There may be even fewer airport jobs in future – if robots take on much of the work
We are often given estimates of large numbers of new, good quality, jobs that will be produced if an airport expands. Those very rarely materialise, as the sector works hard to mechanise and automate as much as possible, to reduce numbers of staff. There are growing numbers of robots at airports, carrying out a range of jobs. A survey by Air Transport IT Insights recently found that almost half of global airlines and 32% of airports are currently looking for partners to further develop their robotic involvement in the next 3 years. The latest developments see robots staffing airport check-in desks, carrying out security protocols, cleaning and delivering food (ordered through a contactless system) to passengers while they wait in lounges for their flights. There has been more cleaning needed, due to Covid – and people are increasingly happy to avoid physical contact or interaction with staff. However, the robot technologies are not yet properly developed and there will be a lot of issues on safety, reliability etc before they become very widespread.
The robots taking over the world’s airports
By Frankie Youd (Airport Technology)
04 May 2021
PHL Food & Shops, the concessions programme at Philadelphia International Airport, is piloting a contactless ordering system featuring robotic food delivery. It will join other robots that are already carrying out various roles at airports. From safety and security to cleaning and deliveries, we round up the interesting ways that airports are using robots worldwide.
A survey carried out by Air Transport IT Insights recently found that almost half of global airlines and 32% of airports are currently looking for partners to further develop their robotic involvement in the next three years. The latest developments see robots staffing airport check-in desks, carrying out security protocols, cleaning and even delivering food to passengers.
The airport security segment currently has the highest number of robots according to the Airport robots market – growth, trends, Covid-19 impact, and forecasts 2021-2026 report by Mordor Intelligence. The next most common use of airport robotics is for cleaning, which has seen a rise in demand due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
PHL Food and Shops have introduced a new member to their team Philadelphia International Airport, Gita. Standing 26 inches tall and able to carry up to 18kg for four hours – which is the equivalent of 20 miles of walking – on one single charge, Gita navigates busy, pedestrian-filled locations with human-like etiquette. Gita has been tasked with delivering food orders to airport passengers while they wait in lounges for their flights.
PHL already had a contactless ordering system in place that allowed customers to order food. Now the company has partnered with app developer AtYourGate and Gita’s developer Piaggio Fast Forward to have Gita complete the process with automated delivery.
Customers at the airport can confirm food delivery from any of the 19 restaurants and retailers currently part of the scheme via an app or the PHL website. Once prepared, onsite delivery specialist Claire Maddocks collects the order and escorts Gita the robot who carries the to the customer.
MarketPlace PHL marketing and customer service manager Megan O’Connell explains that the robot not only helps carry large orders but also provides a contactless experience for customers. This offers the added advantage of reducing the possibility of Covid-19 transmission.
O’Connell explained. “There are some questions about what the point of the robot is because it does have to have a person with it. I explain to people that the point is not only does this robot help Maddocks carry the food, but the biggest part of it is also that it gives the customer a choice of whether they want to have contact or not with her.” O’Connell said. “If they don’t want to have contact with her, she can walk up with the robot, open the lid and [then] she can retreat back, the person can take their food out of the robot without ever having to interact with her.”
PHL hopes the option of using Gita will increase customer confidence post-pandemic and will increase the consensus surrounding public safety and confidence in coming back to the airport.
O’Connell expanded. “I hope that everything we’re doing across the board and the aviation industry is starting to make people feel safe and have confidence in coming back to the airport. With initiatives like this, we truly are doing everything we can to make them feel comfortable. We can’t wait to have everybody come back when they feel like it’s the right time.”
The robots carrying out health and security checks
Robots are also being used to ensure passenger safety by carrying out health checks, cleaning protocols and security measures.
A security robot in the form of a scooter has taken residence at Hamad International Airport in Qatar. With built-in cameras that can measure pulse rate, carry out face recognition, and sensors to detect fake credit cards and currencies, this security scooter robot is heavily equipped to ensure security measures are always upheld.
The robot can even sense a passenger’s mood with an algorithm that enables it to detect a high body temperature, heart rate and stress levels to detect if a passenger is nervous or agitated.
Cleaning robots are also having their day. Heathrow Airport has been using cleaning robots around the airport terminals and lounges that disinfect areas using UV light. UV light has been shown to efficiently kill harmful viruses and bacteria to provide a safe, secure environment for passengers.
Heathrow Airport process improvement director Mark Burgess heads up the ‘Fly Safe Programme’ at the airport. He explained: “The UV robots disinfect surfaces using UV-C light. Depending on the exposure time, a UV robot can kill up to 99.9% of pathogens by disinfecting all surfaces which could harbour bacteria and viruses. The UV-C light used by the robots is highly efficient and can disinfect 18,000 sqm within a two and a half-hour time period.”
Heathrow wants the cleaning robots to offer a high level of assurance and confidence in hygiene for customers and staff.
“The UV robots have proven to be an incredibly useful tool within our enhanced cleaning programme, helping to ensure we disinfect the terminals on a regular basis.”
“The UV robots have proven to be an incredibly useful tool within our enhanced cleaning programme, helping to ensure we disinfect the terminals on a regular basis,” Burgess said. “We believe the UV robots currently complement our existing cleaning method and they are an additional measure within our process which help to keep Heathrow Covid-secure. Their speed and ability to sanitise ultimately enables our cleaning technicians to carry out our intensive cleaning programme with greater efficiency and ease than previously.”
Looking into the robotic future
With technology developing at a rapid rate, an increasingly robotic future seems assured for airports.
