Digital asset management – a passport to the best passenger experience

What do Sydney, Heathrow, and Ezhou Huahu airports have in common? They know that creating a stand-out passenger experience relies on their vast number of assets being built and maintained using a digital, data-driven approach. David Elliott, whose career has included 18 years working in technology roles at Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport, explains why the modern airport needs to put digital at the centre of its operation.

Maintenance in an airport – no small feat?

No, far from it. The asset base of an airport might span 500,000+ assets, covering mechanical assets, electrical assets, rail, baggage, etc. To add to that complex picture, it will be continuously evolving as new assets become available and old assets retire.

The performance of many of those assets, 24/7, is critical to smooth operations and to the kind of experience you want your passengers to have.

Consequently, one of the most important features of any airport maintenance strategy is resilience.

That way, when incidents or challenges happen, you can react to them at speed and support a quick recovery to minimise the impact to your passengers, your airline partners, and everyone else impacted within the airport ecosystem.

Looking back a few years, we didn’t have the technical capability that exists today or the opportunity for integrated technology that enables us to bake in resilience that we do today.

Now, the availability of data and new technologies/solutions (automation, AI, predictive analytics, digital twins) means that the opportunities exist to build resilience into everyday operations.

There are so many opportunities to capture, integrate and analyse asset information and to use that information to drive a reliable and enjoyable passenger experience and a slick airport operation.

But – and this is critical – only if you have the ‘right’ data available to you – data that is trusted, reliable, current and unambiguous.

A non-functioning asset – what is its impact?

Let’s take a fault with a baggage system that means some bags don’t make the intended flights – that equates to disgruntled passengers. Plus there is the associated problem of having somewhere to store the bags that aren’t going onto flights as they should be. Time does not stand still while the problem is being fixed – so more passengers are still coming, with more bags.

A single fault can lead to a massive impact – and a massive cost. Airports must be ever ready for these challenges and able to respond in an agile and nimble way. Even better – they should be working to prevent their occurrence in the first instance.
Where you have siloed maintenance and inventory systems, and your information is difficult to access and use – that makes this agile approach hard.

So too is predicting how assets, which are in constant use, will react over time and to different stimulus.

Airport teams, working in these highly complex and fast-moving environments, need their data to be integrated and to have real-time visibility of what is going on across the airport. Armed with current, reliable data you can anticipate problems, increase diagnostic accuracy, and extend the lifecycle of your assets.

What are the main challenges airports have with their data today?

The main challenges have been really well illuminated by Sydney Airport, whom Bentley Systems and Cohesive (Cohesive is a Bentley company) have been working to help create a ‘digital twin’.

Sydney’s digital programme was prompted by their data challenges. They found that their data was complex, scattered across different business units and stored in separate databases and systems.

Their maintenance engineers were relying on a ‘digital print room’ – a web server, containing more than 20,000 static PDFs of plans and site drawings. Relevant plans and documents had to be found and printed for each job.

To meet corporate and regulatory requirements, the airport’s design team had to update documents monthly, with their time being consumed generating dozens of complex maps and facility drawings. You can read more about it here.

These sorts of issues are not uncommon – and so frustrating for airport teams who want easy, prompt access to the relevant information they need. They also want to be able to integrate more data to understand how events and changes could impact on different areas of the airport.

Today, a lack of data is hardly a problem for an airport or any transport owner/operator. The key issue is how to manage that data and structure it so that you can access it to gain value from it, and support sound, quick decision making and unlock efficiencies.

What impact are digital approaches having – for capital programmes and existing infrastructure?

The impact is right there in programmes like Ezhou Huahu Airport. Its implementation of Building Information Modelling and collaborative digital processes, enabled it to accelerate construction delivery by 60 days and save CNY 12 million. It reported that 6,000 issues were resolved prior to construction.

Existing airport sites are approaching the ‘digital transformation’ mission from a different angle –this does not start with the technology and solutions but with a discovery process. This tells them what data they have, where it is, how their teams access it and what level of quality it is. From there, they can work out where the gaps are and then how they intend to address them – and this is often through a combination of people, processes and technology.

This is the approach at Heathrow Airport, with whom we undertook a detailed discovery exercise to understand its digital asset delivery ambition and develop a roadmap to achieve that ambition.

This work helped to build a full understanding for Heathrow of the data, process, technology, and organisational capabilities associated with the delivery of assets that could be used to support multiple use cases and bring efficiencies to the operation of the airport.

What benefits are airports are seeing where they have undertaken this process?

So let’s go back to Sydney. After it identified its data challenges, it looked at how it could best integrate all of its data, from across multiple systems. Its aim was to give the airport teams ‘one’ view into the entire airport infrastructure which they could use to inform their decisions and to help them understand the potential impact of any changes.

They pulled together financial and asset data, models, and documents, and now the airport team can find reliable, current information, specific to their role, department and project, all through a single interface and without having to go to the digital print room.

Kim Cohen, Team Leader of the Sydney Airport project, told us back in 2022 that it was still early days with regard to ROI measurements but that, then there were around 200 users of the platform and if they accessed it just once a day they would save 5,280 hours per year.
Beyond Sydney’s story, we know that the benefits of a digital approach to assets span multiple areas.

Here are some examples:

  • Asset maintenance – a data-driven approach will reduce the number of failures, increase fix-first-time rates, reduce spares holding and increase the number of jobs completed in a shift.
  • Operations – reduce disruption events and reduce disruption hours using data associated with passenger facing assets to adjust their journey through the airport and remove any impact to their passenger experience.

Where do airport owner operators start?

Start with the end in mind – determine the vision for the airport. Undertake a discovery exercise to understand your current data situation – what you have, its quality and trustworthiness – and what you need (i.e. identify the gaps).

Think about how you can make more of what you’ve already got. What data is available in one area that might be valuable to other teams across the organisation if they could access it? How might that data best be shared? How can you best manage the flow of it?
Overall, once data is available and shared, how will this help teams make better informed decisions, improve the asset performance, reliability and compliance and become a passport to a stand-out passenger experience?

To learn more about how Cohesive works with airport owner operators and their teams to improve their asset performance and reliability through the use of digital approaches and solutions visit our website. Follow us on LinkedIn.

David’s career has centred on the delivery of IT solutions within construction environments. His expertise is in the aviation sector, having delivered IT for major projects including Heathrow Terminal 5, Terminal 3 Integrated Baggage solution and operational improvement projects.

David has also been at the forefront of the development of digital strategies for large organizations in both aviation and other sectors.

His passion lies in supporting asset owners to seize the huge opportunities available through harnessing digital technologies and data to unlock significant improvements in both project and operational environments, including through digital twins.

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