Tech start-ups help Barcelona Airport solve future challenges

Airport management company Aena Ventures has chosen five start-ups for an accelerator project to improve Barcelona Airport’s infrastructure and customer experience. Frankie Youd explores the technologies involved and the challenges they aim to solve.

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Located 12km south-west of the city centre, Barcelona-El Prat Airport is the main international gateway to the popular tourist region, serving 33 million travellers annually, making it the second busiest airport in Spain.

As pandemic travel restrictions begin to lift and the airport prepares to welcome back passengers, the airport’s operator Aena Ventures has embarked on an innovation accelerator programme involving five start-ups from around the world. 

The project aims to promote innovation and technology in airport technology. From improving passenger experience to sustainability initiatives, the five companies involved will be demonstrating the next generation of technologies to help solve current and future challenges the airport is facing.

I-Tech AB technical director Dr Markus Hoffmann. Credit: I-Tech AB

Start-up selection and funding

The busy airport’s control tower serves as the headquarters for the start-up accelerator programme, and the five selected companies.

The accelerator is scheduled to run until October and will conclude with the start-up companies showcasing their solutions ements during a demo day. The demo day aims to assess the feasibility of the start-up’s applications of their technology at the airport.

Companies from 33 countries submitted projects to take part in the acceleration programme. In total, 254 projects were submitted which made the selection process a challenging one for those involved.

We want to integrate this reality into our management, collaborating with these types of companies to establish digitisation and innovation actions, among others.

Amparo Brea, Aena’s director of innovation, sustainability and customer experience, says: “The call was addressed to start-ups from all over the world who are invited to sign up for this first initiative. The programme will address five strategic challenges for Aena: agility in procedures and travel to the airport, passenger experience, passenger communication, sustainability and baggage.

“After an exhaustive selection process, the projects that will be part of our first acceleration programme have been chosen, aimed at solving the five challenges posed. One start-up has been chosen for each of these challenges to participate in the acceleration process.”

Each start-up company has received €50,000 in funding to implement its ideas at the airport, while being mentored by industry professionals on site. The acceleration programme aims to find technology - presented by the selected start-ups - which can assist the airports business model, infrastructure and develop systems which improve customer experience. 

Brea explains: “Aena promotes innovation and technology and is committed to accelerate start-ups that fit in with its strategic business areas. We want to integrate this reality into our management, collaborating with these types of companies to establish digitisation and innovation actions, among others.”

Aena Ventures mural at Barcelona Airport. Credit: Aena Ventures

Five start-ups selected to solve five challenges

The only start-up involved from the UK is Airport AI, which delivers AI technology for communication between airports and passengers to enhance connectivity through a multichannel chat solution. 

The inclusion of this technology at the airport will bring about many benefits, especially an improved passenger experience. The technology from Airport AI enables passengers to contact the airport around the clock, via a user-friendly interface, allowing them to receive information on flights, bookings and services.

“Airport AI's platform brings many advantages to airports such as time saved for customer service teams: more than 85% of passenger questions can be answered automatically, freeing some time for agents to deal with more complex cases,” explains Airport AI CEO Pierre Cuquemelle.

“Another advantage is revenue generation: the platform can be used to better understand passengers and send targeted marketing messages at the relevant time of the passenger journey, which increases non-aeronautical revenues.”

Sustainability is a topic high on Aena’s agenda. It is being covered by French company Carwatt, which submitted an initiative that sees the conversion of internal combustion vehicles to electricity to cut harmful gas emissions at airports.

UAE-based Dubz will handle the baggage portion of the initiative. Its team has developed a solution for streamlining baggage claim, check-in and drop off at the passenger’s home or hotel.

We believe that our mobility as a service solution can change the way people go to and from airports, and change the mindset of airport travel which is typically associated with stress.

Spanish start-up Meep is offering a route planning solution which combines all modes of transport. It also includes integrated ticket purchasing and analysis of the least congested routes, allowing passengers to select which journey they would prefer to take. 

The technology will bridge the gap between airports and urban areas, allowing passengers to travel to and from the airport at a time which suits them, according to their preferences where multimodal travel is an accessible option. 

“We believe that our mobility as a service solution, a smartphone app, can change the way people go to and from airports, and change the mindset of airport travel which is typically associated with stress,” says Meep CEO and co-founder Guillermo Campoamor. “Meep thought about typical travel issues like crowds, delays and cancellations, and focused on the root of the problem.  

“Accurate flight information is provided by the airport authority through very specific channels that often require passengers to be in the terminal. This situation doesn’t allow users to better plan their way to the airport and can create unnecessary wait times - which also leads to crowding. 

“This can be significantly improved by matching real-time information of flight times with external transport. In doing so, we will guide the user from door to gate.”

Another Spanish company, Chinespain, has also been selected to take part in the initiative. The company will look to promote tourism experiences between China and Spain via the development of an app which will facilitate flexible communication for travellers from China.

Covid-19: a catalyst for change

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way many industries are now operating when it comes to contactless technology, social distancing guidelines and reduction of crowded spaces. For industries such as aviation, the pandemic has also acted as a catalyst for the development of new technology. 

Covid-19 has also identified areas within the airport industry which are now being addressed, such as passenger confidence and the importance of communication.  

“One of the impacts of the pandemic is that passengers have a lot more questions regarding the airport experience,” Cuquemelle says. “Airports need to answer these questions and reassure passengers, but with the current budget constraints it's practically impossible to do this using the same people-intensive customer service processes that were in place before the crisis.

“This is where AI and automation can play a major role and pave the way for a prompt recovery of the industry. Aena clearly identified this challenge, and this is the reason why the decision was taken to invest in new technologies that make existing processes more efficient.”