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From home to check-in: How will future technologies change our journey to the airport?

And what forms could they take?

By Andrew Millinship , Charlotte Dubec and Jonathan Hewett ACII | May 14, 2024

eVTOLs, battery or fuel cell powered cars and public transport, automated vehicles… airports will need to adapt to the potential changes in how passengers and staff access their facilities.
Aerospace|ESG and Sustainability

Airports are crucial to a nation's mobility, but with the push for net zero and securing future fuel supplies, they face rapid technological changes. Adapting to meet tomorrow's needs requires careful planning of investment amidst uncertainty of which technology will dominate.

Case in point? The journey from home to the boarding of an aircraft. Today, it’s relatively simple for passengers: the vast majority of people travel to an airport in cars or take some form of public transport. These modes of transport have only really undergone incremental change over the last fifty years, so the planning and investment cycle to support them has been relatively simple for airports.

For passengers arriving by car, they require a car park offering diverse drop-off, short- and long-stay choices, along with amenities like valeting services. Public transport users need convenient access to stations or designated drop-off/pick-up areas. Depending on the airport's scale, passengers may also require shuttle services between parking or public transport stations and terminals, as well as clear pathways from check-in to the aircraft. All of these components must operate swiftly, efficiently, and with uncompromised security measures.

Complexity is the one certainty

Ground-based electric vehicles are changing both landside and airside. There are increasing numbers of private and public electric vehicles (EVs) on the road, and whether they use lithium-ion batteries, hydrogen fuel or even potentially solid-state batteries or hydrogen fuel cells in the future, the diversity creates several potential development paths for airports from a charging or refuelling perspective.

Airports or even groups of airports could commit to a fuel source and then find their development path has to change when technology makes another leap or changes direction.

Equally, while EVs are relatively new, if they become autonomous vehicles, the land use and revenue implications for airports could be significant. Autonomous and remotely operated vehicles may still be a few years away from wide use landside, but some airports are already finding them to be helpful, particularly airside, and not only for relatively repetitive tasks such as aircraft push-back tugs[1], but also more widely across the estate.[2]

While the implications of change are challenging from an operation point of view, there are also potentially significant financial ramifications. Many airports currently receive income from parking services as well as passengers being dropped-off and collected, but this could be under threat if passengers change the way that they travel to the airport.

The insurance and risk management sector has a strong interest in helping airports and associated organisations adapt efficiently to changing customer demand and expectations. The over-riding challenge is there are so many potentially transformational transportation technologies that could be implemented in so many different ways it can be difficult to decide in which order to proceed.

At this point there are no right answers, simply several potential directions that could be followed. As a result, there are several potential outcomes that airports need to consider. This article will examine the different options that could be a factor in discussions over the medium to long term, offering an insurance and risk management where appropriate.

Private electric vehicles: Managing expectations

EVs are well on their way to becoming important part of the fleet of private cars in many countries.[3] At first glance this will simply mean that petrol cars will be gradually replaced by EVs, but looking a little deeper and it’s clear that there are potentially significant differences between where we are today and where we could be even as early as 2030.

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    Airport service expectations could change

    Some owners may be willing to pay a premium to have their vehicles charged while they are away, but the logistics of this kind of service could be complicated and the risk and insurance implications need to be monitored closely.

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    The risk of battery discharge rises

    Energy loss is not considered to be significant (estimates vary, but somewhere between 2%[4] and 15%[5] over two weeks appears to be a reasonable assumption, depending on vehicle model and age of battery and whether the user remembers to put it into low-usage mode), however there are rises seen if an EV isn’t moved for a couple of weeks. If passengers are taking longer trips or are held-up in some way, some may need support from the airport or the organisations responsible for the parking while they are away if they are going to be able to use their vehicle when they return.

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    Potential risk of battery fire

    Batteries used in EVs are rigorously tested but while the risk of a fire is relatively small,[6] the impact and severity could be high. Read more on this in our recent article.

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    The increasing possibility of extreme weather

    Extreme cold has an impact on storage and the speed of battery charging, and extreme heat increases the risk of fire. Wildfires are more common and more powerful, and if one did approach a carpark full of electric vehicles the implications could be challenging from a fire management perspective[7].

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    Differences in vehicle power

    The way that vehicles are powered varies, complicating passenger requirements and expectations landside and airport operators airside.

    At this point though there are five main charging types for battery EVs, which in reality is not too different from the number of different types of fuel available at retail petrol stations. The market might coalesce over the next few years, which could reduce complication, although equally, innovations in the sector could mean it stays a long way from simple for some time.

