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How IT helps Changi Airport to be smart, sweet and swift

Technology is a key enabler for many of the productivity improvements that the airport has undertaken to stay efficient.

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"I would say we are reaping the benefits of our work in data analytics so far. However, I think there is so much more we can do. With our Swift, Sweet and Smart initiatives, we have created a platform for collaboration based on information and agreed processes. The strong fact-based approach to solve difficult system-of-system level problems is something we will continue to emphasise so that we can get the most of data analytics in our service ecosystem." - Steve Lee, CIO, Changi Airport Group

AS the world's sixth biggest and most award-winning airport in the world, Changi Airport is one of the greatest success stories of Singapore. Last year, 54.1 million passengers passed through the airport. About 100 airlines flying to 300 cities in more than 70 countries and territories worldwide take off from the airport where a flight takes off or lands once every 90 seconds.

Despite the sheer volume of traffic, service standards are very high. The airport has won more than 480 awards since its opening in 1981. It has won UK Business Traveller's "Best Airport in the World" Award for the past 27 years, and has also been conferred the Skytrax "Airport of the World" award in 2013 and 2014.

The airport is managed by the Changi Airport Group (CAG) and one of the reasons for its success is a robust information technology (IT) system. Steve Lee, CAG's CIO (chief information officer) and senior vice president for technology, notes that CAG's role can best be described as the "orchestrator" of the service ecosystem surrounding the airport. This includes 40,000 staff from over 200 companies and agencies who work hand-in-hand to provide the world class service that is expected by more than 140,000 travellers who pass through the airport daily.

"My team manages all the major operational systems like the check-in platform, flight information displays; websites and mobile applications; point-of-sales systems for our tenants and other commercial systems; major infrastructure components that include airport WiFi, facilities such as Internet kiosks, attractions such as The Social Tree; and other corporate-wide projects," says Mr Lee.

Technology is a key enabler for many of the productivity improvements that the airport has undertaken to stay efficient and to overcome constraints like availability of manpower and space, he adds.

"I call these initiatives 'Smart Airport' initiatives - 'Smart' stands for service management through analytics and resource transformation. We strive to help our partners and ourselves look for ways in which technology and information can be used as a substitute for resources effectively and efficiently, leading to lower cost of operations."

Giving an example, Mr Lee notes that CAG uses IT to enable the collection of operational data and for converting that data into meaningful insights for business use in operations, retail and customer service. With IT, the organisation has also leveraged on the cloud, both public and private, to help provide cost-effective solutions to CAG and partners, thus reducing cost of the airport for all, he adds.

IT has proved very useful to tackle the labour crunch and at the same time improve productivity, says Mr Lee. "We use IT to obtain deeper insights on performance, both for real-time and post event analysis. This helps in improving deployment of scarce resources like manpower and equipment. Many of the Smart airport projects, like the airport operational system, provide a collaborative platform for airport users."

Mr Lee notes some of the benefits that accrue from the use of the Smart system:

  • Fuse airport operations information on maps and graphical charts - for example plane movements, vehicles and measure on/off block timings. With this ability, operations coordination and management is much improved.
  • Digitise the positions of the aircraft and airside vehicles, status of key resources (for example, aircraft parking stands, runways), and other ground sensors (for example, perimeter security sensors) on an interactive airport map. This provides ground staff with the situational awareness of the airport to better manage operations.
  • Help ground staff to quickly comprehend the situation on the ground such as upcoming flights and passenger volume through graphical charts of operations information. This helps operations staff proactively prepare for possible surges in flight or passenger traffic.

"We are also working closely with various government agencies including the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) to explore how we can collaborate more as the smart airport is a gateway to the smart nation."

Mr Lee observes that in the front office, IT helps to open new channels and ways to connect with customers. IT also provides insights into customer experience and behaviour which in turn help Changi Airport to serve its customers better. In the back office, IT is used to connect various partners across the airport ecosystem easily, and this enables them to coordinate and collaborate effectively to solve operational problems, he adds.

Changi Airport is very well represented in social media. CAG owns and manages the "Fans of Changi" social media platforms that include the largest airport Facebook page in the world with close to 700,000 fans, Twitter and Instagram. "These platforms allow us to engage our passengers, as well as provide an additional platform for feedback and customer service."

Another area of social media engagement is the iChangi App, says Mr Lee. "The app provides real-time flight information and alerts departing passengers of changes in gate hold rooms, or changes in baggage belts for families and friends receiving loved ones.

"Designed to allow ease of travel through Changi Airport, CAG provides passengers real-time access to flight details, terminal maps and information about Changi's retail outlets and eateries through the mobile application."