However, their use raises some important questions and security hurdles. Could the robot accidentally hurt passengers? Will it malfunction? Will it correctly carry out the duties autonomously? Is passenger data secure, not least when it comes to judgement calls on health and mood?
The use of robotic technology in airports is likely to increase but gradually, with certain models having to be accompanied by a staff member before turning completely autonomous.
“I do think that there are going to be a lot of considerations in the future for implementing robotic strategies where necessary.”
O’Connell explained: “The challenge with the airport is it’s a condensed space. I do think that there are going to be a lot of considerations in the future for implementing robotic strategies where necessary and where it makes sense. It’s going to take a lot of work because there are just so many moving pieces to making sure it’s safe. I think there’s a place for it and I think more people will start to adopt it but it’s going to be slow.”
As technology continues to progress and develop, paired with a growing interest in the robotics market by the aviation sector, we can expect to see more robotic assistance at our airports in the years to come. With robots offering many benefits such as faster check-ins, increased security and a personalised experience for customers, robotic-led terminals could be the future of aviation.
BA introducing biometric boarding gates at Heathrow, further reducing numbers of airport jobs
Airports always promise huge numbers of jobs if they expand. The reality is that airports and airlines are cutting jobs as fast as they can, and having everything mechanised. It is cheaper not to have many employees. Now British Airways (BA) is introducing automated biometric technology to create self-service boarding gates at Heathrow. Passengers passing through the security channel will have a digital scan of their face recorded. When they arrive at the gate and scan their own boarding pass, their face is matched with the previously recorded data. If the two digital images match, the passenger is allowed to board. The system was trialled in June 2016, and is now being rolled out, with 3 of these gates (for domestic flights only) at Terminal 5. BA plans to open 3 more of these self-boarding gates every week until mid-June. It will finally be extended to international flights. BA has also opened self-service bag drops at both Heathrow and Gatwick – doing away with more jobs. Back in 1999 when Heathrow got consent for its 5th Terminal, the airport said there would be 16,000 more jobs by 2016. When probed, Heathrow is unable to even give a number for the jobs at T5, let along prove there has been much of a rise in employment. All they will say is that in July 2013, 76,600 were directly employed on the Heathrow site.
Dodgy economics behind plans to expand our airports – they won’t tackle unemployment, or bring more money to the UK
A useful article from the New Economics Foundation looks at the reality of claims about the economic benefits of expanding airports. Traditionally airports have said they are vital for business travel; the reality is that a small proportion of air passengers are on any sort of business trip, and that is especially the case at regional airports. Most air passengers are British people flying on leisure trips abroad (to spend their money there). Regional airports claim that they merely take passengers who would otherwise have flown from the larger airports, such as Heathrow and Gatwick. The reality is more people take cheap leisure flights from a convenient local airport. There is always a lot of hype about the number of jobs that airport expansion will create, but in fact the sector has been automating as much as it can, and the number of jobs – the “job intensity” – is lower than it was in 2007, while the number of passengers has risen significantly. Airports have also reduced squeezed the working conditions of some airport workers, to gain “efficiencies.” NEF says: “Despite what airport executives say, expanding our airports won’t tackle unemployment or bring more money to the UK.”
See much earlier: 2009
Study by AEF shows airport expansion will destroy UK jobs
11.3.2009 (AEF press release)
Brendon Sewill concludes that the Government should stop giving people false hopes
about the number of jobs which would be created by the expansion of airports (1). The study, “Airport Jobs: false hopes, cruel hoax“, published today by the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF), shows Government claims that airport expansion will help create thousands
of new jobs to help the country through the recession to be based on unreliable
statistics. In fact, it finds that if the expansion results in more UK tourists
going abroad then the forecast growth in air travel is likely to lead to a net
loss of jobs in this country.
Sewill shows that the old rule of thumb that 1 million extra passengers using
an airport is likely to create 1,000 extra jobs is no longer valid. The efficiency
of low-cost airlines means that far fewer jobs are created by airport expansion
than in the past. The move towards low-cost airports, where modern technology
replaces manual jobs, will accelerate that trend.
The study reveals that, between 1998 and 2004, when the number of passengers
using UK airports rose by 30%, the number of people employed directly at airports
went up by only 3%. Research by York Aviation, a consultancy close to the aviation
industry, found that despite a predicted increase of 110% in passenger numbers
at the country’s airports between 2004 and 2030 jobs would increase by only 21%.
Sewill argues that the York Aviation research takes no account of the number
of jobs that will be lost to the UK if the number of Britons holidaying abroad
continues to rise. Last year the UK’s aviation tourism deficit – the difference
between what British air passengers spend abroad and visitors by air spend in
the UK – was about £17 billion. That deficit is at present costing the country
around 900,000 jobs.
The Sewill study concludes that, because most of the predicted expansion is to
cater for UK citizens going abroad, the Government’s plans to double the amount
of air travel is likely to lead to a further net loss of 860,000 jobs by 2030.
Brendon Sewill said: “The Government, aided by the aviation industry, is perpetrating
a hoax that airport expansion is vital to the economy and will help us though
the recession. Councillors and planning officers are being misled by exaggerated
claims that the expansion of their local airports will create lots of extra jobs.
For example, ten years ago Manchester Airport claimed that its second runway would
create 50,000 extra jobs whereas in practice employment at the airport has increased
by only 4,000. The Government should admit that – when spending abroad is taken
into account – its airport expansion plans could actually produce a serious net
loss of jobs”.