Airports of the future

They say that getting there is half the fun, but whoever said this did not account for the airport, which is often not an ideal start to your holiday or business trip. While there a few steps that you can take to cut down on airport blues, such as checking in online, the airport is still a frustrating place for most people. The security queue is a necessary evil given the terrorism problem – but that is only one part of the airport experience.

Grumpy

In many airports, the counter staff are often grumpy due to their huge workloads, waiting areas are minimal, the food outlets are so-so, the retail experience is rather poor and baggage drop-off and retrieval is a hit and miss process. And you still have to carry a paper boarding pass in most airports, though many are now converting to the paperless (smartphone) boarding passes.

That is just one of the many aspects of the total airport experience which is changing for the better. Baggage worries will be a thing of the past with many airports and airlines opting for Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) to label and track baggage. Delta of USA is one of the bigger airlines using RFID for baggage services. It enables Delta to keep track of baggage at every step of the journey and also enables passengers to keep track of their baggage through a smartphone app. This is very useful if you interline the baggage to your ultimate destination whether on the same or another affiliated airline. Delta has already upgraded their baggage tracking system to include an up-to-the-minute map view of a bag’s journey.

Destinations

More than 80 of Delta’s largest destinations in the US already have RFID installed and the airline says all domestic stations will now be able update the “first-of-its-kind” map view in its Fly Delta mobile app. Because the tracking is based on RFID tags and scanner checkpoints placed throughout each airport, travellers won’t actually see the bag’s exact location, but they will get a map pin for each checkpoint the bag has passed, plus the last time it was tagged by the system. Push notifications for luggage will also be coming to the app later this year, so users won’t even need to open it to check on their bag’s status. Things will also get easier at the baggage carousel - the RFID tags will not only track each item’s destination and location, but will send smartphone notifications when they’re ready to be collected by the passengers. More airlines and airports will convert to RFID in 2017 and we hope the Bandaranaike International Airport too will have RFID capability under its expansion program. Once you collect the baggage, you will be able breeze through a smart gate, which is already operational in several airports.

Biometric passports and biometric scanning are now very much a part of the travel scene, but what if biometrics become so advanced that one day even the passport will be obsolete? Travel experts say this could be a distinct possibility several decades from now since it will be possible to store biometric passport information and boarding pass information in one “biometric ticket”. In order to be issued with this token, each traveller will be scanned for biometric identifiers unique to them, such as iris patterns. However, there are many regulatory hurdles to be overcome before this becomes a possibility. Before you think that this is farfetched, tests are already underway at London Heathrow and Amsterdam Schiphol airports. At Aruba Airport the “Happy Flow” project has made use of facial recognition technology to remove the need for passengers to present their boarding pass and passport at multiple stages of the journey. The future is already here, so to speak.

Security

But the biggest change will be in the area of security. I have gone through the new ‘whole body scanners’ at several airports and they tend to reduce the queue a bit. But what if you can do away with separate body and baggage scanning machine altogether? Welcome to the new frontier of fast molecular security scanners. Long years ago, I saw a movie which predicted much the same thing and now it is set to become a reality.

Yes, technological advancements will remove the need to open every bag and for passengers to walk through metal detectors. Laser molecular body scanners, which were originally designed for medical use, will be used to screen for banned materials or liquids hidden in clothing or luggage. Effective from several metres away, these will allow people to simply walk past a scanner, rather than wait in another long queue that beats even the check-in queue. (Self-service check-in will be standard in the future).

Touchscreen

Airports already offer extensive duty free facilities and some airports such as Dubai International have almost turned into an art form. But in the future, touchscreen wall screens and intelligent Chatbots will be able to do the shopping for you either on the spot or via web retailers. As a bonus, the Chatbots will be able to speak virtually any language you prefer. These will also provide customer service and advice. However, the traditional retail store is not likely to go away – they will probably up the ante further. Changes are also likely to airport lounges and relaxation areas which could feature lifelike video walls of landscapes and seascapes that will help soothe the nerves of weary travellers.

Getting to and from the airport is still a hassle in many cities, especially in cases where the airport is some distance away from the city centre. In fact, some airports are as much as 100 Km away from their namesake cities. Many cities are integrating faster railways to make that commute to the city faster and more affordable. There is no need to wait for taxis or other ground transport, the train will whisk you straight to the city centre in under 30 minutes. Shanghai takes top spot with its Maglev (Magnetic Levitation) that can reach commercial speeds up to 431 Km/h. But Narita (Tokyo), Heathrow (London), Dubai, Toronto, Portland, Hong Kong, Amsterdam and Stockholm all have impressive train systems that link the airport to the city. Note that on the return trip, some train stations will even accept your luggage a day ahead. This will be a standard feature in the future which will help reduce congestion in airports.

In the future, your stay in the airport could be a prelude to supersonic travel that can shave hours off the longer routes such as Singapore-New York. Next week, let’s look at some of the options that could be available for supersonic travel as early as 2030. The age of the Concorde will be here again. 

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