You wouldn’t guess it if you are suffering long security lines and indifferent service at America’s airports this holiday season, but all this could soon be a thing of the past. New smart technology in which your face becomes your passport could transform the airport experience.
And everybody agrees that this needs to happen. If there is one song both political parties are singing from the same sheet it is that we need to renew our transport infrastructure before it finally collapses from neglect.
And airports appear to be high on the list.
Listen to President-elect Donald Trump and Vice President Joe Biden. They have both called New York’s LaGuardia airport “Third World” in its wretched standards. That’s probably an insult to a lot of the Third World. As LaGuardia undergoes a $4 billion makeover it’s even more of a nightmare for passengers than it was before.
Billionaires and politicians can, of course, make invidious comparisons like this because they get to see how these things are done in other parts of the world. Bear in mind, too, that Trump and Biden are both accustomed to VIP fast-tracking. But passengers who only fly domestically in the U.S. don’t have any means of knowing if the miseries they now accept as routine—long lines, overcrowded lounges, chaos when boarding—are the same around the world.
Mostly, they are not.
And other countries are leaping way ahead by investing billions of dollars in a new generation of airports of a quality that Americans can only dream of:
In Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to be completed in 2020, a new airport with five runways and four terminals, capable of handling 160 million passengers a year. (Right now the world’s busiest airport is Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, serving 101 million passengers a year.)
In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the world’s largest terminal dedicated solely to budget airlines, able to handle 45 million passengers a year.
In Incheon, South Korea, a new terminal opening for the 2018 Winter Olympics that by 2025 will be handling 46 million passengers through 222 check-in counters.
But let’s get real: Utopian projects on this scale will never be possible at any major U.S. airport because of constraints imposed by the availability of land and the environmental impact on urban areas.
Most of the airline terminals in the U.S. predate the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Their architecture didn’t anticipate the new lines of defense that would be needed for passenger and baggage screening. Passenger numbers have grown simultaneously with the need to stuff terminals with the equipment to carry out much tighter security checks, as well as being exacerbated by recent cutbacks in the number of screeners. This squeeze has created the choke points that caused such huge lines and suffering this summer.
For America, improving the airports we already have is more realistic—and more urgent—than pursuing fantasies of new mega-airports or just expanding a system that is broken. Instead, infrastructure investment should be directed at embracing a step change in technology that could transform the way our airports handle passengers and baggage, easing much of the problem.
Welcome to The Smart Airport. This is the aviation industry’s name for what is promised to be a seamless path from check-in to the gate.
A foretaste is already available in, of all places, the small Caribbean island of Aruba. The airport there is the testing ground for a technology called Happy Flow.
Passengers flying from Aruba on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines to Schipol in the Netherlands do, indeed, find themselves flowing happily into the future. Once they check-in they never have to join a line to show an ID, never have to produce a passport or boarding card. Instead, they are tracked at points through the terminal all the way to their seat on the airplane using face-recognition cameras.
Happy Flow pioneers a biometric technology that the International Air Transport Association, IATA, wants to be available worldwide for 80 percent of passengers by 2020. The idea is to bring the kind of self-service already common in retailing and banking to the airport—getting passengers and baggage to the airplane with flawless efficiency.
However, meeting that deadline could be something of a reach. Retailing and banking don’t usually involve full body security scans or bureaucracies on the scale of the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Safety Agency that can make the adoption of any new technology a tortuously slow process.
The IATA loves the Smart Airport concept because they believe it will save the airline industry more than $2 billion a year in costs. That, of course, means that like so many other waves of technical change it will remove people from the job of delivering services. And it does that under the euphemism of self-service by a skill-transfer—expecting us, the passengers, to be tech savvy.
As demonstrated in Aruba, facial recognition is the key to how this works. Passengers arrive with their smartphone already programmed with their personal data and profile, and the phone would not even need to be shown. Their identity is then confirmed by an infrared facial recognition camera and they would pass through security in the same way as in the present TSA PreCheck program. This is a mature technology. Current facial recognition cameras have a failure rate of less than 1 in 100,000 scans.
Moreover, proponents argue that biometric identification carries none of the stigma of profiling carried out on the spot by security staff—the TSA for example—according to stereotypes.
But there is a detail that sounds a little spooky and could raise concerns about intimate personal privacy. Biometric technology sensors used for face scanning can also monitor a passenger’s health—for example, by detecting a high temperature that could result in the passenger being quarantined because of an infection.
Once beyond the security checks there will be what is called digital wayfinding—in an unfamiliar airport, perhaps one with signage in a foreign language, a smartphone will be able to show passengers where they are in the terminal at all times and direct them to the right gate.
As well as removing humans from the responsibility of personal-security screening the Smart Airport will field service robots and virtual assistants. Airline staff will be replaced by robot information providers able to advise on how to rebook a flight if it is canceled or give directions to a business lounge. In those lounges the virtual assistants will take care of personal needs like booking hotels and car rentals.
Another curse of today’s airports will be eliminated. How many times have you waited on an airplane at the gate while bags have had to be removed from the hold because passengers who have checked-in have for some unaccountable reason failed to make it to the gate? Terminals are now being equipped with networks of beacons using near-field communications that can track a smartphone or digital boarding pass so airlines will be able to know exactly where a lingering passenger is at all times.
How soon can all this happen?
For the moment the Smart Airport remains a panacea. The technology is baked but putting it to use is another story. America’s airports are bedeviled by the confusion of interests involved in running them: national security agencies; their owners (a mix of municipal authorities and commercial investors); the airlines and federal authorities who regulate airline practices and provide air traffic controllers. When it comes to change, these interests are rarely on the same page.
The result is what anybody sees as they fly around the country—highly variable standards of service, from the abysmal to the not-so-bad. At its worst you get what happened at JFK in August when a false alarm that a shooter was loose threw the whole airport into hours of panic and revealed that nobody was actually in charge.
In the annual world ranking of the airport experience by SkyTrax the first American airport to appear in the Top 100 is Denver, at 28th. Denver has the advantage of being the only new hub to have opened in the U.S. in decades and when it did, in 1995, it was only 16 months late, something of an achievement because new airports are frequently honeypots of corruption and rarely demonstrations of managerial competence. (Berlin’s Brandenburg Airport, supposed to open in 2011, and even now nowhere near being fit for purpose, is the most egregious example ever.)
Air traffic worldwide is projected to double during the next 15 years and to reach 10 billion passengers a year by 2030. That’s going to require a lot more airports, and a lot better understanding of what makes an airport work as it should.
There’s a reason why Singapore’s Changi is consistently the world’s top airport. It is not simply architecturally superb or brilliantly planned. It’s the people—the human touch. The attitude of the airport staff at every level reflects a devotion to the service ethic that is rarely evident to passengers passing through our own airports.
And that asset is the product of an ingrained cultural attitude. Smart Airport or not, no amount of technology—or infrastructure investment—can deliver the same standard of service on its own.