SFO airport banks on IT for frictionless travel

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.

SFO airport banks on IT for frictionless travel
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 CIO.com. “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.

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