Project Management Institute

Flying High Tech

As IT Upgrades Take off at Airports, Project Leaders Juggle New Requirements and Risks




Maurice Jenkins, Miami-Dade Aviation Department, Miami, Florida, USA

The need to keep passengers safe and on schedule is driving airports around the world to green-light hightech upgrades or overhauls. And project leaders are juggling new requirements and new risks: Tech-savvy travelers expect smartphone apps that streamline check-in and baggage claim processes, and intensifying threats from terrorist groups are speeding implementation of sophisticated new security systems.

Airports’ investment in IT projects increased to US$8.7 billion in 2015 from just under US$6 billion in 2013, according to air travel industry IT company SITA. Such spending is likely to push higher as the number of global air travelers continues to take off. The International Air Transport Association projects 7 billion people will pass through airports by 2034—double the approximately 3.5 billion air travelers in 2015.

To handle growing crowds, some airports are turning to new tech to replace manual identification verification screening. Facial recognition technology is being implemented as part of a US$2.2 billion expansion project at Singapore Changi Airport that's scheduled to be completed in 2017. A similar two-year pilot project was launched in 2015 at Aruba's airport. The technology matches travelers’ faces to the biometric data contained in electronic passports. (See “Face Value,” page 36.)


“Airports are mini cities, with a large number of stakeholders with varying goals. Everyone has a different objective, which makes project planning and delivery a huge challenge.”

—Sikander Jain, CH2M India, Mumbai, India

Implementing such cutting-edge technology in a highly regulated, fast-moving environment—the tech can't be shut down for system maintenance—can be daunting for project managers. “Airports are mini cities, with a large number of stakeholders with varying goals,” says Sikander Jain, program manager and managing director, CH2M India, Mumbai, India. While regulators and immigration agents are focused on security, airlines also must keep flights on schedule and provide a smooth travel experience for passengers. “Everyone has a different objective, which makes project planning and delivery a huge challenge.”


Airport IT project leaders juggle all the different requirements—security, reliability, ease of use—while ensuring technology adheres to all global safety and technical regulations, says Ian Stamatakis-Brown, director of programs and projects for automated security system provider Vision-Box, Lisbon, Portugal. “Security is the baseline for what we do, then we look for ways to improve the passenger experience.”

To make sure projects meet all requirements, his team zeroes in on engagement with airport sponsors and contractors. Thorough documentation and strong communication ensures that all equipment arrives before project installation begins so the team can complete the project in the shortest time frame possible, he says.

“We also understand that all airports are different, from design and lighting to the type of passengers coming through, and we factor these differences into the design of our products and solutions,” he says.

Checking all the requirement boxes is essential. Waiting until the end of the project to verify that requirements match security regulations, for instance, is a sure way to delay or derail the project, says John McCarthy, PhD, research fellow for ServiceTec Global Services, Oxford, England.

“Security needs to be considered throughout the project planning and management process, and assessed as part of every sprint or milestone review,” he says. That includes testing the technology throughout development and implementation to make sure it meets all local and international requirements. “You have to be able to demonstrate the robustness of your security at every stage of the project to work in this environment.”

The highly connected nature of airport IT systems—they're constantly sending and receiving information detailing flight schedules and weather patterns—means many of these projects must meet global security standards. “Everyone needs to share information and have a baseline understanding about how to keep that information protected so when two networks converge it doesn't compromise security,” Dr. McCarthy says.

To do that, project teams need to incorporate training into the project plan to ensure every group that touches critical data understands what changes are being made and what impact their performance has on the system. “The project plan has to take into account the technology, the processes and the people if it's going to work,” he says.


Project managers are handcuffed on airport IT projects. Airports can't be shut down for system upgrades for even one day, so project teams have to walk a delicate tightrope to deliver these projects within rigid timelines, says Victor Manuel Abril Suarez, PMP, infrastructure engineer at El Dorado International Airport in Bogotá, Colombia.


