Time to get smart in Africa

The 28th Airports Council International (ACI) annual general assembly, conference and exhibition took place at the Kempinski Hotel in Accra, Ghana, in October. Chukwu Emeke was there.

The application of digital innovation and automation is a priority if African airports are to compete with their counterparts across the world.
So said Ghana’s president, HE Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, as he declared the ACI conference open.
Speaker after speaker and session after session at the weeklong event followed the smart airports of the future theme.
Stakeholders deliberated on how digital transformation in the airport sector could offer innovative solutions to capacity, resource optimisation and passenger experience problems in Africa.
Could new technology and intelligent process help reduce threats while enhancing the seamless passenger experience?
What were African airports’ levels of preparedness and adaptation to climate change, and what were their roles in green initiatives and the use of technology in the efficient management of energy and renewable energy?
Delegates also considered ACI’s innovations to reduce delays and enhance efficiency at airports, such as the airports collaborative decision making (ACDM) initiative and the role of various stakeholders in its implementation.
The issue of embracing emerging technologies without regard for peculiar needs and future planning was discussed.
Lorenzo Di Loreto, vice president, sales and marketing, Munich Airport International, Germany, was clear: “The real challenge we see in Africa is that we do not look at the vision of the airports so that the technologies will look ahead of development. There is no proper planning. We just want to invest in technologies without knowing why.”
It was a theme picked up by Prosper Zo’o Minto’o, regional director, ICAO, WACAF, Senegal, who pointed out: “Only a few airports have a masterplan that give an idea of airport development policy. Most airports don’t have clear visibility when it comes to planning, and governments don’t take planning seriously.
“Under the no airport left behind (NALB) initiative, we need to look at the different sizes of airports. There is need to look at regional variations.”
The issue of data security was raised by Yaw Kwa Kwa, managing director, Ghana Airports Company, who explained that, from experience, systems could be compromised and, therefore, multiple back-ups, both within and outside the airport authorities, were necessary.
“There is no 100% cyber security. Every system can be hacked,” he said.
The need for training of cyber security personnel was emphasised, even though Di Loreto narrated how cyber security experts had left his company after he had spent around $25,000 annually in training them.
“If governments can help train people in cyber security, it will help to get the job done,” said Kwa Kwa.
Session moderator, Angela Gittens, director general of ACI World, pointed out that before introduce technology, they needed to deal with security equipment and back-ups.
Zouhair Mohammed El Aoufir, managing director, National Airports Authority, Morocco, concluded that civil aviation authorities and governments should ensure that the use of technology was taught in schools.
In the innovations in airport security session, panellists agreed that innovation went beyond technology and had more to do with human beings.
The session moderator, Antoine Rostworowski, deputy director general, programmes and services, ACI World, Canada, identified evolving security threats such as improvised explosive devices; chemical, biological and radiological threats; advanced cyber threats; non-terrorist threats, such as protests and disruptions; which all have to do with human beings.
The cost implications of embracing airport technologies was evaluated. “The revenues of African airports are becoming tighter and tighter every day,” noted Mthoko Mncwabe, CIO, Airports Company South Africa.
Delegates called on governments to improve their economies and strengthen the value of their currencies, noting that the strength of Ghana’s currency in relation to the US dollar had helped to achieve the funding for its recently upgraded airport facilities.
“There are taxes going to government that are not being invested in the aviation sector. Government just needs to support development,” said Senegal’s Zo’o Minto’o.
On drones technology, Tunde Oyekola, from Nigeria, noted that although they were invented to check security threats, they had become threats themselves.
However, The FAA’s representative in Africa, Braks Etta, stressed that, despite possible ills that could be associated with drones technology, they were useful for airport safety, including the scaring away of birds to avoid bird strikes.
A strong case was made for artificial intelligence (AI) in airport security management. “African airports should collaborate to fast-track the implementation of basic systems and start focusing on the new frontier of AI,” said Charles Hanson Adu, group executive, airport management, GACL, Ghana.
“The world has advanced to the arena of AI, where data is used in real time to make decisions that result in efficient systems, whether we like it or not, the technology is going to augment or completely transform industries as we know them today.”
In an era when regular air travellers want to take control of their journeys, reflected in self check-in and other innovations, digitalisation of systems requires huge investments that not all airports can afford.
“For small airports, people are not always travelling regularly, so, it is difficult to take ownership for those who travel just a couple of times a year,” said Ahmat Hassan Orozi, a representative of the director general, ASECNA, in Chad.
“Those who travel regularly can easily adjust, even though a system is relatively new. Eight countries handed over their airports to us to manage in ASECNA. They have less than two million passengers per annum. They lack capacity to invest significantly in building new big airports.
“Funds are always not available for digitalisation of state-owned airports with less than one million passengers.”
Indranil Gupta, managing director, GSEZ Airport in Gabon, added: “There is no solution that is one cap fits all. The whole business should be looked at on case-by-case basis.”
Gupta suggested that technology should be seen by small airports as an opportunity, rather than a challenge. “Sub-saharan airports are a bunch of reasonably small airports with opportunities for investments. This makes technology a huge opportunity,” he said.
Olivier Baric, aviation director, African region EGIS, Cote D’Ivoire, advised SITA and other providers of airport technology to identify what small airports need, know their priorities and address them.
Discussing climate change, delegates agreed that weather patterns were no longer predicable in Africa and that the word ‘future’ should no longer be used for climate change effect as it was already a reality.
Airports authorities across Africa, such as Kenya Airports Authority, ACSA and ASECNA, shared their various approaches to emissions reduction, while Ramatou Magagi, principal investment officer, IFC, USA, stated that her organisation had decided to “support only airport projects that are energy efficient”.
Conference participants agreed that the airports collaborative decision making (ACDM) initiative, if implemented, would help to drive actualisation of airport technology benefits across the continent.
ACDM features frequent stakeholder collaborative meetings and sharing of information among stakeholders at different airports on needed emerging technologies and how to embrace them.
Elsewhere during the week, El Aoufir was elected president of ACI, Africa. He took over from Saleh Dunoma of Nigeria.
Also, 13 Africans who graduated from the ACI 2019 APEX safety assessor training programme (SATP) were presented with their graduation certificates, while two conference participants won ACI scholarships through a raffle draw.
The 29th edition of the ACI event is expected to be held in Mombasa, Kenya, in March 2020.