ACSA sets aside R1.2bn to digitise SA airports

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Passengers await their flights at the local departures terminal at Cape Town International Airport.
Passengers await their flights at the local departures terminal at Cape Town International Airport.

Airports Company South Africa (ACSA) has set aside R1.2 billion to digitise the country’s airports.

This emerged when the company yesterday announced its results for the financial year to 31 March.

Among the biggest highlights is that ACSA, which operates nine of SA’s airports, said profit fell by 58% in the year to end-March due in part to a 50% rise in security costs.

However, Bongiwe Mbomvu, ACSA acting chief executive officer, says: “We are filled with optimism for the modern, digitally-driven airport business we are developing and the important transformative role we can play in South Africa.”

In its integrated report, the organisation says it has embarked on a five-year IT upgrade programme.

The ACSA board approved R1.2 billion in capital expenditure as it sets about laying down the IT infrastructure necessary to transform into a truly digital airports business.

In all, R301 million will be spent on IT network optimisation, R142 million will go towards IT backup and storage solutions, and R240 million will be spent on improving and upgrading ACSA’s physical IT infrastructure.

Replacing legacy equipment

The firm says this programme will lay the necessary groundwork to cater for future growth and the replacement of legacy equipment which no longer meets infrastructure standards.

During the year in review, it introduced a new board committee, the Information and Communication Technology Governance Committee (ICTGC), to strengthen governance, procurement and management of IT infrastructure, networks and systems.

“The formation of the ICTGC has allowed our IT needs and concerns to receive appropriate board consideration. There were no significant changes to IT policy during FY2018/19, although our information management and classification policy is in review,” the company says.

It notes that a total of R287 million was spent on data centre and network upgrades, a significant investment for the group.

“Our IT architecture council ensures all technology acquisitions align with strategic imperatives, avoid duplication and are mapped out in terms of functionality required by the group in terms of the corporate plan.”

The company is currently rated at level two in terms of IT security maturity, and aims to achieve level three in FY2019/20.

ACSA follows COBIT 5 standards in managing its IT infrastructure.

Regarding cyber security, the airports operator says paperless travel will require it to tightly integrate its passenger processing systems with databases residing with the Department of Home Affairs and Department of Transport, as well as with airlines, to share information which will allow it to seamlessly verify the identity of passengers and motor vehicles moving within airport precincts.

“Responding to passenger demands, we have also rolled out free, unlimited WiFi access throughout our airports, which has improved our airport passenger experience ratings. However, this brings with it greater security risks which must be constantly managed,” says ACSA.

“In January 2019, we suffered a security incident where 50 e-mail accounts were compromised. Remedial action taken was to bring in external security specialists to contain the threat and increase proactive response capability, which was successfully implemented by February 2019.”

Business intelligence

While the group stores various types of data in the course of operations and passenger processing, ACSA says it believes its competitive advantage in creating value will come from “owning the passenger”, which could double IT’s direct contribution to revenue (R17 million in FY2018/19) within two years.

In future, ACSA wants to be able to engage with passengers before and after they enter the airport, while on-selling products and services according to individual behaviour patterns and preferences.

“To this end, we are exploring options to install a retail transaction management system which will provide real-time information on point-of-sale data from airport tenants in order to appropriately determine rental charges and stem revenue leakages, as well as options to take ownership of all infrastructure at the airport, including mobile network antennae.

“We are engaging with ICASA [Independent Communications Authority of SA] to create a common network that can be leveraged to increase airport revenue through a fee-based rental system for mobile network operators.”

However, the airports operator’s challenge in adapting to this new strategy is attracting and retaining data science talent.

“We are actively engaging with universities to try move more young people into these roles,” it says.

Cape Town International Airport is the location of ACSA’s trial implementation of passenger self-service, with electronic immigration facilities to be installed in FY2019/20.

It says these services will radically reduce delays and time taken for passengers to pass through check-in and immigration, allowing for more dwell time beyond security checks.

Faster passenger processing will allow the retail component of the airport to generate more non-aeronautical revenue, while improving the passenger experience and associated airport ratings, it adds.

ACSA also revealed it is working on a mobile application which will allow customers and passengers to interact with airports remotely.

“Passengers have indicated they want seamless integration of the social and business spaces. By the end of the 2020 calendar year, we intend to launch an app to drive the passenger self-service experience,” the company says.

“Our main objective remains to implement our strategy, and addressing delays in the rollout of services. Two data centres were installed at OR Tambo International Airport in the 2019 calendar year, as well as a data recovery centre at Cape Town International Airport.

“We have ensured that key tier one systems have appropriate disaster recovery capabilities and high availability. The remaining 25% of our disaster recovery systems will be implemented in the 2020 calendar year,” it concludes.

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