Turn ‘disruption’ into an adjective and stick the words technology or innovation behind it, and the meaning is transformed into something exciting and new.

Mention disruption and it conjures up negative connotations. Thoughts of traffic jams, flight delays or extreme weather causing mayhem. Turn it into an adjective, disruptive, and stick the words technology or innovation behind it and the meaning is transformed into something exciting and new. In the corporate world, the term now suits those who work from bean bags or have their meetings around a foosball table (a gross generalisation, I know). And it strikes fear into more established, conservative companies who have spent years and millions in developing and conserving lower risk solutions.

Those who fear disruptive technology are generally those who have skin in the game. Those who have built up infrastructure or intellectual property. Those who have sunk costs and have made long term investments in products and services. The disruption comes in the form of those who see the opportunity to piggy back off other peoples’ assets to support something “new”. It is often a combination of different technologies which will provide a platform to offer a lower cost, user friendly, more efficient and perhaps lower quality service.

Disruptive technology effectively challenges the status quo. The offerings may not initially be the most reliable, but the successful disruptors generally hit the right price point and are not “over-designed”. They often present a more convenient option to an already established service.

There are various examples of disruptive technologies being applied to the airports industry. Services like Uber circumventing the normal taxi operation – using customers’ new-found connectivity to link to independent parties using their own vehicles. The impacts of disruptors such as Uber are far reaching and affect the finances of all concerned (even if the legality of their operation is being questioned).

So the question is how to plan for these disruptive technologies or innovations in the future development of airports. The easy answer is you can’t. Technology is moving so fast that it is very difficult to predict what new changes will come about. The key is to spot them in time to be able to adapt and not overprovide infrastructure which is going to become obsolete.

Here are some current technologies and service offerings which have a direct or compounded effect on the airports industry. If we can understand what the effects of each will be, then we can work out how the technologies can be utilised in a positive way


The “taxi” service is already hitting the finances of the registered taxi companies and, in turn, the larger airports. The vehicles are indistinguishable from normal “meeters and greeters” picking up friends and family, and therefore cannot be charged a fee for a premium pick-up location. They also share rides, meaning the low fares are diluted across a few parties. Taken to its logical conclusion, the Uber service will see the established, more expensive taxi services wither and cease. This impacts a lucrative, non-aero revenue stream and leaves existing taxi waiting areas surplus to requirements. However, the current question marks over its legality and security mean that business travellers are less likely to subscribe. It can’t be long before those aspects are sorted out. Also, see driverless cars below for a compounded challenge!

Driverless vehicles:

Google were the first. Now they have been joined by Uber and Ford who announced they will have these driverless vehicles on the road by 2021. Five years will go in a flash! Already in Pittsburgh, Uber are offering free rides in their experimental driverless vehicles (complete with an Uber engineer to make sure it all works). The ramifications though will be much more than the replacement of taxis. Passengers in the future will be able to travel to the airport in their driverless car, get dropped off, before the car takes itself back home (or to a local side road, or even to serve any number of other passengers whilst you’re away). This would quickly render the airport’s car parking assets obsolete, removing a rich source of revenue and leaving structures which are difficult to repurpose. The question which should be asked is whether these passengers, who will be arriving more relaxed, will be in a frame of mind to spend more in the airport’s retail outlets? And would designing the car park structure in a flexible way allow it to be repurposed into an office building or other use?

Mobile phone technology:

The organisation of your life through your smart phone is already a reality – check in, order coffee, receive alerts and notifications without pausing for breath. But how can the airport turn this into something which provides a two-way flow of information? Can the retail outlets guide the traveller to something they’re interested in (or actually need) just by tapping into their personal information? Can your smartphone alert you that you need to buy a shirt since the last one you bought was x months ago, in much the same way as your smart fridge will tell you you’re running low on milk? The smart agents in phones – Siri, Google Now and other “personal digital assistants” – will keep getting smarter. Airports need to provide systems which will close the retail loop by being able to target their retail products to individuals and increase what each passenger spends.

Electric powered suitcases:

As electric motors get smaller and smaller, they’re finding their way into more and more devices – bikes, skateboards and even suitcases. You can now ride behind your own suitcase, gliding through the terminal without having to set foot on the ground! The knock-on effects as these become more popular (heaven forbid) will be a reduction in the need for trolleys and even travolators; two costly pieces of equipment for airport operators. Designers of new build facilities should think carefully not only about whether to provide space for travolators and trolley circulation but also to allow easy access for other forms of propulsion.


Use of facial recognition, retina scans and other identification confirmation has been around for some time, though has generally been used for security. Confirming the identity of a passenger and comparing against a database of baddies on a remote computer server is generally as far as it gets. How many prospects does this open up though if we can overcome the privacy challenges? There are a myriad of retail opportunities through customer recognition and product targeting. This already happens when you visit a website on the internet and a “cookie” gets logged on your PC. Look for a holiday and the next time you log on the same holiday destination will pop up on the side of the screen. If data can be captured and reused, then this opens the way for the likes of augmented reality, with an ever-changing and personalised advert for all those things even you didn’t realise you needed!

Smart buildings:

Technology can be used to the airport company’s advantage to reduce costs as well as increase revenue. Use of energy for heat, light and air quality can be finely controlled to optimise consumption. Photovoltaic energy (and other generators of renewable energy) can be built into the fabric of the building rather than being “strapped on” to the finished structure. Replacing roof panels with photovoltaic cells is one measure, though this can be combined with coolant pipes running through the cells to heat water whilst making the cells more efficient.


Building Information Management, or BIM, is the current buzz word in the coordinated design and construction of buildings and other infrastructure. It allows the pieces of the complex 3D jigsaw to be put together on the screen to make sure everything fits and ties into the structures which already exist. This is now being combined with reality capture using hi-res cameras strapped to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or drones). Whilst not entirely popular at airports, in the right hands they can be used to capture intricate details of existing assets. But why should their use stop there? Why not use them for cleaning hard-to-get-to parts of a building or even changing light bulbs on the roof of a terminal building which is too high to reach by cherry picker?

Planning or safeguarding for disruptive technology is essential, though will never be easy. Just as we design with safety in mind for the full life of an asset, so we must incorporate what we know and what we think we know into the planning and design of airports. The constant in airport development is that things will change, nothing is ever finished. How much they will change depends on how we embrace or react to the benefits or challenges of new technology and the speed of its development.

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Tristan Hughes

Technical Director - Airport Engineering

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