Around the globe, airports are getting tech makeovers. Whether delivering security upgrades or new traveler conveniences, these projects are improving the passenger experience.


Location: Frankfurt, Germany

Travelers can browse and reserve items at airport shops without leaving their seats thanks to the first phase of a project completed in December 2015. The next phase promises even more convenience to travelers: having online purchases delivered to their waiting area.


Location: Atlanta, Georgia, USA

A US$1 million project completed in May implemented two enhanced security lanes to speed passenger flow. In the first week, the new lanes screened 30 percent more passengers than the airport's standard lanes.


Location: Singapore

A SG$1.3 billion project to add a fourth terminal at one of Asia's busiest airports will expand use of a biometric screening technology to automate check-in, bag-tagging and boarding. The sponsor estimates automation will cut costs by as much as 40 percent. The terminal is slated to open in 2017.


Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

As part of a US$30 million terminal redesign project on course for completion in mid-2018, more than 1,000 Apple iPads will be installed and 15 new tech-and dining-driven gate lounges will be unveiled. The tablet computers will allow passengers to play games and order food and drinks to the waiting area.

“For each system there are millions of requirements, assumptions, variables, codes, equipment and technology, and an endless number of aspects that can lead a project to fail,” he says. “Carefully planning each area of knowledge needed on the project and tracking critical milestones will help ensure objectives are achieved.”


“An effective business plan, good communication and a clear understanding of what you are trying to accomplish can help you avoid pitfalls and scope creep and ensure the project you deliver adds value.”

—Maurice Jenkins

Constant change is one aspect many airports must manage, says Kris DeBolle, data services officer at Brussels Airport Company, Brussels, Belgium. Too often, stakeholders aren't willing to approve the process changes necessary to make the technology work. When that happens, projects can get delayed or shelved indefinitely. Culture change is needed to prevent such failures, he says.

“Breaking down silos to facilitate the necessary data exchange takes collaboration and trust,” he says. “Change evokes resistance. That's hard to overcome.”

Mr. DeBolle encountered this when he led implementation of the Brussels Airport collaborative decision-making project, an IT integration effort to improve the efficiency of operations at European airports. The integrated platform provides realtime flight information and uses data analytics to improve aircraft turnaround and pre-departure sequencing processes. Laying the groundwork for a smooth transition into such systems means project teams should involve department heads in project planning from the start so they understand required changes and can participate in devising new processes to share data, Mr. DeBolle says.


When airlines’ decades-old computer systems crash, global disruption can ensue: Flights are delayed and canceled, and tickets can't be bought. Airline companies across the world are taking steps to avoid such risks—and ensure uninterrupted service for travelers. But the approach to such projects varies.


SYSTEM UPGRADES: Replacement of aging in-house systems is one option. Southwest Airlines Co. in Dallas, Texas, USA this year launched a three-year, US$500 million project to build a new IT platform. The system, slated to be completed in 2018, will deliver a more flexible reservation system and allow Southwest to streamline flight schedules on non-peak travel days.


OUTSIDE HELP: Airlines increasingly outsource IT operations to tech firms in an attempt to reduce operation costs—and boost system performance. In June, Emirates Airlines in Dubai, United Arab Emirates inked a 10-year, US$300 million deal with IBM to provide IT infrastructure services, including ticketing and reservations.

“You need to talk to each other every day and create forums where leaders are involved in decision-making to keep them committed,” he says.


First-class stakeholder management isn't possible during airport technology projects unless project teams are able to identify stakeholders at every possible level. To that end, it's important to engage even minor stakeholders who might have an effect on project success, says Maurice Jenkins, director of information systems and telecommunications, Miami-Dade Aviation Department, Miami, Florida, USA.

Most project teams effectively identify the obvious players—airlines, regulators, and the primary contractors and engineers involved with the project. But there are just as many small, often external stakeholders who need to be involved in conversations during project planning and execution. That list might include the local telecommunications company, which is not part of the airport but will need to provide the necessary cabling, or maintenance crews that have to make space available for racks and cables.


