Fooling ourselves with digital transformation?

The term digital transformation gets tossed around a lot in the aviation industry these days. Digital is apparently the new normal. And the term is often applied to ‘plug-and-play’ tools from IT providers as a sales ploy, regardless of whether it is true. The idea of digital transformation has been gaining a lot of traction in of airport operations especially, but one has to wonder if what is being implemented is truly a transformation.

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Revolution vs Hollow concept

Such prolific use of the term digital transformation has, unfortunately, resulted in the term becoming a somewhat hollow concept. Digital transformation is supposed to deliver a ‘radical revolution.’ What that expectation entails exactly is not entirely clear, however.

As with any new change, there is a natural tendency to look for the easiest and quickest solution. However, transformations and revolutions are by their definition neither quick nor easy. Digital transformation is a change-management challenge that should not be underestimated. A 2017 study by SAP found that while 84% of companies agreed digital transformation was crucial, just 3% had finished any company-wide effort. The results a year later haven’t improved much.

Digitalising airport operations

Before going further, we need to make the distinction between digitisation, digitalisation and digital transformation. Digital transformation is the process of devising new business applications, using data and digitalised processes. It is often confused with, in the worst case, simple digitisation, or using digital information instead of hard copies. Somewhat better case, it is used to mean digitalisation: the use of software applications to simplify specific operations. However, both those must already be in place before digital transformation can happen.

In airport operations, we are seeing more operational processes tracked digitally and generating performance metrics. Data is actively generated, collected and shared in processes from check-in, security and baggage handling to apron coordination. And we see the output in all sorts of situational awareness tools and colourful management dashboards.

This is a start, but not the end goal. Does it support process efficiency? Sure, but a revolution it is not. Are true digital transformations happening with all this data? Digital transformation is, after all, more than implementing technology and generating data. Real digital transformation is a broad cultural shift to fundamentally improve the organisation and create value for passengers.

Toward bigger things

The cross-stakeholder projects in airport efficiency To70 helps to implement often generate a wealth of operational data and turnaround process visualisations. We see the digital process of data science applied to airport operations is well on its way here, but much more is possible.

We also see that investments, often quite substantial, in technological support are mostly underused. These should go beyond simple technology for situational awareness to actually using data insights to detect undesirable patterns and make behavioural improvements to operational procedures. Process improvement detection is a good next step toward digital transformation.


We would love to hear your opinion! What do you consider critical success factors for digital transformation in airport operations? Have you started a digital transformation project with the digitisation of airport processes? Have you experienced or heard of an impressive bit of airport process improvement showing visible results after a digital transformation? Tell us about it in the comments!


About To70. To70 is one of the world’s leading aviation consultancies, founded in the Netherlands with offices in Europe, Australia, Asia, and Latin America. To70 believes that society’s growing demand for transport and mobility can be met in a safe, efficient, environmentally friendly and economically viable manner. To achieve this, policy and business decisions have to be based on objective information. With our diverse team of specialists and generalists to70 provides pragmatic solutions and expert advice, based on high-quality data-driven analyses. For more information, please refer to


One thought on “Fooling ourselves with digital transformation?

  1. Hi Kris,

    Leuk artikel 🙂 Smart4aviation heeft tot op heden softeare geleverd tbv airlines en heeft interesse om ook producten te ontwikkelen voor airports. Wij hebben bv een communicatie & alerting programma waarvan ik denk dat het geschikt zou zijn om informatie te delen op airports en met de reizigers. Zou hier wel eens over van gedachten willen wisselen.


    Dirk-Jan Baas

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