Passengers' baggage is collected by robots, they relax in a luxurious waiting area complete with an indoor garden before getting a face scan and swiftly passing through security and immigration - this could be the airport of the future. It's a vision that planners hope will become reality as new technology is rolled out, transforming the exhausting experience of getting stuck in lengthy queues in ageing, overcrowded terminals into something far more pleasant. The changes also represent major challenges that could upend decades-old business models at major airports, with analysts warning operators may face a hit to their revenues to the tune of billions of dollars. Facial scanning in particular is generating a lot of buzz. Changi in the affluent city-state of Singapore, regarded as among the world's best airports, is set to roll out this biometric technology at a new terminal to open later this year.
SINGAPORE – Passengers' baggage is collected by robots, they relax in a luxurious waiting area and then get a face scan and swiftly pass through security and immigration -- this could be the airport of the future. Planners hope this vision will become reality as new technology is rolled out, transforming the exhausting experience of lengthy lines in aging, overcrowded terminals into something far more pleasant. The Asia-Pacific region has been leading the way but faces fierce competition from the Middle East as major hubs compete to attract the growing number of long-haul travelers who can choose how to route their journey. The regions "are the two leading pockets of technology growth because they are really competing to be the global hubs for air transportation," said Seth Young, director of the Center for Aviation Studies at Ohio State University. "If I'm going to fly from New York to Bangalore, do I transfer through Abu Dhabi or Dubai, or do I transfer through Hong Kong?
No matter how well-regarded a particular airport happens to be, the slog from curb to cabin is pretty much the same wherever you go. A decades-old paradigm of queues, security screens, snack vendors, and gate-waiting prevails--the only difference is the level of stress. Transiting a modern hub such as Munich or Seoul is more easily endured than threading your way through the perpetual construction zones that pass for airports around New York. The sky portal of the 2040s, however, is likely to be free of such delights. Many of us will be driven to the terminal by autonomous cars; our eyes, faces, and fingers will be scanned; and our bags will have a permanent ID that allows them to be whisked from our homes before we even set out.
In late September, Beijing unveiled to the world Daxing, a glimmering $11 billion airport showcasing technologies such as robots and facial recognition scanners that many other airports worldwide are either adopting or are now considering. Daxing fits the description of what experts hail as a "smart airport." Just as a smart home is where internet-connected devices control functions like security and thermostats, smart airports use cloud-based technologies to simplify and improve services. Of course, many of the nearly 4,000 scheduled service airports across the world are still embarrassingly antiquated. The good news for aviation is that more facilities are investing, finally, to better serve airlines, suppliers, and travelers. This year, airports worldwide will spend $11.8 billion -- 68 percent more than the level three years ago -- on information technology, according to an estimate published this month by SITA (Société Internationale de Telecommunications Aeronautiques, an airline-owned tech provider). A few trends are driving the rise of smart airports. Flight volumes are increasing, so airports need better ways to process flyers. Airports need better ways to make money, too, by encouraging passengers to spend more in their shops and restaurants. Data is growing in importance. Everything happening at an airport, from where passengers are flowing to which items are selling in stores, generates data. Airports can analyze this data to spot opportunities for eking out fatter profits. They can sell the data to third-parties as well.
Singapore's Changi International Airport, voted the world's best for the past six years by Skytrax, is pursuing that goal of extensive automation with such vigor that it built an entire terminal to help test the airport bots of the future. Here's an idea of what Asia's second-busiest international airport is implementing. Once at the gate, a laser-guided aerobridge positions itself to let passengers disembark, while automated vehicles below unload baggage, dodging others that are delivering robot-packed meals or processing cargo. The passengers head to automated immigration turnstiles that face-scan and thumb-print them, then head to collect their luggage, which baggage bots have already delivered to the carousel. Under the gaze of an actual human -- the steely-eyed customs official -- they head out to queue for a driverless taxi.