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Big Data and how it can transform infrastructure planning

Ian Burrows (Senior Digital Insights Director, O2 Motion), together with Richard Hartshorn (Aviation Technical Director, Atkins), look at how mobile data and insight enables high quality and timely decision making within the aviation sector. 

Everything we thought we knew about the way population travelled and their mobility is evolving.  We can no longer place significant reliance on static datasets, if we are to collectively understand, and importantly ensure, we are providing the best passenger experience.

Travel behaviours and patterns continue to change even compared to a few months ago. These are evolving forever, whether it be for leisure or work.  By using dynamic insights, allows unique and at scale evidence to be used to provide optimised experiences, but also hopefully economically recover more rapidly from the pandemic.

When passenger volumes bounce back after the pandemic, airport operators will be looking at many ways to re-build their shattered balance sheets. Increasing productivity from the airport infrastructure will be front and centre in many airport’s recovery strategies. Simply put, this means delivering higher passenger volumes from the same space, reducing operating expenditure (Opex) per passenger, re-prioritising capital expenditure (CapEx) plans, and encouraging greater commercial spend, whilst having a relentless focus on improving service and experience levels.

To achieve this nirvana requires a collaborative effort across the many business partners and service providers that deliver airport operations. However, if there is one key enabler, it’ll be access to high quality operational data. The aircraft and bag journey through the airport is often recorded with many time stamps, but there’s a sporadic understanding of the passenger’s journey from home to aircraft door (and vice versa).

Sourcing accurate operational data is the starting point to enable high quality planning decisions. Sampling surveys have been the traditional approach where staff with stopwatches, clipboards and questionnaires laboriously collect observations. More recently, Beacon Technology has been used to measure passenger flow as well as providing other way-finding and commercial information to passengers.

Today, we are seeing the rollout of sensors and cameras that measure occupancy and queue lengths with real time monitoring and response by teams collocated in operational centres. This progress is encouraging but these will not help achieve a deep understanding of passenger behaviour in an airport or across the passengers’ whole end to end journey.

Imagine if for every flight we were able to map everyone’s journey that day: where they started, what transport mode they took to the airport, how long it took to get them to the front door of the terminal, their speed through the terminal, how they used the space, their dwell time and location, their age, gender and so on. And over time, we could understand how the behaviours change by time of day, across the week, months and seasons. This is the opportunity that mobile phone data can unlock for airport operators.

O2 Motion provides a powerful alternative to traditional data capture methods. It uses all the mobile events that O2 UK captures 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Each device has a unique identifier although it is aggregated and anonymised for reporting.* This information is then extrapolated to represent the national population. Recent investment to measure activity levels during the pandemic has improved the latency significantly and is very close to near time reporting.

Smart cells complement this data by providing additional granularity, sharpening the focus from 100 metres all the way down to five. Using this data along with demographic data, O2 can show which types of people are where and when. The information can be broken down by age, gender, home locations and affluence bracket, for example.

Combined with other automated airport data bases such as boarding card scans and aircraft gating plans, the potential to understand the detailed experience for passengers on the day and how they use airport infrastructure is transformational. And with these deeper insights, value can be unlocked. For instance, improving the accuracy of the passenger reporting profile by say 5% in to labour intensive operations such as check-in or security could provide significant resource management benefits and therefore Opex savings. Or identify missed opportunities to convert landside forecourt activity into car parking growth. Or identify where wasted time can be taken out of the airport ecosystem to improve the overall efficiency and experience for users.

The potential of mobile phone data has always been known. The pandemic accelerated the development of this capability and now airport managers can take advantage in creating the next generation of truly smart, efficient and resilient airports.

Want to understand your customers better – contact the O2 Business team or speak to them on 0800 955 5590.

* ‘All O2 data is anonymised and aggregated’


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