To date, the app has had more than two million unique downloads across the various mobile operating (OS) platforms such as iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Windows. CAG is recognised among airports for providing one of the best apps for customers, says Mr Lee, adding that over the next year the app would be upgraded further to give access to more services.

While the iChangi app is for customers, CAG has another mobile app for its staff. Called the service workforce empowerment and experience transformation (Sweet) initiative, it is an iPad application designed to allow airport staff to access real-time operational data on the go.

Mr Lee notes that it provides the latest flight information, resource planning, operational reports and even a "chat" function. Changi Experience Agents (CEA), who roam the terminals, are each armed with an iPad with Sweet access which enable them to assist passengers by answering questions pertaining to flight information or facility locations within the terminal. This frees them from being desk-bound, giving them the flexibility of being deployed where they are most needed, adds Mr Lee.

Considering the huge volume of information that is generated by the amount of traffic that Changi Airport sees each year, CAG is a major user of cloud technologies. "We see cloud as being a strategic advantage for us - allowing us to respond more quickly to user needs. It also lowers total costs of investments and allows us to scale infrastructure when we need it on demand. It also minimises the challenge of managing the many end-user platforms that we need to support," says Mr Lee.

Changi Airport is also a private cloud operator. "We build and operate many facilities for the airport community, for example WiFi, campus LAN, data centres, point-of-sales service (both hardware and software), check-in infrastructure. This role is critical in lowering the cost of providing these services for the airport community as we can aggregate demand and also minimise interference and other problems."

All these initiatives involve crunching a lot of information and so it's little wonder that CAG is a heavy user of big data analytics.

Mr Lee notes that with 54 million passengers travelling through the airport last year, every transaction, whether at check-in, retail or boarding, gives CAGs tremendous insights into how it can serve customers better. "Every one of the 1.8 million feedback we receive from the customers every month and the repair and service recovery actions we had taken provide us another large data set to understand how we can innovate and improve.

"Aircraft movements are tracked and statistics and performance measures are also collated for touch points to measure service standards etc. We also have a tremendous data set in terms of retail transactions," he notes.

Such data sets are being leveraged in interesting ways. For example, deep insights into aggregated passenger behaviour can help to better plan resource allocation for check-in and aircraft gates, he observes.

Also, improved coordination and data sharing between agencies can help provide insights and early warning about any potential problem. "For example, if there is a surge of traffic, it would be useful to ground operations and those manning service counters to prepare and resource correctly.

"The data we generate from Swift and service feedback is evaluated constantly to analyse for longer term trends and provide deeper insights to problems, so that systemic and deeper issues can be addressed more effectively," he adds.

Swift stands for service workforce instant feedback transformation system and it was implemented in September 2010 to improve feedback management and raise performance standards of service personnel across all three terminals. It comprises two components - the instant feedback system (IFS) and e-Inspection.

e-Inspection enables timely responses to facility faults across all terminals through real-time inspections by service teams. The system also raises productivity levels of frontline staff such as washroom attendants, facilities management officers and other service personnel, with more streamlined workflows and processes. As at March 2015, a total of 750 Swift instant feedback devices have been installed at nine key customer touch points.

Mr Lee adds that Swift enables immediate assessment of the service level provided by individual staff at the counters. It gives the supervisors the opportunity to commend staff that show exemplary service, he adds.

"Instant feedback empowers our airport partners, enabling them to be more responsive to our customers' feedback. The compiled ratings using business analytics allow our airport agencies to conduct monthly trend analyses and identify any service performance gaps for improvement.

"I would say we are reaping the benefits of our work in data analytics so far. However, I think there is so much more we can do. With our Swift, Sweet and Smart initiatives, we have created a platform for collaboration based on information and agreed processes. The strong fact-based approach to solve difficult system-of-system level problems is something we have taken and will continue to emphasise so that we can get the most of data analytics in our service ecosystem," Mr Lee adds.

Mr Lee believes that a good IT system must be very flexible so that users and management may experiment and develop their hypotheses as they go along. Speed in rapid prototyping is important, he adds.

The system should also make it easy for users to consume the information and through many channels, including mobile devices. Also, platforms must make the work of integrating and networking with many sources of data easy. This includes social media and other less structured data sources like video feeds.

"Platforms must be able to provide reasonable heuristics to help IT and also users get off the ground faster than if they have to reinvent the wheel. Many of the questions users ask are quite similar and it would be great if there are good products that give users a quicker headstart. I do see some products out there that are trying to do this," Mr Lee adds.

This series is brought to you by IBM