So far this year, we have worked on the delivery of wireless solutions in four terminals at three different airports. Airport wireless solutions, whether they use Wi-Fi or 3G/4G mobile technology, can be very complex projects. They are not without their challenges and require extensive forward planning, focused project management and a high degree of wireless technical expertise to be delivered successfully.
Good connectivity is vital for passengers, retailers, airlines, airport operators, security staff and mobile operators alike. Business travellers nowadays are used to working productively while travelling and have high expectations for Wi-Fi networks and mobile coverage, particularly given the duration spent in the airport before and after flights. Leisure travellers like to read and entertain themselves and their families on iPads or smartphones. People who work in the airport need to communicate and exchange information. Wireless systems greatly enhance people’s travelling experience and deliver significant improvements in operational efficiency for the air-travel industry.
Underscoring all of this is the large number of passengers who pass through airports every year and the huge growth in air travel, which was over 30% in Europe over the last five years. Airports are also economic powerhouses in their own right. For example, 43 million passengers used Gatwick Airport in 2016, an average of 118,000 per day. At the same time over 24,000 staff work on the airport campus for 252 different companies in terminals, hangers, shops, restaurants, hotels and more, contributing £1.6 billion to the British economy.
Over the last two decades, we have worked on airports in the UK, Ireland and the Middle East. Each project has been different, whether it has involved improving mobile coverage for passengers or upgrading data connectivity in the hangar for an airline that had switched from paper flight manuals to iPads to reduce weight and fuel burn. Over this time, we have dealt with a lot of challenges and learn new ways of working.
The main challenge during the design phase is to balance the need for coverage and capacity, particularly given the growth in data usage being experienced nowadays. Allowance must be made for technology evolution, for example 5G upgrades in the future and advanced Wi-Fi. Capacity dimensioning needs the system load to be balanced reflecting footfall patterns and back of house requirements. For mobile networks, the capacity requirement for the apron areas needs to be included. This is particularly important because many air travellers with spend as much time waiting on the plane as they do in the terminal. For airports with a large number of gates, the capacity of the surrounding macro sites may not be enough to satisfy passengers who are seated on an aircraft.
When it comes to building out a new wireless system, the normal indoor deployment challenges apply alongside some extra ones that are peculiar to airports. Not least of which are security considerations. In most terminals, at least 60% of the airport operator’s staff are dedicated to security. Access to work in airports is tightly controlled, particularly when working airside. Managing security clearance needs a proactive approach and a detailed understanding of each individual airport’s security procedures.
Working hours can be very challenging, limiting the amount that can be done in a single work shift. Airports operations span the entire day. Closing off large public areas for long periods of work isn’t always possible. Eight-hour shifts are unlikely to be feasible across large parts of an airport campus. This also applies during the commissioning phase when the system has been built, where access will be needed to the aprons and taxiways for testing while aircraft operations are taking place.
With a few exceptions, most airports have evolved over decades rather than being built to a single master plan. They are made up of buildings constructed from the 1950’s to the current day, with different construction materials, techniques and facilities for network infrastructure. Allowances must be made for weight loading, cable routing, and the handling of potentially hazardous materials in old and new buildings alike. The system design and installation must also account for the large amounts of IT infrastructure already in place, sharing space efficiently and interfacing correctly.
Above all, excellent stakeholder management ensures a smooth process that delivers to everyone’s expectations. Airports are an elaborate ecosystem of organisations from airlines to retailers, hotels to carparks and restaurants to banks. It is important to meet the needs of these stakeholders while avoiding disruption to their everyday activities.
In Vilicom, our vision is to give people the freedom to communicate, learn, share and work anywhere; in towns and cities, on the move and in their communities. The airport community benefits hugely from wireless networks. Travellers work on the move, check-in online, receive flight status updates and entertain themselves while they wait. Airport workers can communicate with their teams and organisations. Infrastructure can be monitored wirelessly via the cloud. Advanced wireless networks make for a happier, more efficient airport.