June 2015

The information age is quickly transforming aviation, touching every aspect of air travel from point of departure to ultimate destination. But nowhere will the change in passenger experience be as profound as at the airport itself. The airport of tomorrow will be a very new and exciting experience. In fact, it may well become one of the more pleasing parts of the journey, rather than one of the most maligned.

A seamless progression

Tomorrow’s travel experience will inevitably begin the moment you make your reservation. Your booking details and associated information will travel over a protected private network, security hardened to meet demanding TSA requirements. Once you arrive at the airport, the traditional bottlenecks associated with transitioning – from the curbside through check in, and then through security to the airline departure gate – will quickly disappear. Inside the airport, you will have choices of how to check in: at a self-service electronic kiosk, traditional desk-based check-in, automated self-bag drop station or even opt-in auto check-in when entering the terminal. If you have bags to check, self-tagging stations will allow you to efficiently manage your luggage. Regardless of where you check-in, your identity sensors will confirm you’re the owner, even if you have no bags and go straight to security. Your boarding pass, identification and biometrics will allow you total control of your passage through the airport, all the way through aircraft boarding. “Pipe dream,” you say? Actually, we are nearly there.

The boon of biometrics

The key to this automated travel vision is biometrics – which can come in the form of iris scan, fingerprint, facial recognition and a number of other forms. The technology is poised to eliminate the largest air travel holdups in check-in, bag drop, security and boarding. Through these systems, we can remove the most time- consuming element of that airport journey: human interaction. Conventional wisdom worries that without the human element, security is negatively impacted. But the reality is actually the exact opposite. With 1.8 million passengers screened in the United States each day – and millions more worldwide – there is a constant and real danger of human error. With biometrics in every phase of the process, however, airports gain tireless sentinels that remain equally vigilant with passengers from inbound flights as they are for outbound travelers. For example, on inbound international flights, much of the passenger verification process can be completed even before the aircraft lands, so as soon as the landing gear touches down and the cell phones come out, many passengers will be met with a message instructing them to go straight through fast track customs, rather than waiting for an agent.

Integration and wireless innovations

Airports today are asking for fully integrated, end-to-end solutions that include these self-service systems. This data-driven approach allows airports to reallocate resources, leading to lower costs, greater efficiency and a greatly enhanced passenger experience

And advances in wireless technology mean these advancements often no longer require miles and miles of cables and expensive and time consuming renovations. When harnessed to an extensive smart network within the airport and unified with a secure global network, wireless technology can enable new frontiers in mobility and geolocation. For example, using inexpensive, off-the-shelf wireless beacon technology and a simple smart phone application, an airline can send individual or group messages to inform only targeted passengers of relevant gate changes, or ground handlers can be apprised of an impending thunderstorm. In fact, these systems can identify the closest ground handler to secure vehicles nearby. Whole systems of perimeter cameras can be controlled wirelessly without the cost of physical cabling, and airports can create geo-fencing to keep specific assets in particular areas, warn ramp drivers about their speed or immediately direct fuel trucks or other services to any aircraft.

Best of all, this integrated technology can be deployed in a modular fashion, allowing airports to choose a la carte from an extensive menu depending on need and budget. In addition, innovations in secure and reliable cloud technology open up new possibilities for shared service models in place of local infrastructure, making the technology more efficient and cost effective, even for the smallest airports.

Baggage and flight information breakthroughs

The airport environment will become much more interactive and more customizable, transforming a destination often viewed with mild dread into a relaxed and even enjoyable experience. For instance, the baggage handling experience will see one of the biggest changes during the next five to 10 years. With self-service bag tagging and bag drops, if you’ve already checked in prior to airport arrival, you can go straight to a self-service bag drop station, scan your boarding pass and ID and, after instant biometric confirmation, print out your own bag tag and place the bag on the conveyor belt yourself. Even more enticing, this automation can allow you to move these processes away from the airport to the rental car center or a multimodal hub; while there are still agents involved, we are seeing ongoing experiments with this model at Hong Kong International Airport. The next evolutionary step involves the conundrum of connecting flights. “Where do I go when I get off the plane? Where is the gate? How long will it take to get there?” Flight information, which is normally relegated to a fixed, terminal-based monitor, can be sent seamlessly to the aircraft in-flight entertainment system or passengers’ mobile device. Upon landing, dynamic way-finding will make it even easier to navigate toward the next departure gate, a restaurant, concession or any other airport facility and show the walk time needed. And, rather than searching for a restaurant or waiting for a table, passengers can use the app to make a timely reservation so the table is ready when they arrive.

Passengers can use a seamlessly connected app to make a reservation so the table is ready when they arrive.

Efficiency through dynamic resource allocation

The stop-and-go nature of airport operations means that all too often, large sections of valuable real estate remain unused during lulls in schedules, wasting time and resources. But innovations in technology offer new ways to more effectively share these facilities:

  • Check-in desks—Check-in desks will have a similar transformation. Instead of having an abundance of frequently unused space, it’s possible to have common use facilities where each airline’s branding will display prominently as needed. Check-in software is customized, so agents only need to touch a specific airline icon and the screen will reflect their own airline system. “Passengers can use a seamlessly connected app to make a reservation so the table is ready when they arrive.”
  • Wireless check-in—In addition to the efficiency of common check-in facilities, it’s possible to take agents completely away from check-in desks. Roving agents using wireless tablet computers could go from bottleneck to bottleneck, checking passengers through more quickly during weather or mechanical delays. In fact, systems like these are now operating in more than 100 airports globally, and the numbers continue to increase.
  • Dynamic gate allocation—All too often, travelers share stories of touching down 20 minutes ahead of schedule, but then finding themselves still stranded on the tarmac because there is no gate available. So, instead of having dedicated gates that may be used infrequently, the airport of tomorrow will boast dynamic gate allocation that allows a gate to be used for one airline at 10 a.m. and then a completely different airline 30 minutes later. Within the airport, signage and branding will change automatically to accommodate the particular airline, maximizing use of available assets and gates much more efficiently.


Research tells us that passenger satisfaction can have a significant impact on customers’ spending choices, and today many airport experiences don’t necessarily meet all passenger expectations. But passenger processing technologies – those already in the marketplace and those on the near horizon – hold great promise to leverage greater systems integration, mobile technology and smart devices for greater efficiency, lower operating costs and a transformative passenger experience.

After all, once you breeze through an airport – through check-in, bag drop and security – with a smartphone and a smile because you instantly know your flight is on schedule, how to get to the gate and even which coffee shop is offering the best deal along the way, there will be no turning back.

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Posted by Rockwell Collins