Digital twin enables customer experience renaissance at Rome airport

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth August 31, 2022 Audio mode
Data-led strategy has seen Italy's most important airport - Rome - reach new heights

An image of rooftops in Rome
(Image by Udo from Pixabay )

Aeroporti di Roma is the operating company for Rome Ciampino Airport and Leonardo Da Vinci airport - the International Airport for Rome- and is part of the Atlantia business. The business employs 3,500 people, serves approximately 100 airlines and, before the pandemic, received 50 million passengers. 

In 2013 Aeroporti di Roma was ranked 3.31 out of 5 by Airports Council International, the global association of civil airport operators. This ranking placed Aeroporti di Roma below the customer experience competing airports were offering. The complexity of airports means customer service can be impacted by a cascade of issues, as CIO Emiliano Sorrenti explains: 

We have end-to-end accountability, but we operate only part of the journey. The rest is the airlines, baggage handling firms, fuel providers, cleaning and so on. For example, if an airline doesn't open the right number of check-in desks, then the security operation is hit with a delay. Or airside passengers are asked to change gates as an aircraft at a gate didn't leave on time.

Being a hub airport adds another level of complexity; there is a synchronization of people, airlines and services. A point-to-point airport is much simpler.

From zero to hero

Each disruption within an airport may be minor, but as Sorrenti says, they all build up. Back in 2013, Aeroporti di Roma was suffering many of these; today, the business is classed as an industry leader as a result of digitization; the CIO says: 

Our journey started five years ago. We decided to reposition as an airport of excellence, and that was really important as to attract the best airlines, you have to give good efficiency so that they can meet their operational and efficiency targets.

We started with the physical infrastructure, then process re-engineering and in-sourcing. In most airports, services like security, disability help and cleaning are outsourced. Cleaning is a really key part of the journey, so we hired all the cleaners and tasked them with making the airport feel like home.

As part of the process re-engineering, Aeroporti di Roma analyzed all the organization's key performance indicators (KPI), including Wifi availability, punctuality, and cleanliness and then decided to set precise KPIs -  overall hundreds of indicators - the CIOs says. 

The ecosystem nature of the air travel market makes customer satisfaction all the more important. Industry research reveals that passengers who are dissatisfied with an airport are less likely to travel, which impacts the airlines, which the airports rely on, and then the retailers and so on. Delays can have far-reaching impacts on the airlines too, if, for example, they suffer insurance penalties or have to accommodate passengers if journeys are cancelled. 

To set a new course, Aeroporti di Roma created the Airport Operations Plan, which created a central data platform, built on Tibco technology. The plan included the integration of all backend systems across the airport to provide real-time data and a visual analytics dashboard that all organizations at the airport can use. CIO Sorrenti says: 

If you want to be the best, you have to make sure that you are in control. Real-time control helps you as an organization react to issues. An airport operates at a fast pace, and sometimes when something happens, it is already too late. So having the ability to forecast means you can prevent issues happening.

Aeroporti di Roma not only collects data from its own devices but also collects anonymized data from passenger mobile phones to analyze the flow of people; this informs longer-term planning such as where to position retail units and toilets. 

The real-time data is now enabling the airport to more effectively schedule flights, gates, staff, baggage, car parking, and security. Passenger flow data is correlated with flight data to understand the behaviour of travellers. This is especially important as airports will always be impacted by weather disruption, which is on the increase, and issues at the airport that an incoming flight departed from. CIO Sorrenti says: 

You can right-size the disruption, but you cannot completely avoid it.

Like many CIOs, Sorrenti has benefited from the burning platform scenario, whereby the only way forwards is a dramatic digitization of the organization. The Airport Operations Plan has created a digital twin of the airport whereby forecasting takes place throughout the day to keep operations effective. Sorrenti says: 

With a forecast of the gates and the flight schedule, we can prepare by moving staff from one terminal to another. For example, if we see that a flight did not leave the stand on time, we can immediately update all the planning for that gate and inform the passengers. We look at one, two and three-hour windows; over three hours is not reliable.

These updates not only benefit the airport; the data is provided to the local taxi operators, as well as Trenitalia, the rail operator, who pass that information onto their passengers and, in the case of the taxi drivers, can adjust their services as well. APIs from the Tibco platform provide this information to the retailers and restaurants within the airport too, allowing them to cope with increased or decreased demand. The CIO says: 

Everything has to be measured, and so everything is based on data in the end.

My take 

In today’s disruptive economy, taking a commodity area of the business, such as cleaning, back in-house is a challenging conversation for business leaders. However, as CIO Emiliano Sorrenti reveals, data enables the organization to believe in a change of course, take control of areas typically outsourced and show how it benefits the customer and ultimately the organization. As organizations continue to become data-driven, data could well be the key to another significant change in the world economy and the current ethos towards outsourcing.  

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