“You have to be able to demonstrate the robustness of your security at every stage of the project to work in this environment.”

—John McCarthy, PhD, ServiceTec Global Services, Oxford, England

“There are so many touch points to consider, and they all need to be communicated to everyone involved,” Mr. Jenkins says. The best way to keep everyone up to date is to treat all stakeholders as business partners and to communicate updates that ensure every business initiative is shared across the enterprise, he says. “Otherwise a simple misunderstanding can turn a $1 million project into a $5 million project very quickly.”


With passenger volumes and revenue looking up at airports, tech projects are on the rise.

US$717 billion

Estimated global airport revenue in 2016—a US$7 billion increase from 2015


Projected annual increase for global airport IT spending from 2015-2020



Portion of global airport IT spending devoted to operational systems—the largest segment for the market


3.5 billion

Global airline passengers in 2015


7 billion

Projected number of passengers by 2034


The five fastest-growing markets, in terms of projected passenger increases from 2015-2034:


Mr. Jenkins learned that lesson the hard way. A few years ago, his team deployed a network of battery-operated beacons across Miami International Airport to monitor temperature, traffic flow and other environmental data. It was a low-cost pilot project (a US$35,000 budget and one-month timeline) that Mr. Jenkins’ team felt didn't require a lot of stakeholder involvement. But after they mounted 400 of the devices—each the size of a stack of coins—on surfaces all over the building, 100 of them were missing by the next day.

“We didn't take into consideration that the cleaning crew didn't know what they were, so they took them down,” Mr. Jenkins says. A lot of them got thrown away, and others were turned in to the IT department. Retailers complained that the remaining beacons obstructed their signage. “It was a valuable lesson in the importance of stakeholder involvement,” he says. “But this helped ensure the project's long-term success by revealing that we needed to create an awareness both internally and externally.”

When Mr. Jenkins relaunched the project in 2015, his team let everyone at the airport know what they were doing and requested feedback from retailers on where to locate the devices. Taking the time to engage with every stakeholder and to balance improvements to the passenger experience with the highest levels of security is the only way to deliver a tech project successfully in an airport environment, Mr. Jenkins says.

“An effective business plan, good communication and a clear understanding of what you are trying to accomplish can help you avoid pitfalls and scope creep and ensure the project you deliver adds value.”



To deliver a first-of-its-kind smartwatch app, a project team in the United Arab Emirates had to learn on the fly.

When the Dubai International Airport decided to launch smartwatch apps to provide realtime travel information to passengers, time wasn't on the project team's side. Netherlands mobile development firm M2mobi had just two and a half months to develop, test and release the app so it would be ready before the start of an airport tech conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The city's airport wanted to be the first in the world to offer Apple Watch and Google Android-based watch apps compatible with its systems. To succeed, the project team had to familiarize itself with some unknown technical territory.


The DXB app provides travelers with airport maps, flight times, check-in locations, flight destinations and weather reports. The most essential information, about flights, needed to be shown on the smartwatch apps. With the clock ticking, the M2mobi team held weekly meetings with the client to avoid surprises that could derail the timeline—and to help tweak the project plan when problems arose, says Michiel Munneke, CEO of M2mobi, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

The project's cross-platform compatibility requirement pushed the team to develop additional expertise on the fly. Mr. Munneke's team had experience developing apps for Apple Watch but not for Android, so it built an extra 25 percent into the project schedule. The team used that time to complete online tutorials, watch videos and research best practices to hone their Android knowledge and skills.

“These are never out-of-the-box projects,” Mr. Munneke says.

One big challenge: Merging all of the data streams into the airport's back end proved to be more difficult than the team had anticipated. The team's technical decision-making relied on researching good practices. “There are a lot of analytics and statistical libraries involved, and we had to be sure we made the right choices,” Mr. Munneke says.


“If you don't take the time to figure out how the airport works and how your technology will fit into it, you will set yourself up for failure.”

