Airport solution providers – the people who make just about every part of your journey possible, from shops and security to boarding bridges and bag handling – gathered in London for the annual Passenger Terminal Expo this week.
It may not sound like high-octane stuff, but what gets exhibited here provides an insight into what you can expect to find in the airports of tomorrow, and what should, at least in theory, be making travel an ever-more seamless and enjoyable process.
Business Traveller went along to see what was on show, and what it means for you.
1. Bag tracking is getting better
Fewer bags are getting lost by airlines and airports than ever before – 5.57 per thousand in 2017, according to the most recent report from aviation tech specialists SITA. However, that’s little consolation when yours is.
Luckily those stats look set to improve even further. Last year, the International Air Transport Association (which includes 290 airlines) passed Resolution 753, which requires members to track bags at four points – handover from the passenger, loading onto the aircraft, delivery to transfer area and return to the passenger – and share tracking information with interline journey partners as needed.
While this hasn’t created a sudden transformation in practices, it is leading airports, airlines, ground handlers to invest in new technology that allows them to better track the 4.65 billion bags they carry each year.
RFID, or ‘radio-frequency identification’, has been around for decades and is one of the most effective ways to track bags, but is still not used by a majority of airlines. Several exhibitors showing machines that can print RFID labels, such as Avery Dennison, Custom and Seikodo, explained that while the printing is more expensive, the machines used to scan them come considerably cheaper than the ones that scan bar codes (around $2,000, down from $10,000), and economies of scale should mean the printing itself becomes cheaper as more airlines opt for the technology.
The labels contain passive chips with no internal power source that become activated when an antennae “shines” on them, after which they communicate information back (as one exhibitor told me when I asked for an explanation in layman’s terms). This method means they can be read more easily, unlike a bar code that may be concealed or damaged.
In its 2018 survey into airline passenger attitudes, SITA found that 95 per cent of respondents would like an app that notifies them about where their bag is along the journey (like Delta’s already does, using RFID tags). The IATA resolution could see this become more commonplace.
SITA also has a contribution – it is adapting its WorldTracer database, which shares information about lost bags between 510 airlines and 2,800 airports, into a public information source. Passengers can use a website or app to submit information about their lost luggage manually, enter a return address and other information, instead of having to wait at a counter at an airport. They can then track the bag’s progress via the app.
2. Queues should get shorter
Like any space that handles large numbers of people, airports have been monitoring the ways people move through them for years. What was clear from the Expo is just how detailed the data they are monitoring is becoming.
Numerous companies offer hardware and software helping airports reduce queues, optimise space and better allocate and position staff. That includes airports like Abu Dhabi, which partnered with Pads4 to use smart sensors to siphon people into efficient queue patterns, and London City, which partnered with Arcport to create simulations of passenger movements to lower the average journey time to the gate to 20 minutes.
The crowd monitoring systems on display ranged from straightforward passenger numbers…
…to systems displaying an individual’s gender, height and whether they are airport staff…
…to this very futuristic-looking display that pulls out every face in the crowd and lists their characteristics and movements.
While the presentation varies, they are all doing essentially the same thing – creating anonymous databases that airports can use to understand where their customers are going and when. Some of the more granular data could also be sold to retailers. Feel free to share your thoughts on whether this is useful or invasive on our forum thread here.
It’s not just your face that airports are interested in – Italian seat company Tecno was displaying seats that track when someone is sitting in them and for how long. They also monitor when passengers are using tables and plug sockets, all aimed at allowing better decision-making around where these features should be and how many are needed.
3. When there are queues, they will be more predictable
All this technology should not only reduce queues, but mean that passengers can be better informed about how long they will be and how much time to leave.
US company Iinside uses lidar scanners to detect human shapes (no face-scanning here) in order to monitor queues and crowds at a dozen US airports. It then passes that data on for services such as average queue times that can be sent to a phone or app, predictive queue times based on current events and past patterns, and queues at places such as traffic stands. Such systems are already in place at JFK, Iceland’s Keflavik International Airport, Amsterdam Schiphol, Manchester Airport and Birmingham Airport.
It could mean an airline or ride-hailing app sending you a suggested departure time for your flight that incorporates current traffic, vehicle queues around the airport and predicted security wait times a few hours ahead.
“When you don’t know how long a line is, the experience tends to feel between 20 and 30 per cent longer than it is,” said Iinside CEO Sam Kamel.
This technology is all about “taking the unpredictability out of the airport experience,” he added.
4. Your face will be scanned constantly, but at least it will make journeys smoother
As well as anonymous crowd monitoring, you will be on show to plenty of cameras that know exactly who you are. We’ve written a lot about the increased use of biometrics by airports, airlines and governments all around the world, and it is clear that there is a boom in companies providing such services; it was impossible to turn a corner at the Expo without seeing a stand offering them.
These included ‘end-to-end’ or partial biometric systems that use facial recognition at check-in, bag-drop, security and boarding, as well as some that use iris, fingerprint, and even voice recognition.
Panasonic had a particularly impressive range of facial recognition technologies on show. They included an information screen that will highlight your flight number and gate as you look at it, and this robot, currently on trial at Tokyo’s Narita Airport, that will drive itself around the airport and provide information such as how to get to your gate based on the flight information it matched up with your face (you will have provided the biometric data and your passport information at a kiosk during check-in).
They also showcased a self-driving wheelchair that can be summoned by an app, take you to your gate (again, it will know which one based on a facial scan), and drive itself back to a parking spot when finished. Narita apparently wants these in time for the 2020 Olympics.
5. Display boards will get more sophisticated
This one may not be as impactful as some of the other points in this article, but it was interesting to see the range of display boards on show, such as this board from Scala that displays queue times, weather updates, games that can interact with phones, and general information like whether a toilet is closed…
…and this mammoth 130-inch, LED touchscreen from Samsung (below), which can be used by numerous people at once. It’s apparently so hardy that a passenger could crash into it with a trolley and it would be unharmed, making it suitable to sit at ground level. It’s also portable, giving airports more flexibility to put it in, say, a lounge with limited space.
What would it actually be used for? We’ll see. Creating “customer interest” was what the Samsung representative said.
On a side note, I enjoyed seeing the stand for Aviavox, which provides the artificial voice systems that make announcements in airports, and played out a constant stream of fake gate announcements in various languages. There’s a company for everything.
The changes listed above could be summed up as the ways in which technology is both learning more about us – too much, in some people’s view – but also making our lives easier.
“It’s amazing,” reflected Tony Chapman, a director at Collins Aerospace, which was displaying its own biometric systems.
“It’s such a rapidly changing market – five years ago this show would all be classic check-in desks. The accuracy of the technology is going up and the cost is going down.
“In five years it will all be different again. What we don’t know is what it will be.”