Terminal velocity

Ariport terminal

Credit: Foster & Partners

New Mexico City airport will be a single terminal within a lightweight shell with a high level of flexibility


From security to distances to gate to collecting baggage, transiting an airport can be taxing. Will the airport experience of the future be better?

Long-haul travellers arriving at a hub airport in 2030 should expect to enter a building powered by the latest technology. It will sell itself on its distinctive experience, with transport connections into the heart of the city. If you are transferring to another flight, your options may include enjoying time at a spa or taking a nap at an airside hotel.

New airports will most likely be single-terminal, carefully designed to minimise the distance to the departure gate. Your smart mobile device will keep you informed throughout your journey and guide you all the way to your seat in the plane. Security risk assessments and immigration clearances will be done in advance, while biometric sensors will authenticate your identity on arrival at the airport.

Views differ about how bags will be managed. But it is unlikely you will be hulking your luggage through departure or ‘arrivals’ lounges. Improved baggage handling, reliability and convenience of bag delivery may bring about the demise of cabin luggage. Thanks to an electronic tag you will be able to track, via your mobile, the progress of your luggage on its journey to your destination. You will use your mobile to arrange when and where to be reunited with your bag – not necessarily the carousel.

By 2030, long-haul travellers may not spend as much time in the airport as they do today. A combination of technologies, including electronic bag tags, beacons, biometrics, real-time data and data analytics, and what’s called the ‘internet of things’, are expected to be at the core of these changes.

Already, connected consumers are enabling airports and their partners to develop better self-service options. By 2020, according to communications specialist Ericsson, 70% of the world’s population is due to be using smartphones and 90% will be covered by mobile broadband networks.

Doha Airport

Credit: ddp USA/REX Shutterstock

Airports of the future will have technology at their core

The internet of things is growing explosively. By the end of this decade, a mind-boggling number of physical and virtual objects are to communicate, predominantly with each other, to negotiate and organise themselves, only communicating with us to take instructions or report back. Predications range from tech researcher Gartner’s calculation that there will be 25 billion connected things in use by 2020 to internet-networking specialist Cisco ISBG’s forecast of 50 billion connected devices.

Against this backdrop, the desire for air travel will continue unabated. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) believes that passenger numbers will almost double to more than 6 billion by 2030. Airports will have to change to cope with this demand.

IATA director of passenger, Paul Behan, notes that while passenger numbers are growing at around 7% annually, traffic has shifted, and growth at some airports will be faster. “To build an airport to absorb 6-10% growth takes a lot longer than the growth. That is a general pressure on the industry. We need to be fit before 2030. If we wait till 2025 to realise we need to process big clumps of passengers quickly, we will miss the boat.”

IATA is some way through its Fast Travel Program to ensure that by 2020, 80% of global passengers are offered a suite of self-service processes to help them from check-in, bags ready to go, document scanning, flight rebooking and self-boarding to bag recovery.

It is also working with the Airports Council International on the Smart Security programme to achieve what it calls “a continuous journey from kerb to airside, where passengers proceed through security with minimal inconvenience, where security resources are allocated based on risk, and where airport facilities can be optimised”. It is highly likely, therefore, that we will start to enjoy more seamless airport experiences well before 2030.

A strong indication of the 2030 experience is gained by looking at recent airport innovations, and the facilities to be offered at hubs currently under construction or on the drawing board.

Future widebody

Credit: ANL/REX Shutterstock

To build an airport to absorb 6-10% passenger growth takes a lot longer than that growth

Passengers using Dubai International airport’s Emirates Terminal 3 already have access to airside hotels, a fitness club and health spa. However, the organisation’s $32 billion plan to expand Al Maktoum International at Dubai World Central into the world’s largest airport will, it says, embed ‘cutting-edge passenger-enabled technologies’ within ‘an optimised airport design and simplified process’.

As much as is possible, passengers and bags are expected to be processed in advance. Departing passengers will be taken by high-speed airport trains to their selected concourse node, where they will have unobstructed views of the gate area, intuitive wayfinding, WiFi connectivity and interactive personalised information. Connecting passengers will have full access to airside retail offerings and have minimal walking distances to their onward flights. Bags will arrive at the same time as passengers at their location of choice (airport, home or hotel), or will be delivered when they want.

