Airports Think Like Tech Companies

by | Mar 10, 2022 | Airports, Digital Transformation

During the Aviation Festival London, Sjoerd Blum, Chief Information Officer, Royal Schiphol Group, suggested airports should think of themselves less as infrastructure and more as tech companies, with technological innovation and data management driving their strategies for recovery and growth.

“Like anybody in the sector, we were severely hit by the crisis that we’re in together, but the good thing is that our long-term ambition still stands. We aim to be the world’s most sustainable and highest quality airport,” Blum said. Blum suggested it is essential to make the most of technology and data to succeed. “No matter if you talk airport operations, if you talk commercial, if you talk safety, security, or asset management, or your staff, you make the difference in the future as an airport if you make technology and data work to the maximum.”

To achieve their goals, Schiphol has prioritized IT and data. “You start to look like a tech company, who does tech for their existence,” Blum said. “If you look through your traditional eyes at an airport, you might still see that infrastructure company that we have been over the past 100 years. But if you look a little bit closer, you see a company driven full with tech, driven forward by the power of data…Think like a tech company. We took that as a leading principle when adjusting because of the [COVID] crisis…But we said we would not only want to adapt because of COVID. We also want to improve. We want to build back better.”

So what does “think like a tech company” mean in practical terms? As Blum explained, it means putting technology to the forefront not as a supporting mechanism for the infrastructure but as the driving engine of the business.

“A tech company first has a foundation on which they built all their IT and data products. Those products are built as part of the business, not by an IT team doing that for the business—as an integrated part of your business, ensuring that it leads to value…You make smart use of what the market can do for you.”

As an integrated part of the business in operations, safety, security, commercial, asset management, and human resource management, Schiphol has developed business platforms that gather data as part of their primary activity. Schiphol has also prioritized connectivity solutions that will support large scale, real-time gathering and sharing of data and building a smart facility.

“We are taking important steps to be ready for the connectivity of tomorrow—thinking about 5G in our enabling technology outlook,” Blum said. “Fully embarking now on the power of what the cloud can do for us and the integration that will come. Our data and AI strategy is not only about the foundational parts, getting one platform doing your engineering, but is also very much focused on getting the products into the business platforms…In essence, the management platform is all about getting to an intelligent asset control centre, safety and security, and a seamless flow biometrics journey.”

Other advantages of technology-led total airport management operations at Schiphol include refining their commercial strategies by making better use of passenger data, creating a “workplace of the future” for staff.

Blum also highlighted the importance of cyber defence in a technology-led airport. “We are opening up as a sector, and the bad guys are aware of it as well. So you need a cyber roadmap that goes together with the steps that you’re taking,” Blum said.

The next step for Schiphol’s tech-company strategy is the potential commercialisation of their technology developments.

“Thinking like a tech company also convinced us that we should no longer just be building products that can bring value to Amsterdam. We are looking at building products that can also function somewhere else in everything we do. That can be within our group, as Schiphol airports, but it can also have value [at other] airports. What we have done is we have partnered up with the market, and we are now able to bring the products that bring value to us, also to other airports.”

Schiphol has developed solutions for staff communications, airport disruption management, and sustainability criteria, among others, which Blum suggested could be offered to airports with fewer IT development capabilities in-house.