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Airports of the future are here

LiveMint logoLiveMint 23-07-2017 Justin Bachman

No matter how well-regarded a particular airport happens to be, the slog from curb to cabin is pretty much the same wherever you go. A decades-old paradigm of queues, security screens, snack vendors, and gate-waiting prevails—the only difference is the level of stress.

The sky portal of the 2040s, however, is likely to be free of such delights. Many of us will be driven to the terminal by autonomous cars; our eyes, faces, and fingers will be scanned; and our bags will have a permanent ID that allows them to be whisked from our homes before we even set out. Some will no longer be relegated to the outskirts of town—they will merge with city centres, becoming new destinations for people without travel plans.

These are the types of infrastructure investments and technologies that will, in theory, let airports largely eradicate the dreaded waiting. Travellers will migrate around the terminal faster and see fewer walls and physical barriers thanks to the abundance of sophisticated sensors, predicts US-based architecture and design firm Corgan.

One day, the airport will know “everything about everyone moving in the airport,” said Seth Young, director of the Center for Aviation Studies at Ohio State University. The goal will be to deploy “a security infrastructure that’s constantly screening people from the door to the gate, and not having this toll-booth mentality”, he said.

One reason airports tend to look and function remarkably alike is that they’re designed to accommodate air travel infrastructure—security, passenger ticketing, baggage, ground transport—with the primary concerns being safety and minimal overhead for their tenant airlines.

“Today it’s what you call a transient space—it’s not a space to be in, it’s a space for you to move through,” said Jonathan Massey, aviation leader for Corgan, which has overseen the design of major terminals worldwide, including Atlanta, Dallas, Shanghai, Dalian and Los Angeles.

As part of the research, Corgan designers measured anxiety levels for different passenger types. The greatest offender among all groups was the security checkpoint. But when it comes to the biggest infrastructure burden, one aspect of today’s airports stands out—luggage.

Changi Airport’s new Terminal 4, which will open later this year, will feature an array of “fast and seamless travel” (FAST) technologies to speed people-processing without the need for human supervision, from face-recognition software to automated bag-tagging and checking.

Two US carriers, Delta Air Lines Inc. and JetBlue Airways Corp., recently began trials of biometrics data as a way to speed your way. JetBlue is testing facial recognition equipment in Boston to match travellers with passports and visa photos, while Delta just began trials of a similar system for bag drops at its Minneapolis-St. Paul hub.

Amid all this increased efficiency, airports are also keen to have people linger so they’ll buy more stuff.

One thing that may thin out the terminal crowds is cars. Young and others see a day when autonomous vehicles will siphon off a chunk of shorter flights that are 800km or less. To find new revenue, airports will need to attract dollars in other ways, via dining, shopping, and entertainment. Since that may not be enough, new business models will be needed for ground transportation and commercial office space; perhaps new revenue may accrue from baggage delivery service.

“No matter what,” Young said, “airports want to make it efficient.” That means getting through quickly—be it arriving, departing, or transferring. “But they love it when people are at the airport,” he added, “because of the opportunities to spend money.” Bloomberg

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