The think tank arm of the Future Travel Experience has envisioned the airport experience of the future, looking to 2025 and laying out just what a passenger-focused airport travel experience looks like.
The report, which was presented at the FTW Global conference this month in Las Vegas, fully fleshes out how technology will be cohesively integrated to enhance the everyday passenger travel experience.
By focusing on developments that would best serve the actual passenger, these suggestions are useful insights into how the traveler experience is already rapidly evolving - and how much change is on the way.
Here are some highlights of how these forward thinkers believe airports should evolve to most thoroughly address travelers' needs.
Many airports are huge pains to get to - in this 2025 vision, FTE is pushing a model that assumes a large-scale infrastructure investment in public transportation to airports. Some cities - such as SFO - have done an impeccable job at getting public transportation options nestled right up close to the terminal. Others, such as DC, make riders work a little harder to take public transport.
By proposing a more integrated option, FTE sees the continued vitality delivered by the growth in air transport - and how essential it is to be able to get to an airport quickly in a globalized world. By creating an integrated hub that would include taxi and vehicle drop-offs, public transportation and other means of getting to the airport, the vision sees a much less congested airport segmentation.
Travelers would hop on a high-speed train or other form of transportation to the airport, which would then let off into a large transport interchange. From this point, there would be baggage drop areas for checked-in passengers to leave bags and jump on the people mover to the main area of the airport.
There, they would be able to enjoy an assortment of restaurants, retail and lounge spaces as they wait for their flights. This eliminates the cramped feeling of some departure areas of airports, and also puts the ease-of-experience focus on the initial drop-off area for passengers - the transport interchange.
Some airports are becoming hubs for this sort of experience - Hong Kong and Singapore come to mind - but still do not completely deliver this vision.
Using technology to enhance baggage and check-in
Airlines have developed sophisticated systems to tag, track and move bags around their vast networks. The average airport underbelly is a sprawling snake of conveyer belts and movement, as the human/tech mix ensures the smooth flow of belongings to and from airplanes. And while the average mishandling rate is down - SITA shows that there were 8.83 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers in 2012, a 44.5% decrease in 6 years - technological enhancements could bring this to zero.
At the very least, trackable bag tags can enhance the user experience, allowing the traveler to see exactly where their checked bag is at any given moment.
Permanent bag tags would be one great solution, so every bag sold has a unique identifier. This can then be tracked using either the baggage brand's app or the airline's branded app after the bag has been dropped off.
With permanent tags installed in every bag sold, this also facilitates the easy bag drop off mentioned earlier - the customer can check the bag in online at the same time as they select their seat, and thus eliminate the need to go to a counter and get a printed bag tag. Saves time on the traveler's end, and saves both labor and materials cost for airlines.
This embedded technology would also allow bag drops to be expanded beyond airport kiosks, and could open up baggage drop areas outside of traditional airport arenas.
For example, hotels could allow travelers to check bags for an evening flight right at check out, thus eliminating both baggage storage and the hassle of dragging bags to the airport. This could also be a premium value-add, either for a luxury hotel or for ancillary revenue elsewhere.
Decentralized check-in, which is already happening online, via apps and via kiosks, would continue to become common to the traveler's itinerary management workflow.
Kiosks will also move beyond the departure level and into the departure gates. This is already happening - United has been testing traveler-managed, subway-style gates at Houston airport for several months. Travelers scan their own passes, and are let through according to boarding group number. This means that there only has to be one gate agent to assist passengers - and in fact, some passengers might not have any interaction with airline staff until boarding the plane itself.
The challenge here is to board the plane faster - typically this is the choke point, as clearing the gate faster won't make the plane board any faster either, especially given the rise in fee-avoidance carry-ons.
One of the most vital components of any "future of the travel experience" discussion is the adoption of worldwide standards. Embedded bag tags would have to come from a worldwide standard, otherwise the seamless check-in of baggage would not function.
Another key area of contention is security.
Each country has their own security requirements, which can cause confusion for travelers. If the airport of the future is to be passenger-focused, then security technology that enables the smooth screening of as many travelers as possible per hour is essential.
Biometric screening, walkable security lanes, multi-phase pre-screening and many other technologies are being tested as potential salves to the often-stressful experience of getting through pre-concourse security.
Security needs to be brought in line to some degree, in order to manage expectations and deliver as consistent an experience as possible in a always-changing environment. Security must be variable to ensure the randomness needed for effectiveness; nonetheless, technology can still ensure that people move quickly through security - and that those needed for further screening can be just as easily removed from the stream.
Deploying technology at border control
The dreaded border control line - endlessly twisting, it appears to be never ending. This is one of the last frontiers when it comes to technology, because even though the actual agent has a very technologically robust platform that can help her identify potentially dangerous visitors, the line it takes to get to her can be endless.
Advanced Passport Control is already a nascent reality in the United States, and mobile apps relating to passports and cross-border travel are soon to come. The checkpoints of the future must be 100% automated, with roving border agents available to pull people out of line, answer questions, and to keep a trained eye on the interactions of arriving passengers. This is an essential component to an exceptional passenger experience.
FTE points to the use of biometric scanning in Aruba as a means of using a 'passenger token' to reduce staff and quicken the verification process for cross-border travelers.
Challenges, impediments and costs
Getting cross-vendor buy-in, deciding who is paying for what, and dealing with dense government bureaucracy are only some of the impediments to focusing the airport experience on the needs of the traveler.
Suggestions abound, and as technology continues to evolve, there will no doubt always be significant changes ahead.
Read the Future Travel Experience report for more.
NB: Aircraft of the future image courtesy Shutterstock.