Project Management Institute

Big Data in Flight

New Projects Help Airports Solve Headaches



A lot can go wrong on flights: lost luggage, delays on the tarmac, missed connections and canceled flights, for starters. But these headaches could diminish as project teams leverage reams of data to improve every aspect of the travel process.

Around the globe, airports and airlines are sponsoring big data projects to alleviate airport congestion and make air travel more efficient. As airports struggle to accommodate a growing number of passengers while operating at near maximum capacity, innovative use of data could deliver big benefits.

John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, New York, USA is implementing integrated planning software that uses big data and forecasting models to track visitor flow and flight operations so the airport can better predict traffic patterns and adapt staffing levels in response. Before, the team had been using one giant spreadsheet. Similar projects are already underway in other cities. London, England’s Heathrow Airport is using big data to better predict whether passengers will make their connections to avoid flight delays. And airports in Sydney, Australia and Copenhagen, Denmark are using sensors and big data to reduce choke points by anticipating foot traffic flows.

“One of the biggest challenges on these projects is figuring out what data you need to achieve these goals,” says Jun Chen, PhD, senior lecturer at the School of Engineering, University of Lincoln, Lincoln, England. He’s the project lead for a three-year, £1 million airport big data project in Lincolnshire, England. Locating data is just the first challenge. Next comes building reliable systems to model factors such as aircraft movement and fuel consumption, which teams can then use to coordinate and optimize air traffic and flight paths.

Dr. Chen’s project team is using algorithms (some relying on machine learning) to calculate optimal airport ground traffic. The goal is to shorten the time to takeoff and reduce fuel consumption. His team began by meeting with stakeholders from airlines, airports, aircraft engine manufacturers and universities to share their project model and discuss terms for accessing the data. Once they saw the value in what Dr. Chen’s team wanted to do, they were excited to share the data, he says. His team is now running simulations to validate the reliability of various proposed models against the data and to test travel models to see where efficiencies can be gained to improve ground movement. “Improving the efficiency of surface movement plays a key role in increasing overall airport capacity,” Dr. Chen says.

The PASSME project aims to cut 60 minutes from the average passenger journey.


“As we get more sophisticated in our use of data to understand the dynamics of air travel, we will be able to achieve previously impossible efficiencies.”

—Jun Chen, PhD, School of Engineering, University of Lincoln, Lincoln, England

Creating these efficiencies isn’t far off. All the data currently exists—it’s just a matter of finding and using what’s important, says Sicco Santema, director of the management consulting firm Scenter and professor of marketing and supply management at Delft University of Technology, Delft, the Netherlands. “All of the information is there, it’s just hidden in silos.”

Mr. Santema and his team are trying to crack open those silos through PASSME, a three-year project funded by the European Union (EU)’s Horizon 2020 innovation program. The project, which started in 2015 and involves a dozen public and private organizations, aims to cut 60 minutes from the average passenger journey, from their home to their destination, made within the EU. Project objectives include providing door-to-door luggage handling by sending luggage from a person’s home to their destination via a parcel service provider and building a personalized travel app with features such as routes to the gate and more advanced passenger tracking.

All of this is possible if the project teams are able to integrate multiple real-time data streams in and around the passenger’s whole journey in order to make it seamless and increase the experience, Mr. Santema says. “Effective use of big data is an enormous part of this program.”

But getting access to and leveraging data is just one of many challenges project teams will have to face. They will also need to juggle privacy issues and get a whole network of airports and airlines on board to show results at scale.

But as industry stakeholders start to see the impact these projects can have on time and cost, they’re getting more excited about the possibilities, Dr. Chen says. “As we get more sophisticated in our use of data to understand the dynamics of air travel, we will be able to achieve previously impossible efficiencies.” —Sarah Fister Gale

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