The future of automation and labour in airports

Asst Prof Lin is interested in the cultural politics of air transport

Assistant Professor Lin Weiqiang from NUS Geography is a human geographer whose work looks into mobilities, infrastructures and logistics. Last year, he received the inaugural Social Science and Humanities Research (SSHR) Fellowship which provides opportunities for early career researchers to carry out independent research of strategic importance to Singapore over a five-year period.

Asst Prof Lin shares about this Fellowship, his research into air transport and how aviation working cultures are integral to building a successful air hub.

Q: What does your research focus on?

A: I examine transport, not from the point of view of economics or networks, but from that of the cultural politics of transport. In that sense, I’m not a ‘transport geographer’, I'm a cultural geographer with transport and its infrastructures being my lens to look at the world. Currently, I’m researching the cultural politics of airports and airspaces. 

In my latest project, I am looking at how airports are undergoing functional change, with more and more automation put in place. This trend will likely accelerate after the COVID-19 pandemic. Automation has been increasingly rolled out in airports, partly because there is not enough labour (at least in the Singapore context), and also to make it more efficient and fool-proof to disruptions. While the scale of operation of airports will likely slow down because of the pandemic, important questions remain to be asked about the future relationship between labour and automation, as dependence on advanced technology (e.g. robots and artificial intelligence) increases.

Ideally, the industry could strike a balance and promote a synergistic rather than antithetical relationship between labour and automation. In a sense, automation replaces labour. But at the same time, automation still depends on labour to function properly. With the pandemic, there is now also the question of protecting the livelihoods of workers, and upskilling them as air travel evolves. 

As such, I’m interested in examining how labour and automation will be coming together, or not coming together, and how that would affect the future of airport infrastructure in Singapore and elsewhere.

Q: How is this research funded?

A: This research is supported by the SSHR Fellowship, which I was awarded in 2019. It is a scheme launched in 2018 by the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) to encourage social science research of strategic interest to Singapore. 

Funding opportunities like this one from the SSRC allows social science researchers, like myself, to participate in conversations important to the nation and its future.

Q: How do you conduct your research?

A: The air transport research I am conducting is mostly based on interviews. After the initial phase of getting insights on how people work, or are adapting their practices to automation, the next part is to learn about the rationales behind technological changes in infrastructure from the point of view of airport authorities. There will also be a need to follow closely the technological changes that are bound to emerge in the near future, as air travel reopens after COVID-19.

I had previous experience tracing various kinds of infrastructural developments in aviation, from airport warehouses to airspace. I have also made use of similar research methods such as interviews, site visits, and aviation conference participation. This experience has come in handy for my current project.


Understanding how automation changes airport operations in Asia will provide insights into how future automation can better serve both passengers and airport workers.

Q: Which airports are you looking at?

A: Changi is one of the sites I’m examining, but I'm also looking at Dubai, the new airport at Beijing, as well as Jakarta. 

I chose these locations because they represent a new generation of competing airports to Singapore’s, and from a social science perspective, they are not very well studied. Most of the existing airport research is based in Western Europe or North America. There is little literature on airports in Asia.

In the coming years, airports will need to be smarter, more nimble, and better placed to tap into the digital economy. It is an exciting time to research and reflect on these changes in Asia, where most of the infrastructure building is taking place. I have been closely watching these developments since embarking on another air logistics project in Singapore and China. For example, I recently published a Marxist critique on the infrastructures of cold chain food logistics in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research in January 2019 and have another forthcoming paper on aerial Silk Roads in central China in Development and Change

Q: What are the next steps with your research?

A: One of the aims of my current project is to understand how automation changes airport operations in Asia, and what this means for hundreds of thousands airport employees, their working conditions, and the services they have been providing. I believe it is important to examine these industrial changes from the social science perspective to ensure that any future automation will be beneficial to people (both workers and passengers), rather than the other way around.

Based on my findings, I hope to be able to work with airports to develop ways of achieving mutually beneficial results for both the worker and the (automated) airport. I’ve spent many years interacting with airport workers when I carry out my research work, and I am convinced that happy workers who do not feel like they are in a position of constant precarity are an essential piece of the puzzle in building functioning infrastructures.