by Clint Boulton

SFO airport banks on IT for frictionless travel

Sep 30, 2020
Digital TransformationIT Leadership

The IT staff at San Francisco International Airport is exploring an array of technology solutions to help make air travel safer and restore confidence among passengers, says CIO Ian Law.

Ian Law, CIO, San Francisco International Airport
Credit: San Francisco International Airport

No industry was disrupted more by the coronavirus outbreak than aviation travel, as traffic in airports nosedived worldwide. Undaunted by the pandemic, Ian Law is looking to weave together mobile software, sensors, cameras and biometrics to improve the passenger experience at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), where he has served as CIO since 2013.

Like most airports supporting heavy travel demands, SFO saw foot traffic plummet from an average of 150,000 total inbound and outbound passengers daily in April 2019 to 4,000 daily in April 2020, the first full month in which COVID-19 ground the sector to a halt. And while traffic has ticked up at SFO in recent months, it’s still only 20 percent of what it was pre-pandemic. “The impact on the whole industry was seismic,” Law tells “We’re at the mercy of what happens with the pandemic.”

Industry data paints a dire picture. With COVID-19 domestic and international travel restrictions gripping the world, passenger demand has fallen 80 percent from a year ago, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). The organization estimates that airline passenger revenues could plummet by $314 billion in 2020, a 55 percent decline compared to 2019.

With such bleak estimates, it’s tempting for corporate leaders to hunker down and wait for the worst to pass — or at the very least, for a viable vaccine to arrive. Rather than be cowed by factors outside their control, Law says CIOs must step into the breach. Like many of his peers, Law leapt into action March by facilitating business continuity plans, ensuring IT, finance and other departments had laptops, workstations and business applications to work from home. He implemented video collaboration software to ensure staff stayed connected and rolled out analytics software to help generate real-time insights for the business.

Cribbing from the retailers’ playbook

Bolstering employee experience is critical during a pandemic as teams move to remote work, new research shows. Seventy percent of 4,200 IT leaders surveyed for the 2020 Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey cited increased collaboration between the business and technology teams, with 52 percent indicating that it has created a culture of inclusivity in the technology team.

But Law also argues that the aviation sector should seek to improve the experience for travelers, and he looked to retail for inspiration. Within weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak, most major retailers had widened shopping aisles, erected social-distance markers in check-out lines and installed protective plastic shields at payment terminals. SFO followed suit, adding social distance “dots” to the floor and signs, and is also looking to make the trek through the airport less tedious, Law says. But challenges remain in physically distancing passengers in airports that are designed for maximum capacities.

Law says that several technologies can be implemented to make the travel experience not only more frictionless, but also contactless in accordance with social-distancing guidelines. They include:

Mobile technology. Smartphones and mobile applications could replace kiosks and payment terminals to render check-ins and payments touchless, while allowing travelers to easily fill out pre-travel screening forms. Mobile technologies could also be used to deliver COVID-19 updates and other relevant information.

Virtual queuing. This technology comes via an app, or a feature within an app, that notifies passengers when it’s their turn to line up for their next leg of travel rather than cluster at security checkpoints, terminals and baggage carousels. But the technology faces several hurdles, starting with getting travelers to adopt another piece of technology on their journey.

Questions also remain about the ability to arbitrate physical distance among people accustomed to congregating while waiting. With a virtual queue, the airport would be essentially putting people in a “holding pattern” until they are notified. And spikes in airport traffic could overwhelm the virtual queuing process. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and Boston Logan International Airport are currently piloting such technology, but as Law notes, “The jury is still out.”

Biometrics. Facial recognition software could make it easier for passengers to breeze through areas that tend to get bogged down due to document verification protocols, including at security and immigration checkpoints, as well as at baggage drops and boarding gates. SFO already uses facial recognition for international flights — the photos come courtesy of scanned passport photos — but it would like to incorporate biometrics for domestic flights, Law says. The sticking point: working with states to allow driver’s license photos to be used to essentially authenticate tokens that identify, verify and clear people for travel. “The challenge there is the DMV info is held not by the State Department,” Law says. “It’s about being able to use a driver’s license rather than a passport.”

Global information sharing during a pandemic

How these technologies will impact the customer experience at SFO remains an open question. For now Law says it’s critical that SFO continues to collaborate with other airports.

Early on during the pandemic, SFO engineers teamed with peers from nine other airports to craft a standard data model, API and mobile application for sharing COVID-19 information. The solutions, which have since been adopted by more than 200 airports worldwide, answer questions about guidelines and procedures travelers may have about what they can expect when they travel. The idea is to help make prospective passengers more comfortable about traveling.

“It’s about getting information across the aviation value chain down to the passenger making a decision,” Law says. “Without global solutions it’s hard to get to a better place.”

Bottom line: Collaboration underscores an emerging role for CIOs as “chief communications officers,” Law says. However unofficial or informal, the title’s implication lends credence to the belief that CIOs are gaining more sway among their C-suite peers. Indeed, 61 percent of IT leaders surveyed in the 2020 Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey said that the pandemic has permanently increased the influence of the technology leader. Permanent may be a stretch word here, as CIOs know they must extend and sustain their political capital into 2021 and beyond.