Cleared for digital take-off
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Cleared for digital take-off

Kenny MacIver — April 2018

Schiphol has set a course to be “the world’s leading digital airport.” Its CIO, Sjoerd Blüm, outlines how the move will transform customer experience and enable the Amsterdam hub to stand apart from the competition.

For more than 500 years, the Netherlands has punched above its weight when reaching out to the rest of the world. Its global outlook belies a country of 17 million people that’s only 6% the size of France. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly today than Schiphol.

As Europe’s third busiest airport, the Amsterdam hub handled almost 70 million passengers and 497,000 flights last year, a traffic profile that makes it the region’s fastest growing top 10 airport.

But its proximity to Amsterdam – though much valued by air travellers – means that its options for growth are ultimately limited. And this has taken the airport’s search for differentiation in a digital direction.

Sjoerd Blum Schiphol 2

For the past three years the team at Schiphol has been pursuing the goal of creating the world’s most digitally advanced airport, a program that involves maximizing the efficiency of almost every aspect of operations while delivering an unrivalled experience to customers as they pass through the airport.

Sjoerd Blüm, CIO for Royal Schiphol Group, describes the scale of its ambition: “There are key reasons why digital reached the top of our business agenda. While we expect aviation to grow significantly over the coming decade, we are limited in our further physical expansion. So we are actively looking for ways to make more out of our existing infrastructure – and one of the major answers is digital.”

That goal of creating an ultra-smart airport has been embedded in Schiphol’s mission statement, he says. “As people fly more and more, we want to stand out as Europe’s preferred airport. If we provide customers with a great traveling experience, they will choose Schiphol again. We see digital as a key differentiator in creating that experience – for passengers, for airlines and all the other service providers.”
Think bytes not bricks

The transformation program originated in late 2014 when Blüm’s predecessor, Albert van Veen, highlighted to the company’s board the huge potential of a highly digitized airport and the opportunity this would create for Schiphol to steal a march on its rivals.

Such a move sits well with the airport’s history, says Blüm. “Schiphol has a name in this industry as a front-runner. If you look at our 102-year timeline, at any point you see innovations appearing at Schiphol before anywhere else in the world.” In recent times, these have ranged from baggage-handling robots and dynamic displays to fully automated multilingual gate announcements and biometric-based border passage.


“What we have to do now is start thinking in terms of bytes instead of bricks.”

This latest initiative was led by the IT group, says Blüm. “We sketched out how, if Schiphol wanted to keep that name of being a pioneer, digital would be the key.”

That required mindset change among senior management, says Blüm. “Airports traditionally think in bricks – when growing, they tend to construct a new facility,” he explains. “What we have to do now is start thinking in terms of bytes instead of bricks.”

Given Schiphol’s capacity constraint, the digital expansion plan was well received by the board. But that was not the only incentive. “From the start, our strategy to be the leading digital airport was based on how a seamless, personalized passenger journey and a smart environment would make us Europe’s preferred airport,” says Blüm.

In 2015 Schiphol reorganized its IT group and kicked off its Digital Airport Programme as the vehicle for realizing those ambitions.
Meeting customer expectations

But the pressure for change was not one way. Today’s airport users expect that they will be supported by digital capabilities designed to make their experience not just bearable but enjoyable.

Blüm certainly recognizes this factor. “To many passengers, the journey through an airport from touchpoint to touchpoint is a stressful one. They expect us to minimize the hassle and to make their journey as seamless and personal as possible.”

He illustrates the point: “People used to be willing to come into the terminal, look at a bank of 20 screens presenting all flights, work out the relevant one and then look for the physical signs to guide their next step. Now they expect personally relevant information on the screen they have in their pockets.”

The airport’s other main customers – the airlines – also look to Schiphol’s application of cutting-edge technology. “They need us to get their aircraft turned around, with the passengers, crew, luggage and cargo on board, as quickly and efficiently as possible – and all safely, of course,” says Blüm.
Data-driven airport

So what are the characteristics of an outstanding digital airport today and how does Schiphol plan to take those capabilities to the next level?

While the aviation industry is awash with performance metrics, there is still no ranking of digital airports, let alone a methodology for generating this. But Blüm is pretty clear about what it will take to gain a high ranking.

“It is useful to think of an airport as a city,” he says, with all the aspects that go with that. These include the underpinning technology infrastructure layer; the personalization layer; the use of IoT and biometric technology; and the publication of data externally. And data is the common factor behind all of these.

“What will differentiate an excellent airport from a very good airport in the future is the ability to create value from the huge volume of data it’s generating every minute of the day. A smart airport is basically a data-run airport where you translate data into value. That can be through advanced analytics, machine learning or publishing the data through internal or external channels using an API platform.” Schiphol, naturally, is either already applying or investigating all of the above.

That might involve implementing many more sensors around the airport to supplement the data already being provided directly to passengers’ devices; drawing on external data sources so that Schiphol can inform them about their journeys to and from the airport; or the pooling and analyzing of airport and positioning data to give them progress reports as they make their way to connection gates. “Those kinds of services require a smart, sophisticated data hub,” says Blüm.

Sjoerd Blum Schiphol Quote

Of course, in a data-sensitive GDPR age Schiphol will only work with personal data with the customer’s consent. But, by keeping the data timely and highly relevant, he says, you can legitimately contact passengers and win their engagement. “If you ask passengers if they are interested in personal and relevant information for the time they are in Schiphol, 100% will say ‘yes.’ But if somebody says ‘no,’ we don’t do anything, as privacy alway comes first.”

The question is: how does Schiphol reach tens of millions of passengers? The answer is to publish APIs to the outside world and let developers at authorized partners, such as airlines and aviation industry start-ups, build applications and services that enhance the customer journey. This approach seems to be working well: Schiphol’s API platform currently gets almost 100 million hits every month, and Blüm expects this figure to grow significantly over the next few years.
Biometric terminals

The expansion of biometric applications will be another game-changer for airports. As passengers pass through each airport touchpoint they have to document and physically prove their presence (with a passport) and evidence their right to be there (with a boarding pass). But Blüm believes such elements can be captured and securely stored in an identity recognition system so the only thing a passenger needs to do at a given touchpoint is show their face. Such a biometric backbone could be shared by the owners of airport touchpoints – the airport, airlines, passport and border control – making for a paperless flow. And, data will only be used for this process.

“Biometrics will be a big differentiator in a digital airport,” he says. “But, as with many digital innovations, it’s not the technology that’s the biggest challenge. It’s really about getting all your stakeholders aligned behind it and co-operating.”

As an example of that, in 2017 Schiphol started testing ‘face-enabled boarding’ in cooperation with KLM, where passengers were allowed to pass through gates without having to present a boarding pass.
Right foundations, right partnerships

Blüm stresses that becoming a digital airport is not only about cutting-edge front-end tech. “The key to success in your digital journey is to place as much energy, effort and emphasis on the existing infrastructure as you do on the new technologies,” he says.

As airports increasingly use digital as a differentiator they will depend more and more on the strength of their underlying IT infrastructures, he predicts. “There is huge upside to those new applications but their implementation means that the load on existing systems will grow immensely. You have to ask the question: is your infrastructure ready to carry that?”

To ensure that Schiphol is ready, the airport’s IT group will increasingly look externally as well as internally. “We are not the only ones that should be driving digital transformation,” Blüm says. In addition to working with and investing in several start-ups, Schiphol plans to forge more strategic partnerships with suppliers who can accelerate its digitalization.

While that will support its claim to be the world’s leading digital airport, the broadening of Schiphol’s innovation network suggests that digitalization is now viewed as more of a journey than a destination.

First published April 2018
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