At DFW International Airport, AI and Sustainability Top the Innovation Agenda

By Kate Katz |  March 7, 2024

More than 72 million passengers traveled through Dallas Fort Worth (DFW) International Airport in 2022, making it the second busiest airport in the world. DFW continues to invest in innovation as a way to stay ahead of the ever-evolving demands of both travelers and airlines.

Paul Puopolo, EVP of Innovation at Dallas Fort Worth (DFW) Airport, has 17 years of experience in highly complex and regulated industries, spanning financial services, healthcare, and his current role at DFW Airport. We spoke with Puopolo as part of our research initiative, “How AI is Influencing Corporate Innovation in 2024.”

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Paul Puopolo, EVP of Innovation, DFW Airport

What’s on your agenda for 2024?

We’ve always been working in autonomy. But the innovation team is going to think about the roadmap to autonomy, and what projects advance or accelerate as the technology keeps changing. We’re going to make sure we look at data and analytics, which AI [is part of.] And of course, sustainability, because it’s not so much should we be sustainable, but it’s more about what technologies are out there to help us be more efficient and effective.

If we think about an airport as a small city, we need to focus on our net zero waste goals and our carbon footprint. How do we support hydrogen and alternative fuels? What do we do about electricity and the grid? We are trying to find solutions that will physically impact and change our operating model. Waste management and recycling are a major concern, so the team is trying to figure out sorting and contamination challenges… is it better to just to take that decision away from customers by making everything biodegradable and changing the components of waste? Or do we chase the behavior and try to figure out how to better sort trash? It’s not easy to change behavior. We have 250,000 people coming through our terminals every day. Everybody has a different approach to recycling. Do we make the decision more simple or do we try to think about how do we better sort or educate?

We all got a little bit surprised by ChatGPT and what it can do.

How is your mandate or your team make-up changing for 2024?

The good thing is innovation is fully supported at DFW Airport. We’re increasing our team’s resources, and our budget has been steady, thanks to our CFO. Our categories for innovation remain the same. However, we expanded our focus areas to include sustainability. Every year we look at our categories and figure out which pertains to the strategy of the airport for that year. Sustainability is becoming such a big topic… that we wanted to include it as a separate focus area.

So, when we do an initiative, we say, where does it go? Does it go under data and analytics? Does it go under sustainability? Does it go under customer experience? Does it go under mobility and autonomy? We try to look at those things so that we can start to manage our portfolio metrics.

Is AI helping with these challenges?

Yes, so that’s where the technology comes in. Is AI good enough to sort or identify trash in the way that we need it to? And is it cost effective? Are you going to pay for smart trash bins across the airport? That’s a lot of recycling bins! It’s got to be economical and feasible if it’s going to be valuable.

Are there other initiatives or projects that you’re looking at generative AI to help with?

We now have a governance policy in place to educate everyone internally about what generative AI is, its capabilities, and its permissible uses. Our innovation team is actively exploring generative AI applications, regardless of the provider. We are examining internal implementation, particularly in the context of increasing efficiencies.

For example, can we use generative AI to quickly sort through contracts? We’re assessing whether our data format is conducive to generative AI answering employee questions. Can we use it to answer specific business questions against our own data sources. Our Enterprise Analytics team has been using AI to run more complex analysis against our operational data to support aviation services and parking yield management business models. We have also been using it to create predictive models to support more efficient management of our central utility plant. Additionally, we are exploring how to use generative AI, to upgrade our previous work on our virtual assistant, called Iris, to support travelers. While our team does use generative AI in public applications for common queries, we are primarily looking at its internal use within our closed airport environment to enhance business decision making.

The interactive display, Iris, was launched in 2022. How is that going?

Like any innovation program, a year ago, it was great. And now with AI and generative AI, Iris isn’t as effective… So, we took it down and said, “Okay, we’re not getting rid of Iris, but we’re going to rethink the back end of Iris.” Because the way it was built before was a little bit more like a chatbot… we were providing it the answers. We didn’t have a generative AI back end where it could be turned on to different databases and then provide you a more relative response…  Now we have to kind of rethink the form factor of Iris… generative AI might be the tool. But that’s a whole different way of trying to figure out how to make Iris work. So, our digital system has to change. We all got a little bit surprised by ChatGPT and what it can do.

Learn more about this report, published in February 2024.

What is one piece of advice you share with other innovators?

The biggest thing I say to people is to innovate in context. The reason I say that is, having come from three very different organizations that are all very large… [and] very regulated, you have to take the principles of innovation, and adapt them to work within your organization.

Sometimes, we try to apply innovation principles as a prescriptive formula, and my argument is no, you should have those as your north star… but you’ve got to apply them and tweak your efforts to your organization’s culture, or you won’t be successful… Don’t try to copy somebody else’s model, because you’ll be doing something that the organization won’t have the stomach for, because your innovation purpose is not clear.