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    Hydrogen brings a range of new risks

    Airports need to be very careful about where refuelling stations are placed if it becomes a major part of the fuel mix either land or airside. It will also require a great deal of investment to ensure the infrastructure is in place and robust enough to stand up to the rigours of airport usage. While it might be the better solution in the long term, the path to adoption is likely to be longer and more expensive.

The pace of change means that airports would be advised to have several scenarios in mind as they make plans to ensure that they can adapt to changing expectations and ensure that they offer passengers the services that they require.

Buses: An oasis of simplicity?

One method of transport that can sometimes be overlooked is the humble bus, but they offer a quick win from a carbon emissions perspective. The technology exists to embrace zero-emission buses and given that airports increasingly have a range of zero-emission vehicles airside, encouraging local authorities to convert their fleet and possibly converge with airports could be relatively simple. The infrastructure for charging and/or refuelling often already exists or is being planned for airside vehicles, so in some cases it could be relatively simple to extend it to landside vehicles operated by a relatively contained number of public transport providers with access to an airport.

Integration of local bus services is therefore possible, but, similar to long-range aircraft, medium to long distance express coach operators face a challenge in finding vehicles that provide adequate space for luggage and acceptable operational range in all weather conditions. Solutions are starting to appear, but the cost is higher than the traditional equivalent which is slowing adoption.

Given the emphasis that many airports put on their community relationships, making sure that they are seen to be taking a leadership position in the evolution of this aspect of public transport could also deliver tertiary benefits.

The challenge at this point is that there is uncertainty around whether the future is battery, hydrogen or hybrid powered. There are pros and cons to each power source that change based on operational range requirements and periods of usage, but a lot will depend on how the various technologies evolve. Airports should ensure that they are getting good risk advice as they go through the investment process and that they have the flexibility necessary to adapt their plans when the technology evolves.

Airside bus operation remains an interesting testing ground for airports but there can be a significant difference between usage patterns and distances travelled by buses airside and landside, so each project needs to be approached in different ways.

Automated vehicles: The challenge after next?

Self-driving vehicles could have a significant impact on an airport’s operations and its finances, not least because car parking facilities often provide a steady revenue stream.

If cars are bringing passengers to the airport and then returning themselves to a base that isn’t on site, then there will be considerably less requirement for parking. This space could potentially be re-purposed for electric take-off and landing vehicle stations in some cases, but the timing of conversion could put pressure on airport’s income if it isn’t managed carefully. Equally, there may be distance-based limitations imposed on private cars to avoid additional pressure from empty vehicles on already busy road networks.

That said though, if vehicles are taking themselves off-site having dropped off their passengers, fewer cars will be left at airports, reducing some of the risk management challenges discussed above.

Equally for airport operators, parking a group of automated vehicles will potentially save real estate because without the need for human access, vehicles can be parked closer together.

There is a reasonable likelihood that airports will continue to be proving grounds of limited function automated vehicles as airside presents a defined use case where operational interfaces can be predicted and controlled. The challenge though is that while airside usage can be clearly quantified and operational interfaces controlled and predicted, landside is a far more difficult to forecast.

As such, at this point in the development process, a potential future with automated vehicles is something that airports need to be mindful of as they develop their understanding of future operations so that they are ready to respond if and when the future arrives.

Many possible futures

Ultimately, at this point in the investment cycle, it feels like airports are trying to simultaneously see the future in several crystal balls. All of them hold a proportion of truth, but it is not yet clear which one investment teams and risk managers should be concentrating on.

There are significant opportunities for airports that have the foresight and flexibility to engage with change, particularly given that they provide essential transport hubs where different modes of transport meet.

While many of the development paths are similar or can run in parallel for a time before a full commitment needs to be made, the challenge is preparing for the future without preparing for every future. From a risk management and insurance perspective, the WTW transportation and aviation teams have a perspective across several sectors that can be useful when examining the options available.


  1. Iberia Joins British Airways With Driverless Pushback Tugs Return to article undo
  2. Amsterdam Airport Schiphol conducts trial with self-driving buses on airside Return to article undo
  3. Battery-electric vehicle sales worldwide from 2011 to 2022  Return to article undo
  4. Do electric cars lose charge when parked? Return to article undo
  5. How to park your EV for long periods: manufacturer guidance Return to article undo
  6. Do electric cars pose a greater fire risk than petrol or diesel vehicles? Return to article undo
  7. Number of wildfires to rise by 50% by 2100 and governments are not prepared, experts warn Return to article undo

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