A new report says the airport environment will be unrecognizable by 2025, but only if the industry shifts paradigm to create a "streamlined, stress free and holistic service".
And there’s a trade-off: Automated, customer-centric processes mean travellers will need to relinquish data and do more logistics.
As well as depositing and collecting luggage at self-bag drops – something which frequent fliers in Australian hubs are becoming familiar with under a new Qantas scheme – by 2025 passengers will be expected to self-load their bags in containers, or even direct to the aeroplane.
By then airlines will know automatically if customers are delayed in traffic and, if necessary, rebook their flight, says Amadeus, author of the May 24 report "Reinventing the Airport Ecosystem". Premium travellers won’t even need to incur the inconvenience of passing through a terminal – they will check-in off-site and pass through a virtual screening process en-route.
Promotional offers pinged onto travellers smartphones – in response to their location, or as a softener after a flight delay – are likely to increase exponentially as travel providers try to, in the words of the report, "own and engage" their customers, who are sure to demand an optional opt-out from this communication.
Personal devices are set to become far more important than mere notification receptacles; Near Field Communication technology embedded in passengers’ smartphones or travel documents will fast-track them through check-in and airport touch-points.
Again, this is already happening: fitted out with sensors, Toulouse-Blagnac Airport will become the world’s first airport to trial SIM-based NFC this summer when 50 selected passengers will trial the service on BlackBerry devices, allowing them access to car parking, the boarding area and a premium passenger lounge.
Running the programme, air transport IT specialist SITA’s lab director Renaud Irminger says NFC is an extremely secure process; will work when the device is powered off; does not require the passenger to launch an app or retrieve an SMS or an email; and is not affected by reading problems caused by dirty screens.
The benefits of technology are certainly being enjoyed by the aviation industry. The International Air Transport Association’s "Simplifying the Business" programme is, it has said, saving around $5.5 billion a year from the switch to e-ticketing, bar-coded boarding passes and self-service kiosks.
Futuristic security gates will need more of a personal touch. Already coming online in airports like the UK’s Gatwick, Heathrow and City airports, sensors which match your biometric information will be the norm everywhere by 2025, though this will include behavioural traits like gait and biodynamic heartbeat patterns. Genetic profiling may eventually be called into play to check for disease risk.
A survey of 838 global passengers which was carried out as part of tech solutions provider Amadeus’ research establishes that the majority of people are comfortable with "non-invasive solutions" like electronic tags and location-based tracking services, but most draw the line at "behavioural, biological and implant solutions."
While frequent-flying air warriors might not need much help fighting their way through airports, occasional passengers, the elderly, or the infirm will still need human beings on the ground. Amadeus concurs, but argues that: "Technology and self-service means ground handlers are no longer wedded to desks or processes such as check-in and baggage."
"If you look to Asia-Pacific where a lot of self-service is already in operation, you tend to see ground handlers walking around and helping less able travellers to navigate the airport."
THE CITY-SIZED AIRPORT
In its report, Amadeus goes on to predict airports will become self-sufficient mini-city or resort-style destinations. We may see more examples like Seoul’s Incheon Airport, which is planning a $3 billion resort to attract Chinese tourists.
This may, however, be confined to Asia-Pacific and Middle-East hubs, where higher growth rates mean a greater level of investment in airports, an Amadeus spokesperson clarified to Reuters.
Some of the futuristic options listed in the report aren’t too far-fetched; the authors ask, "Imagine an airport where the retail experience is so impressive you choose to shop there without even flying". Singapore residents use the excellent Changi as a dining and hang-out hub. In 2011 it generated $1.18 billion in retail spending.
Munich Airport hosts volleyball tournaments, mini golf and a Christmas market. Its architect is quoted in a case study as calling the facility an "actual place".
In what a few years ago would have been considered sci-fi territory, an augmented reality app can guide passengers through Copenhagen airport, while digital cameras monitor queues at George Bush Intercontinental, William P. Hobby and Ellington airports in Houston. In Paris Orly, hologram "boarding agents" are in limited operation after a trial late last year.
While automated processes replace some of the need for human staff, social media is "re-introducing the human touch", Amadeus says; 69% of airlines sell or plan to sell tickets through the social web by 2014.
Several airlines, like KLM, already do this, while Estonian Air facilitates video check-in via Skype. By 2015, expect social-media interaction between flight crew and passengers.
In the survey, 43% of travellers told Amadeus they wanted to re-establish the wonder and magic historically associated with air travel. It looks like the high-tech airport of the future may not have a human face, but a 3D interface.