—Michiel Munneke, M2mobi, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Ultimately, the Apple version was delivered on time, and the Android version was just a week late. The team learned a valuable lesson going forward for airport projects: Respect the complexity of the environment, including how data is shared, controlled and regulated. For instance, the team had external regulations, such as the sponsor's guidelines about data streams, as well as internal requirements such as code reviews.

“If you don't take the time to figure out how the airport works and how your technology will fit into it, you will set yourself up for failure,” he says. That means engaging the client early and often to understand its requirements and objectives as quickly as possible. “These relationships are built on trust, and the more trust you can build from the outset, the better it is for the project.”


ePassport gates at Heathrow Airport, London, England



While installing high-tech screening systems across the U.K., project teams were on the lookout for lessons learned.

The U.K. Border Force had a nationwide goal: implement a next-gen screening system to upgrade and streamline security at passport gates in 20 major airports across Britain. For program and project managers, the task was daunting. The £18.4 million ePassport Gates (eGates) program, which launched in 2014, involved installing biometric identification technology in 180 gates. The framework agreement lasts for four years and was awarded to Vision-Box, a Portuguese company specializing in security and biometrics.

Applying lessons learned from start to finish helped the Vision-Box project teams integrate the eGates system at all passport checkpoints. Because the biometric technology is based on facial-recognition software now in use at airports around the world, the teams could take advantage of lessons learned from other projects outside of the U.K. It also learned from each U.K. airport installation as each project proceeded.

“On early installations, we discovered that the devil is in the details,” says Ian Stamatakis-Brown, head of global project management office operations, Vision-Box, Lisbon, Portugal.

The first rollout of 15 eGates at Gatwick Airport in Horley, England was a major learning opportunity. The building phase took four weeks, and system testing and configuration took an additional four weeks before integration could begin. The teams have since been able to cut both phases in half through better planning, incorporating longer lead times, applying for permits and recognizing up front where bottlenecks might occur on-site.

For example, the team discovered that delivery of security equipment required careful planning at each airport. It learned to lay out an exact route between the entrance and the project deployment space, while confirming all equipment would fit through each hallway and doorway and that elevators could handle the weight of the equipment. The team also learned how to boost eGates usage after installation: It advised on new signage in the right locations to guide travelers toward the new technology.

Laying the groundwork for success required each project team to begin working with each airport's key stakeholders weeks in advance. This involved making sure everyone understood the business case for the technology and that the airport was prepared to deploy extra resources to help passengers use the technology during the first weeks of implementation.

“We are contracted to the U.K. Border Force, but we have learned from experience that if you don't engage all of your stakeholders from the start, the program faces a lot more hurdles,” Mr. Stamatakis-Brown says. “We touch on a lot of specialty areas—airport security, government systems integration, hardware installation and software development, user training and civil engineering works. The projects are quite diverse. And the new technology we introduce often presents a big culture change for both passengers and staff.”


“We have learned from experience that if you don't engage all of your stakeholders from the start, the program faces a lot more hurdles.”

—Ian Stamatakis-Brown, Vision-Box, Lisbon, Portugal



The organization's ability to hone its approach as the project proceeds has helped drive success. Vision-Box teams now do overlapping but staggered implementations at three airports at a time, so deployments are not in the same phase at the same time. This helps speed delivery while spreading the work across multiple teams so there are no bottlenecks, says Jean-Francois Lennon, vice president of global business development at Vision-Box, Lisbon, Portugal. In the first 30 months, the team completed 15 of the airports, and the program is on schedule. (More airports could be added to the system, which would extend the deadline.)

To track project success, the authorities compare the number of passengers who choose the eGates over manual gates, with some reporting over half of passengers able to use eGates choose to do so. That's evidence the new technology is delivering planned benefits, says Mr. Lennon.

“This technology enables these airports and authorities to better utilize their staff, which was a value-add in the business case for this project.” PM

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