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How emerging technology will make for safer, more efficient air travel

May 14, 2020

By Adam Ramsay

A touch-free and more hygienic passenger journey appeals more now than ever before. Good design will ensure the health benefits are maximized and resilient

Emerging technologies are key players in achieving a hygienic airport experience that satisfies new social distancing norms and creates a touch-free environment. However, the technology itself is just one piece of the puzzle. Designing for the right solutions at the right time will ensure those benefits are maximized and resilient.

Pre-pandemic, the aviation industry was already developing technology to meet future capacity challenges, leading to new passenger processing solutions that seek to maximize capacity of existing infrastructure. Today, COVID-19 has catapulted the importance of hygiene in airport terminals to a new level, not least due to a shift in passenger expectations. Suddenly, the benefits promised by these digital solutions—extra space, touch-free processing, and time savings—appeal to us even more and with renewed urgency.  

With today’s concerns reshaping our vision of the future, airports will take a fresh look at digital solutions that ensure the continued balance required to nurture new social distancing norms and complete the touchless passenger journey. 

With more online check-in and off-site bag drop facilities, the number of check-in counters and kiosks can be reduced. This will reduce physical touch points and create more space.

Emerging digitally fuelled solutions

Travelers may soon see digitally fuelled solutions such as:

Biometric digital identity: Biometric facial recognition enables contactless and on-the-move passenger verification. By providing biometric identification in advance through a phone app, the process becomes seamless. Passengers can be verified by facial recognition as they pass through the terminal—allowing them to avoid presenting a passport or boarding pass or even interacting with a counter or self-serve kiosk. 

Data sharing: Establishing secure data-sharing services that integrate information from multiple agencies—accessible from a single app—will empower passengers to make travel-related decisions on the go. Available before arriving at the airport or anywhere in the terminal, data sharing enhances journey planning, makes wayfinding easier, provides advanced access to booking services, and improves call-to-gate strategies. With passengers able to plan and move around more easily, we can minimize congestion and reduce stress.

Decentralized bag-drop and tracking: Integrated bag identification with enhanced tracking offers more bag pickup and delivery options—all managed by the passenger through their smartphone—potentially removing the need for printed bag tags. This will increase the use of a decentralized bag-drop system, ultimately reducing the number of passengers bringing bags through the front door of the terminal. Not only will physical contact with tag and drop machines be eliminated, more space is gained in the terminal and upstream on public transit networks.  

New technology can help us reduce queuing areas to make way for social distancing.

Rethinking the passenger journey

As these tools become available, physical elements of the existing process will gradually become obsolete and can be removed almost entirely. This newfound space will allow airports to balance social distancing and new commercial activities. Take the departing passenger for example:

Check-in: With on-the-move passenger verification, off-site processes, and decentralized bag drop, it will be possible to alleviate the check-in hall of much of its booking and baggage-related obstacles. Any bags that do come through the front door can be whisked away by automated movers (robots) already being tested in some airports. This technology will remove the need for contact with bag drop machines or luggage trolleys, which take up space and operational resources. 

Departure: The traditional security process often results in the longest queues and has a large footprint. Advanced screening coupled with biometrics promises to integrate the emigration and security into a single walk-through checkpoint. Without the need to unpack, remove shoes, and handle trays, physical contact and queuing could be virtually eliminated. With new processes having a much smaller footprint, even more space can be made available for social distancing. 

Boarding: While check-in and security are focused on how passengers move through the terminal, the post-security area brings challenges for the travel experience. We can create space for each other by removing congestion around the boarding areas. Data-sharing services will give passengers more time after security to spend in other areas shopping or eating, thus reducing the need for the dense seating layouts currently required to accommodate the mass of travelers waiting to board their flights. Passengers will receive enhanced updates about their flights status and remind them more precisely when it’s time to board. Coupled with biometric boarding gates verifying identity as they walk-through, congestion (and stress) at the gate can decrease. 

These initiatives will naturally improve distancing, remove physical contact with boarding agents and processing equipment, and reduce stress. Innovations in commercial offerings could support this by reducing the necessity for queuing while promoting healthy travel and hygiene.

More time can be spent in other areas of the airport reducing crowding and stress at the gate.

The challenge

As new technology becomes available in the coming years, its implementation presents a further challenge to airports and designers.

As new technology gradually changes the way we interact with the airport environment, so will the way terminal design impacts the passenger journey.

The airport terminal is a system of components working together allowing for smooth passenger flow. Incorporating any new or modified component will have a direct impact on the space and time required for a passenger to move comfortably from the terminal entrance to the door of their aircraft. It is a delicate balancing act requiring careful collaboration between airports and designers. Over- or under-providing space can have costly consequences for airports and passengers alike and has the potential to undermine any hygiene benefits offered by new technology.

Some of the technology previously mentioned is already being tested or piloted—but still many years away due to complexity, cost, or government regulation. This raises the question of availability, timing, and effect on airports planning. With the renewed appeal of these solutions from a passenger health perspective, we should see an acceleration in the development timeline. 

Implementing new technology comes with many challenges, especially with how it interfaces with existing parts of the airport system and the overall traveller journey. We must also consider how these new systems are managed and how passengers will use them. Finding the balance as new systems are available will be key to maximizing and protecting the potential health benefits. 

Approval of transformational technology interventions by government agencies and operators is imperative for proper testing and integration into the travel experience. The benefits far outweigh the short-term learning curve that will be required to utilize them. These technological interventions will be highly visible and put travelers at ease, giving them confidence to fly. Additionally, this will result in healthier travel experiences, protecting passengers and operators alike. Balancing space and processing capacity as new technology becomes available is key, or the health benefits will be undermined due to continued crowding. Upgrading technology is only half the battle.  

  • Adam Ramsay

    Working with our team in Vancouver, Adam is a designer focused on airport projects. He’s worked on Stantec’s largest airport projects—this includes JFK Terminal 6 and the Vancouver Airport CORE program.

    Contact Adam
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