High-tech airports of the future

Damien Fo packs his laptop into his bag each day and boards the 30-minute airport express train from downtown Singapore to Changi Airport.

Voted the world’s best airport almost every year by almost every organisation, Changi is successful because it has successfully bridged the gap between catering for locals, business travellers and tourists.

Mr Fo frequently uses the airport as somewhere to work, making use of the comfortable seating areas and fast wi-fi. The future airport hopes it can do the same.

A smoother experience

Passengers are demanding more from their airports than ever before. According to the International Air Travel Association, 3.6 billion people are expected to take to the skies in 2016, expanding by an average of 5.3 per cent as China’s aviation market grows rapidly.

So how will airports evolve to deal with the need for more efficient operations to deal with more passengers, higher cost of land and a demand for better retail experiences?

As more people fly, a smooth airport experience for passengers is vital and a key concern for the airport of the future. Airport operators are starting to employ external companies to harvest and manipulate data to work out how they can link different services together and provide a more relaxed travel experience.

current and expected check in methods

Richard Wilks, aviation business development manager, Europe, Middle East and Africa, at NEC Display Solutions, explains how it is often the journey to the terminal which causes the most stress. Airports must understand how they can link better with road and rail systems to cut down on passenger stress.

His vision? The gate of the future. At the departure gate, a large screen or digital wall will enable passengers to visualise data provided by multiple stakeholders.

“There are many systems operating at an airport – catering, baggage handling, security – the key is to standardise this data in order for it to be visualised in one place. Updates such as ‘inbound flight is delayed but arriving in five minutes’ or ‘there are delays through passport control at your destination’ will keep passengers fully informed for a more positive experience,” says Mr Wilks.

Self-service will dominate the airport terminal too. Anyone who travels regularly will have noticed how passengers are now discouraged from using check-in desks unless they need to check in luggage.

Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant, The Perfectionists’ Café, at Heathrow Terminal 2

Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant, The Perfectionists’ Café, at Heathrow Terminal 2

At London’s Gatwick Airport, a spokesperson explains how the airport is innovating to bring more passengers in through their doors: “We will be opening the world’s largest self-service bag drop soon. Convenience is key for our passengers as 60 per cent check in online; the number checking in by mobile is eight times greater than two years ago.”

One of the main reasons for this, says Mr Wilks, is that space in an airport is at a premium. “The less space used for check-in desks, the more is freed up for retail,” he says.

In addition, the airport of the future should see a rise in digitised and personalised services, enabling passengers to change catering options or upgrading their seats before self-boarding.

Technological innovation

Alongside retail and passenger efficiency comes the rise of technological innovation at airports. Everything from luggage to security can be automated with the right data. Rohit Gupta, a vice president at global IT company Cognizant, explains how biometric technology will play a large role in the future airport.

Whether used to automate end-to-end baggage handling systems or complete menial tasks, robots will be a feature of the future

“Biometric technology will be one of the most pertinent innovations,” he says. “Currently there are various biometric solutions available, such as fingerprint, retina scanners, voiceprint and facial recognition systems. The same sensors can also provide health data about travellers by scanning their temperature, making it easy to quarantine passengers coming from infected territories.”

The reason why we screen at airports may change as much as the way we screen. Airports could potentially see a move towards risk-based screening that assesses the intent to do harm. Susan Baer, global aviation business leader at Arup, says: “We’ll require less equipment and infrastructure around the screening point. Monitoring the behaviour of passengers through CCTV cameras and other forms of sophisticated software will be critical to this, with searches or screenings of passengers if they act in an abnormal or hostile way.”

Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport has recently kickstarted its Happy Flow project, where biometrics are used as the key identifier at all airport checkpoints, while Incheon Airport in Seoul is racing towards the top of its class when it comes to airport tech. Incheon has introduced a concept called U-Airport, a facial recognition system that compares the photo stored in the radio-frequency identification chip on an e-passport against the photo captured by the airport machine.

Self-service passport control with biometric technology at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport

Self-service passport control with biometric technology at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport

Airports may also find ways to integrate robotics into an airport. Whether used to automate end-to-end baggage handling systems or complete menial tasks, robots will be a feature of the future.

Robotic devices are currently being trialled at Schiphol. As well as having one of the most advanced security checkpoints in the world, trials of the Spencer robot have been underway since November 2015. KLM pumped a lot of money into robotics research because it acknowledged people were getting lost at Schiphol. Now a robot roams Schiphol terminal with laser range-finding eyes and a map of the airport interior. It’s hoped this trial will lead to better understanding of how robotics can be used as part of future airport developments.

Airports will continue to double up as high-end research outlets. The quality of terminals is improving globally and will continue to do so. In India, for example, it wasn’t uncommon to see a chai wallah handing out tea at an airport terminal ten years ago. Latest research shows passengers now demand quality and varied shops, a diversity of restaurants, and bars in an attractive environment.

Developers are looking at how to draw locals into the airport too, like at Changi. At Munich Airport, there’s even a supermarket that gets around Sunday trading hours. At London’s Heathrow, there’s a growing trend of people who want to use the airport as more than somewhere to get on a plane. “We see lots of demand for hotels, places where people can relax or unwind, hold business meetings, and of course there’s a huge amount of activity linked to cargo and logistics built up around Heathrow,” according to a spokesperson.