Five megatrends for airports and the road ahead to 2050

26 September 2023 5 min. read
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In the coming decades, airports around the world will need to address several emerging megatrends. A new report from consultancy Oliver Wyman lays out what is likely coming and provides some insight into the four categories of airports that will become the norm by 2050.

The way the travel industry works is all but certain to change dramatically in the coming decades as global priorities shift, the number of passengers rises further, and new technologies continue to transform the world.

In its analysis of the airport of the future, Oliver Wyman’s experts note five megatrends that will reshape the way airports operate and serve their stakeholders – passengers, shoppers, airlines, suppliers, and staff.

Destination: net zero

The push to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 is a crucial factor that will shape the evolution of airports. In 2021, global aviation industry associations committed to this goal, requiring improved energy efficiency and the transition to carbon free energy sources.

Younger travelers are increasingly concerned about climate change and are beginning to prefer rail travel over flying, especially in regions with good train networks, like Western Europe. Decarbonization is also important to investors, with institutional lenders favoring organizations with strong environmental, social, and governance (ESG) programs.

Five megatrends for airports and the road ahead to 2050

While airports contribute relatively little to global emissions (2% to 5% of total aviation emissions), they should nonetheless aim to achieve net zero to reduce the overall carbon footprint of the aviation industry.

New technologies

Emerging technologies like biometrics, artificial intelligence, and automation will begin disrupting the way airports have traditionally operated. Around 45% of air travel passengers expressed interest in using digital identities over paper passports, according to a study from the World Travel & Tourism Council.

New technologies are expected to make transit through airports more efficient and easy. While automation and artificial intelligence have the power to make the airport experience more pleasant for travelers and easier for airport operators, it will also require alignment between regulators and the industry to ensure data sharing practices are ethical (and legal).

Better connectivity

Airport hubs will continue to play a vital role in connecting communities and driving economic growth. To facilitate the movement of people and goods, intermodal connectivity at both city and regional levels will be essential. The days of emerging from the baggage claim and hailing a taxi: air travelers increasingly expect efficient public transportation to finish off the last mile of their journey.

Larger societal mobility trends, such as vehicle electrification and automation, will require public transit agencies to develop integrated, eco-friendly transit strategies. The future of connectivity at airports will feature less congestion, easy transportation options, and dedicated access from city centers to airports.

A changing workforce

More than half of the entire aviation industry workforce is made up of those working in airports. That is around 11.3 million people, or just under 4% of the total travel and tourism industry.

A continuing labor shortage threatens to limit the ability of the industry to meet growing demand. The Covid-19 pandemic restrictions and a major decline in global travel created the shortage, and the travel industry workforce is still struggling to keep up. Going forward, the industry will need to work on recruitment and stay ahead of the curve in a competitive labor market.

Five megatrends for airports and the road ahead to 2050

Passenger experience

Going forward, passengers will expect the experience at airports to be customized, on-demand, contactless, and efficient. With the digitalization of airports come new opportunities for retail and increased commercial revenue. Travel apps will increasingly be a key part of passengers’ journeys.

While digitalization is key, physical spaces will also need to be developed to meet the demands of passengers. The next few decades will see a trend towards more diverse offerings at airports, including entertainment options.

Four airport types

Bringing these megatrends together, Oliver Wyman’s aviation experts suggest that to remain competitive and relevant, airports will have to get their strategic positioning right. The lays out four blueprints of airports, each of which has a different outlook and serves a different purpose:

The City Airport: This is an airport located in a convenient, central urban location, typically geared towards being easily accessible through the transportation system. A major priority for city airports is ease of use. Though they enjoy great connectivity due to their location, there is also the need to take into consideration factors like noise and pollution.

The Global Hub Connector: Serving as a stopover for a large percentage of passengers is the main purpose of these airports. A prime example is Dubai International, a strategically located midway point for many long-haul journeys between East and West. These airports will need to leverage technology and smart design to provide smooth and efficient processing in the decades to come as demand increases.

The Cargo Champion: This is an airport that plays a big role in regional cargo import and export. The growth of e-commerce will see these airports thrive – if they can keep up by adopting innovative technology and avoid the hit of labor shortages.

The Leisure Gateway: As tourist destination gateways, these airports mainly serve leisure travelers. These are airports near Caribbean destinations or smaller airports in Southern Europe, for example. Here, passenger experience is very important and offering a taste of local culture to guests can be a winning strategy. A challenge for these airports is the off-peak season, when they must contend with a sometimes dramatic decrease in visits.