As aeroplanes change to become more efficient and passenger-friendly, so too will airports. From check-in to disembarking, the airport experience is due for a radical change – and it all starts with self-service.
Ask anyone what they like least about air travel, and they'll probably say queuing. Check-in, baggage drop-off, security, border control - modern airports have a lot of queues, and passengers spend longer than they'd like standing in them. What if we could do away with queues entirely, and make boarding a plane as simple as boarding a bus?
In fact, that's just what's started happening already in airports around the world. Technology like facial recognition, molecular scans and artificial intelligence are driving a new generation of self-service air travel.
First and foremost, airport innovation is focussed on offering efficiency; travellers are looking for a remarkable experience before they’ve even boarded the plane, and simplicity throughout the check-in process is paramount to achieving this.Beverley Barden, APH
Staffed check-in desks are expected to be phased out as passengers increasingly opt to check in online or via a self-service desk, with notifications for boarding, flight information and any changes in schedule automatically sent to their smartphones.
Once checked in and scanned, passengers are issued with a biometric token that serves as passport, boarding pass and ID for the journey. This doesn't have to be a physical token – it could be stored securely in your smartphone, for example.
On arrival, passengers simply drop their bags at one of the many drop-off points connected to high-speed conveyor belts. Embedded chips within the luggage itself not only track the bags by radio frequency, but sends smartphone notifications when they're ready for collection from the luggage carousel.
Drop-off points can be found in the airport car park, train station, restaurants and coffee shops – some airlines will even offer collection from passengers' homes or hotels.
Originally developed as medical devices, these scanners – which are effective from distances of 164ft – can detect contraband or dangerous chemicals in passengers' clothing or their luggage, without the need for a physical search.
Unlike X-ray scanners, these devices provide feedback on a molecular level, making them ideal for detecting even tiny quantities of high-risk material. Other types of scanners can read body language to flag up suspicious behaviour, or alternatively alert staff to any passengers who need help.
As part of the check-in process, passengers will be scanned for biometric identifiers like facial features, iris patterns and fingerprints to verify their identities. This information is shared with immigration and security officials to streamline the arrival and departure process.
This technology, already being trialled at Heathrow and Schiphol airports, could be used to track passengers from arrival to departure. It's faster – and more reliable – than checking passports manually.
Many airports feel like shopping malls today but the more forward-thinking are going a step further and looking at how they can ensure everything – from the architecture to the food and beverages to the ambience of the terminal to the activities on offer – reflect the destination itself.Ryan Ghee, Future Travel Experience
With passenger aircraft potentially becoming much bigger in future – for example, the Boeing 777-9X design and new "flying wing" concepts – airports may need to increase the size of their runways and parking facilities to make room for both planes and passengers.
As the importance of passenger processing recedes into the background, airports will embrace a new role as destinations in their own right. Part of this means ensuring they're attractive, environmentally-conscious places to visit – which is why airports are increasingly bringing the outdoors inside.
Elements like waterfalls, indoor woodland and even walking trails will give passengers with pleasant places to relax and reflect, and further take the stress out of air travel.
"I think we’re likely to see airports reflecting the destination they serve more and more. Many travellers are looking for something different – they’re looking for an experience – and this includes what happens at the airport." – Ryan Ghee, Future Travel Experience.
A bit of duty-free shopping has always been an important part of the air travel experience, but tomorrow's airports could go a step further – becoming virtual shopping malls where passengers can have their heart's desires delivered to their homes with a swipe of the hand. Via smartphone, these "shopping walls" can interact with a customer's buying history to create a personalised display of their favourite brands, or suggest some gifts for loved ones at home.
Despite all the advances of modern technology, airport control towers are still heavily reliant on people to make key decisions. However, some towers – like the one recently introduced in Sweden – contain no personnel, and are operated remotely by a team many miles away. As artificial intelligence develops, machines may start to take over at least some aspects of air traffic control – although they'll be closely overseen by their human counterparts.
While the self-service concept means there are fewer airport staff around, passengers can still get a little help from a friendly virtual assistant – and one that can automatically detect everybody's native language and converse with them effortlessly.
Using a more advanced, specialised version of the artificial intelligence embedded in today's chatbots, these digital helpers will also be able to advise on sights to see in the local area, list nearby hotels – or just tell you where the loos are. "The most impressive example to date is probably KLM’s “Spencer”, a socially-aware robot that could eventually guide transfer passengers from one gate to another to ensure they don’t get lost in between flights." – Ryan Ghee, Future Travel Experience
Just like airports, developments in the aircraft industry are also promising a greener and more exciting flight experience.Read More