Nordic CIO interview: Brede Nielsen, Avinor

The Covid-19 pandemic put Avinor’s IT head at the centre of the airport operator's response

With a background in the banking sector, Brede Nielsen joined airport operator Avinor six years ago as CIO.

Today, he finds himself managing some of the company’s responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as working with military-grade technology to modernise air traffic control.

The transport and travel sector has been one of the hardest hit by the coronavirus fallout, with governments around the world implementing lockdowns that have prevented people moving around, both within countries and internationally.

Airports are critical infrastructure in Norway, due to geographic challenges. The country has one of the highest number of flights per capita and Avinor operates the country’s 44 state-owned airports.

“There is a long distance between the north and south of Norway. Last year, we processed 53 million passengers, and we are only five million people,” says Nielsen.

Thinking beyond remote working

CEOs at all businesses immediately turned to their IT leaders when the Covid-19 lockdowns were announced. How could they function if staff were not allowed to leave home?

For Nielson, the call from the CEO was a good one as he had already implemented the technologies needed to enable staff to work from home. “He was really happy that we had already changed our infrastructure to enable people to work from home from the first moment of the lockdown,” says Nielsen.

This gave the IT department time and enabled it to think about where else they could support the response to Covid-19. While many CIOs and their teams would have been desperately putting in place emergency remote working options, the IT team at Avinor was thinking about the next step. They were quickly able to think about how to use IT to help protect air travellers using the airports in Norway against Covid-19 infection.

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“The same afternoon, I was sitting down with my team and we were wondering what to do next,” says Nielsen. “We had an idea about touchless travel. We have been talking about this for years, but found the infrastructure relatively expensive if you want to use all the biometric technologies.”

But the crisis focused minds and the IT department had to find a way around the high cost if it was to get approval for a project. “The challenge was to find something we could do with the infrastructure we already had,” said Nielsen.

Touch-free airport check-in

The first idea was to make its check-in kiosks touchless rather than just contactless. These kiosks are powered by Amadeus software.

“Most Norwegian travellers are checking in with a mobile phone or a printout of a ticket, but a big problem was that they still had to touch [something], and then of course there is the bag drop,” says Nielsen.

Even customers using contactless check-in still have to press buttons on the kiosk, but Avinor wanted a touchless experience. “The challenge was to make these two things touchless,” he says.

“Innovations like [touchless check-in], driven by necessity in response to Covid-19 restrictions, are here to stay”
Brede Nielsen, Avinor

The first port of call for Nielson was to contact Amadeus for ideas and its development team in Australia.

Alongside Amadeus, Avinor created a touchless system, which allows passengers to check in without making contact with physical systems or people.

Bags, with the tags attached, are put into the baggage system by the passenger, with no involvement from airport staff. The team used 3D printing technology as part of the solution to the challenge. “We wanted to have the bag scanners in scanning mode all the time so passengers just put their bag on a rack, which we made using 3D printers.

Avinor has introduced this capability at Oslo Airport and will soon make it available in Bergen, Stavanger and Trondheim. These four hubs account for 66% of flight departures in Norway. The technology and supporting processes will be implemented in a total of 17 airports.

“Innovations like this, driven by necessity in response to Covid-19 restrictions, are here to stay,” says Nielsen.“I am a tech guy and don’t predict the future, but technology is being adopted very fast in Norway, and I think it will become a trend that people just don’t want to touch things.”

Automation projects abound

Avinor has about 3,200 staff, with a large proportion – about 200 – in the IT department. The company also works with nearly 30,000 more people involved with airport operations and at retailers within airports.

The IT team is currently busy on several projects, including building a new infrastructure for flight information. Automation is a recurring theme.

For example, Avinor is currently building remote air traffic control towers, at small airports, that don’t need people in them. These use cameras at the airport and are controlled from a central hub. There is one complete so far, with plans for 16 in total.

Nielsen says his team is not the main driver of this project, but a part of a broader team. “This is a big project for us right now. We are using the same technology as the military,” he adds.

Another project is an autonomous snow plough. After successfully testing the vehicle at one airport last winter, Avinor plans to roll them out at other airports next winter.

“In general, we have a lot of automation projects,” says Nielsen.

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