Similar concepts are in evidence at Beijing Daxing International airport’s Terminal 1 and the new Mexico City International hub, both of which are expected to have started operations by 2020. Zaha Hadid Architects’ design for ADP Ingénerie’s radial concept in Beijing, with passenger pathways through the terminal converging on a central courtyard, creates a multi-layered space separating domestic and international passengers vertically. Passengers would have everything they need within a short walking distance.

New Mexico City will be a single terminal enclosed within a lightweight shell, with great volumes providing a high level of flexibility. Again, a compact internal design also ensures short walking distances and few level changes. “Big need not mean inhuman – everything we design is legible on a human scale,” says a Foster + Partners spokesperson. “Travellers will be able to see the gates, see where they are heading – the space will be full of daylight and the experience uplifting.”

As hub airports jostle for passenger business, they will become more individual. SITA’s vice president of airport solutions, Matthys Serfontein, says Singapore’s new Changi airport Jewel Complex, which will have an indoor forest, walking trail and 40-metre waterfall, is redefining the airport experience. “The combination of development is designed to create a true ‘sense of place’ and to truly bring together the expertise of commercial mall developments with efficient airport operations. I believe that architecture and terminal building design will increasingly become an important element of competitive differentiation and advantage among the hub airports of the world.”

Not all airports have the luxury of space. Copenhagen Airport has been expanding rapidly in recent years, and has used sophisticated data analytics to optimise airport efficiency and minimise physical expansion. Now its experts are helping to evaluate designs and optimise the operational concept for the new Istanbul airport during construction and the first few years of operation. “Here, the most important question is to think about what kind of DNA the airport should have when opening in a couple of years – not only beautiful architecture, but also intelligent and efficient architecture,” says airport optimisation director Thomas Hoff Andersson.

He adds: “We believe that a strategic use of sophisticated data analytics will be an important requirement for future airport development. By now airports only use a small amount of the data available to them, so there should be a huge unexploited potential here.”

Real-time information will be available to passengers to plan their airport experience. In other words, there will be an app for that. Today, operators are coming to terms with how the Internet of Things will help them micromanage every airport process and passenger interaction.

Shopping centre company and US airport retailer Westfield is rethinking the entire digital experience. “Westfield Labs... is developing a seamless digital experience that helps you through every step of the journey, from traffic and transportation to the airport, parking, check-in, security checkpoints, dining, retail and your gate all the way to your destination... all of that information could be available to you before you even arrive,” says Ziba Ghassemi, senior director of design at Westfield Airports.

Airports and their partners are now rolling out beacon infrastructure in and around terminal buildings to allow passengers’ mobile apps to interact with and navigate the airport. Airbus Corporate Innovation is investigating how that navigation can be extended further. “As soon as you get to the boarding gate things become different – knowing where your seat is, where your luggage can go... we are the only ones who can do navigation down to the seat,” says Corporate Innovator Gregor Dirks.

A combination of advance information and connectivity, so airports would know when passengers have arrived, may change current airport business models. The airport and its ecosystem would respond rapidly to their customers’ expectations, according to Dirks. “It may not be the same ‘be as long as you can’ at the airport, because you may have that positive experience in a short time.”

Today’s travellers often find their own consumer electronics are more cutting edge than products they use at the airport. But with the ability to dynamically collect and react to information, airports could afford to be the first with new features. “You will have millions of people going through the airport, and we will have the right information about their needs and desires and can react more quickly at the airport than you can at home,” says Dirks.

The airport landscape will also change as check-in becomes redundant. “I can see a time when landside... is down to 25% of the physical space,” says Behan at IATA. “A design to build now that is a fifty-fifty split of landside to airside seems to me to be a waste of resource.”

Thales biometric check-in

Credit: Thales

Thales has developed a biometric solution to automate border control

Check-in will definitely be different. “In some cases it will disappear altogether, and in the others it will be automated without a human interface and perhaps using biometrics, which would verify the identity of travellers,” says SITA’s Serfontein. “Of course, those passengers that are not tech-savvy or who have disabilities will need to be catered for, but, for the most part, check-in as we know it today will disappear.”

According to SITA, baggage handling will not change as drastically, as the huge capital-investment costs will continue to drive a centralised approach to baggage reception and processing. However passengers will have more options to prepare their bags away from the airport, says Serfontein, such as “mark it for its journey using an e-tag, or perhaps use intelligent luggage with inbuilt technology that can communicate its itinerary to mechanised or robotic baggage-handling equipment. And at the airport, passengers will be able to just drop their bag in areas without the need for agent intervention”.

