The Sky Portal

30 Jun 2011

What will the airports of the future be like? Alisha Haridasani investigates tomorrow's world of wireless connectivity and seamless efficiency

Through sliding doors you enter an airy, radiant airport, and immediately you notice the lack of crowds. In fact there is barely anyone in sight – just a handful of people scattered around, secluded and moving fast. All unnecessary human contact has been eliminated – and this includes the barbaric act of standing in line, waiting for something. Humans aren’t designed to wait. We’ve conquered the skies and the seas, why should we wait for anything?

After checking in via your cellphone, you make a beeline for the baggage drop-off counter, beep your luggage through and then move on to immigration. You no longer need to speak to airline ground staff either – your greatest companion is your phone, which begins to vibrate because you chose to receive personalised notifications. “Thank you for checking in,” reads the SMS message.

After passing through the automated immigration booths, you come to three lanes. This is perhaps your first point of contact with airport staff, who direct you towards the correct one. With each step you take down this lane, a light flashes from red to green as your shoes and bags are scanned simultaneously. “Safe to board”, reads the screen overhead – gone are the days of removing shoes and belts before boarding a flight.

Now that you’ve completed all the departure procedures you finally see people, lingering around at shops and restaurants. Just minutes before boarding time, your phone informs you, “Your gate is five minutes away. Walk straight ahead and turn to your right.” Arriving at the gate, you beep yourself in using your beloved phone and walk straight onboard.

It’s the year 2020. Airports have evolved from their dinosaur predecessors. The time-wasting obstructions of the past are now literally easy enough to walk through. It’s smooth, it’s fast and it’s passenger-centric.

Rewind and fast-forward

People view travelling holistically rather than analysing and judging the parts involved. Any roadblock at any stage will tarnish a traveller’s impression of the entire trip, and it’s the airports and airlines that usually get the short end of the stick.

In the evolution of airports, only the most efficient will survive. According to a JD Power’s Global Airline Traveller Survey in 2010, commissioned by Amadeus, time spent checking in or passing through security were the greatest banes for a combined total of 52.8 percent of respondents. Unfortunately, their anger was often channelled directly at the airline. The same survey revealed that the relationship between time spent at check-in and a passenger’s airline satisfaction is inversely proportionate: the more time spent at check-in, the lower the airline’s satisfaction rating. A total of 19.4 percent of respondents spent more than 20 minutes at check-in and consequently their airline satisfaction ratings fell to 6.7/10. The conclusion is simple: it is in the interests of all airport stakeholders to remove identifiable irritation flashpoints and make the entire travel experience as passenger-friendly as possible.

For an airport to move forward, it therefore needs to zero in on these issues and eliminate them in collaboration with airline partners. “If you think of the passenger process, a lot of time is spent in queues – security checks, border controls, etc,” explains Heini Noronen-Juhola, vice-president of Helsinki Airport, Finland, a major air transfer hub in Europe. “If these processes could be done as electronically as possible, it would save lots of time for the passenger, thus ensuring a pleasant experience.”

In the case of airport Darwinism then, “efficiency” means shorter dwell times and more automatic self-service options for the traveller. “The airports of tomorrow will enable passengers to avail themselves of a slew of self-services, which will upgrade service quality at every passenger touch point,” says Francis Rajan, vice-president of information and communications technology at Bangalore International Airport.

Efficiency also means reducing passenger uncertainty. The greatest uncertainty is felt at the baggage reclaim carousel, where worry rises exponentially with every unfamiliar bag that glides past. A SITA/Air Transport World Passenger Survey revealed that in 2009 more than 25 million bags were mishandled globally – a clear symptom of a dysfunctional part of airport operations that needs greater development. Another source of uncertainty is, predictably, service disruption whereby passengers are not only stranded at airports but also left in the dark about developments or options that they may have.

Understanding the need for progress, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) unveiled the Fast Travel Programme in 2008, urging the aviation industry to adopt “five projects designed to offer a range of self-service options” that will not only increase passenger satisfaction but also save the industry up to US$2.1 billion annually. These projects range from automated travel document checkpoints to bag recovery at the other end of the journey, which are all being rolled out on a staggered basis today (see Smooth Passage section below).

The road ahead

“The upgrading of services is being dictated by passenger lifestyles,” states Rajan. “Passenger touch points will go mobile because the mobile device has become so ubiquitous – it has become a part of the passenger’s lifestyle, so airports now have to address that lifestyle requirement.”

An Amadeus study titled “Navigating the Airport of Tomorrow” reiterates Rajan’s point. It found that in the near future passengers expect to receive real-time flight status updates, real-time baggage arrival updates and directions on their mobile devices. Furthermore, “passengers expect not just generic updates that distribute the same message to all customers, but personalised communication that addresses their specific concerns. Information must be personalised, location sensitive and context aware,” states the study, all of which will empower the passenger further.

To meet these expectations, over the next five years or so, Near Field Communication (NFC) technology and Radio-frequency Identification (RFID) technology will be harnessed on a large scale, due to their versatility and applicability to a multitude of airport operations. First and foremost, Amadeus predicts that NFC technology would allow a passenger to check in and board an aircraft simply by scanning their phones on NFC readers. NFC technology could also locate all passengers within an airport, enabling the airline to ensure that they reach the boarding gate on time by sending out reminders or directions when necessary. Real-time baggage arrival updates, real-time flight status updates or available options during service disruptions are all possible with NFC, which would reduce the number of bags lost and dispel passenger uncertainty.

