Tuesday, June 20, 2017
How to Make the Airport Experience More Traveler-Friendly
New technology could streamline the whole process, from arrival at the airport to departure
By Robert Wall
The Wall Street Journal
Airport technology can be improved to give travelers more safety and less stress—and more time to shop.
Shoes off, liquids out and constant standing in line. For the modern traveler, the airport experience has become a chore.
Airports, airlines and their technology providers are as frustrated as passengers are with the current state of affairs—a frustration that will only rise as more rules are put in place designed to enhance security, such as the Trump administration’s suggestion that it might ban laptops from cabins on all international flights in and out of the U.S.
So what can be done? Plenty, airport officials say. Among other things, the whole passenger experience, from arrival at the airport to departure, can be streamlined and coordinated so that the experience is more seamless.
The promise to passengers is more safety and less stress; to airports, meanwhile, it is better security—and more time for passengers to shop.
“I don’t think we’ve really scratched the surface on what changes in processes supported by current and future technologies can deliver to the airport experience,” says Dubai Airport Chief Executive Paul Griffiths.
Integrating all stakeholders in airport security into a single process with as few checkpoints as possible could be a good place to start. Currently, at U.S. international airports there are checks by airline personnel and the Transportation Security Administration, as well as separate screenings by U.S. Immigration and Customs officials. Working more closely with government security and immigration representatives could allow airports to boost capacity by processing passengers more quickly. Document checks, security checks, immigration and customs could be streamlined into one step rather than repeatedly disrupting passengers, Mr. Griffiths says.
Dubai Airport is testing technology that allows some passengers to pass through immigration using digitally stored biometric data carried on their smartphones. This could eliminate the need to use a passport or other government-issued identification card. The test is being run in conjunction with the Dubai government, which maintains the biometric database.
Many industry officials believe improvements in airport logistics can be made before passengers even arrive at a terminal. Munich Airport wants to help passengers make their trip more seamless from their initial point of departure all the way to their destination.
“If we could get all mobility companies to cooperate, with a single ticket—including for the parking lot, the airline, all customized for one passenger—that would be really seamless travel,” says Sarah Wittlieb, head of innovation at Munich Airport, which handled more than 42 million passengers last year.
As a first step, the airport this year will test an app that draws on traffic and public-transport-services data to tell passengers how long it will take them to reach the airport. Ultimately, she says, the goal is for the app to include projected wait times at airport security and other choke points, so that passengers have a complete picture of how much time they need to catch their plane.
Others are trying to cure different traveler headaches. Dutch carrier KLM last year tested a robot, called Spencer, to help passengers navigate its big hub airport, Schiphol. The large, adult-size robot on wheels was designed to look almost human to help interaction with customers. It had a screen to help provide instructions in multiple languages. For people with connecting flights, Spencer would meet them at their arriving gate and guide them to their connecting gate. The trial convinced KLM that robots could help, though Spencer wasn’t ready for prime time.
Delta Air Lines is testing technology that could lead to passengers being able to check bags and board their planes with just their fingerprints. As the first stage of its tests, some passengers flying from Ronald Reagan National Airport will be able to access the airline’s lounge using their fingerprint as proof of identity. Down the road, the airline said last month, the same fingerprint could be used to check a bag or board a flight.
JetBlue Airways has launched a self-boarding trial in cooperation with U.S. Customs and Border Protection using biometric and facial recognition technology, the airline announced late last month. The first trial will be on flights from Boston’s Logan International Airport to Aruba’s Queen Beatrix International Airport.
After checking in and passing through security screening, the passenger steps in front of a specialized camera that takes an image, which is then compared with information stored in a U.S. government database to verify passenger identities. Once they are cleared, they can board without further checks.
“We hope to learn how we can further reduce friction points in the airport experience,” Joanna Geraghty, the airline’s executive vice president for customer experience, said in a statement announcing the trial.
Aviation information-technology provider SITA, which is supporting the JetBlue trial, is working with airports and airlines also to find other ways to make travel more seamless. Validating passenger identity is a particular choke point, says Andrew O’Connor, the company’s vice president for airline operations and border management.
“I can see a day where somebody steps into an airport, they walk up to the bag-drop unit, it knows who they are, they are asked to check their bag into the system if they have one,” Mr. O’Connor says. “If they don’t, they merely proceed to security and without stopping, doors open in front of them.…I don’t think that’s too difficult to envisage.” Mr. O’Connor adds that he expects the same type of nonstop process for boarding the aircraft as well.
Innovators have to be careful not to go overboard in the meantime. Pushing airport information to a passenger’s smartphone when he or she is still passing through security or passport control could add to their stress, rather than ease it, Munich Airport’s Ms. Wittlieb says.
There is also still a generation of well-heeled passengers, she points out, the “silver generation,” that prefers to talk to someone, rather than just deal with an app.