In contrast, Devin Liddell, principal brand strategist for TEAGUE, Boeing’s long-standing design partner, has a more radical vision: “The way bags are currently handled will seem barbaric by 2030 standards.”

Liddell explains: “Carousels will be gone. Those hulking monoliths will be replaced by direct-to-destination services for bags. Basically, bags will be dropped off by passengers well before the airport at transit stations and even more unexpected partner locations such as Starbucks.

“Tagged and then tracked throughout the journey, those bags will then largely be delivered straight to hotels, transit stations, even Amazon lockers. This will likely be true even for bags passing through international customs, as trusted traveller programmes grow and technologies for screening bags advance.”

Liddell also envisions roving autonomous luggage vehicles homing in on passengers as they wait at cafés, or even as they walk through terminals.

Another smart baggage solution launched this year, that could point the way to the future of luggage tracking, is the Bag2Go concept developed by Rimowa, T-Systems and Airbus, and a project nurtured in Airbus's Innovation Cell. It is described as "the first fully integrated, cross-airline electronic baggage tagging system" and is aimed at helping airports and airlines cope with the massive rise in passenger numbers over the next 20 years. The system, which has been trialed by Lufthansa, allows passengers to transfer electronic baggage data from their airline via their smartphone onto their suitcase.

By 2030, many of the airport devices that interact with passengers could feature avatars. Today, digital signage featuring a virtual assistant are installed in a number of airports, transmitting safety messages and preparing passengers for security. Rebecca Fennell, EMEA marketing manager for Tensator, reports that its Virtual Assistant is 10 times more effective at influencing behavioural change than any other forms of digital signage, helping to dramatically speed up security. “London Luton airport, for example, has successfully reduced the number of bags rejected by security by 12% by implementing the Tensator Virtual Assistant with a host of other security measures,” she says.

Virtual signage is likely to evolve further. Vision Box, which specialises in border-control identity management and security solutions, is working with the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands to better understand how people interact with machines, with the aim of creating avatars that reflect the passengers’ own demographics. “You don’t need to adjust or adapt – we adapt to you,” says Jean-Francois Lennon, Vice President Global Business Development & Sales.

Today we happily access our smart devices via fingerprint; by 2030, a single biometric token may be all that you need to seamlessly self-process your way through the airport. “Our vision is that [passengers] will go from kerb to boarding with close to zero stops,” predicts Lennon.

Frequent flyers may provide their personal information and biometric token to a secure system for faster, hassle-free processing, while non-frequent flyers may join a scheme on a trip-by-trip-basis. “The more we can profile in advance to identify the trusted traveller, you could go through a system where you do not feel like you are being scanned, because you are already identified,” he says.

Passengers’ identification and the smart devices they carry will need to be robustly coupled. Thales is working on a cost-effective option to digitalise traveller information into a secure QR code integrating both biographical and biometric data. “In other words, the way people will hold their identity and the way the authority will control this will change, says Thales airport’s sales & marketing airport manager Marco Petri.

By 2030, interactions with border control and security staff could simply be if risk assessment flags up a traveller for further investigation.

The industry has taken some initial first steps towards this vision. In collaboration with Aruba QBI airport, Schiphol airport and KLM, plus the Aruba and Dutch governments, Vision Box has developed Happy Flow, a fully self-service passenger-flow system based on biometric technology.

Passengers authorise themselves with Happy Flow by providing a scan of their passport and their image. At Aruba Airport, they show their passport once at check-in, then as they move through the airport they look into cameras embedded into the different self-service passenger touch points that recognise their facial features while on the move.

Vision Box and its partners launched a two-year pilot in May, with the goals of evaluating pre-clearance border-control processes travelling from Aruba to the European Union Schengen area, and streamlining passenger processing by substantially improving the experience. Initial feedback from passengers has been positive, reports Lennon. It has had such an impact on congestion that the airport wants to open up more touch points to the scheme.

Meanwhile, Thales has developed a biometric solution to automate border control to dramatically cut queues, improving first impressions on arrival and creating stress-free boarding on departure. Passengers would provide documentation for authentication at self-clearance immigration kiosks on arrival. These would check the passenger’s face against their passport photo and take an iris scan, used to speed up the second stage, when the passenger physically crosses the border. Use of biometrics is due to increase, says Petri, as it ensures “no compromise between security and convenience. Both are needed”.