“As soon as we can identify a viable solution we will try bag tags equipped with RFID technology at Helsinki Airport, in order to inform the passenger where his or her luggage is,” says Noronen-Juhola.

Some of this technology has already been adopted by Qantas at Perth Airport, Sydney Airport Terminal 3, Melbourne Airport, Brisbane and Adelaide for domestic services. All of the carrier’s frequent flyers now have a new Qantas card and permanent Q Bag Tags. These enable the passenger to check in by swiping their card at a reader, drop bags off at a dedicated bag-drop counter and board flights by scanning their Qantas cards.

However, for NFC technology to work, not only does the airport need to invest heavily in the required infrastructure, but there needs to be a critical mass of passengers using NFC-enabled phones. This, predicts Amadeus, will only happen in 2015 and beyond, by which time almost 247 million smart phones will be NFC-enabled.

Other than a mobile revolution, automated technology will be used to upgrade security checkpoints as well. In June this year, IATA unveiled the checkpoints of the future, designed to streamline the entire security clearing procedure. “Passengers should be able to get from curb to boarding gate with dignity. That means without stopping, stripping or unpacking,” says Giovanni Bisignani, director general emeritus of IATA. The new security screening technology gets rid of the homogenised process at current security checkpoints and instead works with a more idiosyncratic approach combining “intelligence with technology”, explains Bisignani.

In this scenario, security screening will begin even before the passenger reaches the airport. Behaviour analysis and data will be pre-screened by the government. Upon reaching the airport, the passenger is biometrically identified and, based on comprehensive data analysis, will then be assigned to one of three lanes: Known Traveller, Normal or Enhanced (for passengers deemed “risky”). This revolutionises security clearance procedures by shifting them from being “a system that looks for bad objects, to one that can find bad people,” says Bisignani. As passengers pass through the lanes they, along with their belongings, will be screened simultaneously and uninterrupted.

So far, IATA has developed a blueprint of this security procedure and a roadmap for its future implementation. Metal-detection and shoe-scanning technology have already been rolled out, as has behaviour analysis. Within the next three years, biometric identification and passenger data will be pooled and used to identify passengers based on risk. In five to seven years, explosive detection technology could be introduced, thus providing airports worldwide with all the building blocks to put together the checkpoints of the future. “This is science fact, not science fiction,” says Kenneth Dunlap, director of security and travel facilitation at IATA.

Speed breakers

But while these innovations will be embraced and implemented by major airports sooner rather than later, it will take a lot more time for them to become a truly global standard, as the technology will need to trickle down to secondary airports.

The greatest hindrance to developing airports on a global scale is, unsurprisingly, cost. “It really depends on the readiness of the airport and its ability to adapt to new technologies and ideas,” says Noronen-Juhola. “It all comes down to money. Airports need to develop a business case to adopt new solutions that are actually worth something.”

In addition to money, all airport stakeholders must be willing to see eye-to-eye and work collaboratively to adopt industry guidelines and standards provided by bodies such as IATA. “Developing a world-class airport is a community effort that involves airlines and other key stake holders led by the airport authority,” says Russ Fortson, manager of customer services and product development at Cathay Pacific Airways. In return, all stakeholders would rake in the monetary benefits of lower operation costs and consistently high passenger satisfaction. However, both airlines and airports may be reluctant to take the plunge because it will require a completely new system and new infrastructure, despite the subsequent benefits of cost reduction.

Another obstacle is the inconsistency in border control. “Governments around the world are inconsistent in their approach to the customer facilitation through their respective borders,” explains Fortson. “Some governments embrace a much more progressive approach whereas others seem to be headed in the opposite direction. The end result comprises the most significant bottlenecks in the journey.”

Ready for takeoff

In today’s world of technological revolution, automated airport systems are no longer seen as a value-added luxury but as a necessity for an airport’s survival. As the global economy continues to develop, and more and more travellers become hyper-connected through mobile devices, it is important for both airports and airlines to respond to the changing trends. It is no longer a case of whether or not they will automate, but when and how fast. Who knows, by 2020 perhaps all of these ideas will be outdated and replaced by newer ones?


Smooth passage

As part of the IATA’s Fast Travel Programme, the aviation industry is developing the following self-service projects to streamline airport processes:

• Automated document checkpoints which allow passengers to scan their travel documents at a kiosk rather than a check-in counter. While 128 airports have the capability to implement this technology, as of last year it is being used at 117 locations, according to IATA. 

• Bags ready-to-go enable passengers to print out baggage tags themselves and then hand bags over to an airline agent. This has also seen high adoption rates as more and more airlines offer the technology at several locations, such as Air Canada’s self baggage tagging kiosks at London Heathrow Terminal 3.

• Bag recovery self-service kiosks enable passengers to fill in details of missing bags and generate an electronic claim – a service that has been implemented by Swissport, a ground-handling services provider, at Geneva Airport.

• Flight re-booking technology enables passengers to re-book flights and obtain a new boarding pass in the case of delays or cancellations. Currently, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines provides these re-booking kiosks at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol.

• Self-boarding whereby passengers scan  their own boarding passes at a counter before going onboard. A version of this technology has been embraced by airlines such as British Airways, United Continental Holdings, Lufthansa and Korean Air, who give passengers the option to either print out their own boarding passes or download them onto their phones. Lufthansa and Korean Air have pushed this technology further to establish  self-boarding gates at Munich Airport and Incheon Airports respectively, that resemble turnstiles in underground metro stations so passengers can simply walk through onto  the aircraft. 

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