The era of airport terminal development is occurring in the most rapid period of change in human history. After all, society has actively built roads for over 6,000 years, while railway development has existed for a little over 300 years.
Airports and terminals: just under a century in the making.
While previous generations of airport architects grappled with new technology (understanding functional efficiency in terminals—an area we have yet to master), today’s planners must now account for evolving processes, structural factors, and preferences that will shape the airports of tomorrow.
Many terminals built today will continue to operate at the end of this century, meaning current design decisions will have long-term, far-reaching consequences. Today’s investors need to make informed decisions to protect and optimize their returns.
How will modern trends impact the design and operation of airports in this century and beyond? Three key tech and social influences will shape the travel industry in the coming decades:
1. An evolving terrorist threat
Over the last two decades, few areas of airports have changed as dramatically as security. Prior to 2001, airports were akin to bus or train stations—passengers could hop on or off with ease. That open-access approach changed markedly after 9/11 and once again after the failed liquids attack of 2006.
In the wake of 9/11, mandatory regulatory changes initially led to reduced service levels and increased passenger dissatisfaction. Technology has since caught up with the evolving threat and mollified these challenges. In many parts of the world, security still remains a deeply unpleasant part of the air travel experience; in others, it has improved demonstrably since 2006. London Gatwick, in particular, deserves recognition for throughput rates that were unheard of 10 years ago.
Increasing requirements for hold luggage screening are driving technological improvements. These advancements are notable, but they do not amount to a permanent solution: technological progress will only occasion newer, smarter terrorist tactics. And those terrorists, served by the same data-rich environment, may be able to realize new threats as rapidly as new technology can respond.
A nimble, innovative terrorist can take advantage of new threats faster than legacy infrastructure can respond. For airports, upgrading a legacy system is fraught with challenges: long lag times between technological investments; a financial need to recoup investments; and reluctance to invest in the next generation of technology too quickly. The typical response is to slow the process down, resulting in longer luggage inspection times than newer technology might enable.
Conversely, as with customs checks, increasing intelligence will aid the border authorities, provided they can share information and intelligence effectively across borders.
While that performance has come at a capital cost, the airport’s attention to effective operations and process optimization has resulted in one of the world’s best passenger experiences through security.
Changing security technology, though, has presented engineering challenges for many airports. Newer screening devices are typically heavier than their predecessors, posing potentially insurmountable structural problems to legacy buildings (especially when the security zone is not on the ground floor). However, with this impact on legacy terminal structures now better understood, we expect the next generation of security equipment designers to account for today’s structural limitations.
2. Demand for individualized experiences
With Amazon already making moves into handling freight, could it be the change agent that revolutionizes baggage handling? Could Google? Extending the remit of baggage handling further, Amazon may use its increasing global footprint to collect bags from and deliver them to passengers’ doorsteps. This would not significantly change the baggage handling system itself (assuming passengers would still be required to travel with their bag), but it lays the groundwork for innovations that could.
As tech giants like Amazon and Google continue to raise the bar for customer experience, more people expect highly individualized and personal experiences, be that the best route to the airport to avoid traffic delays, or vouchers for in-terminal retail offers.
3. Integrated smart technology
Most fundamentally, perhaps, the airport of the future will be shaped by changing technology. Integrated fully-coordinated technology will shape the way the passenger, luggage, aircraft, and cargo journey from origin to final destination.
Improving access to the airport with self-driving cars
For passengers and cargo alike, the journey begins long before take-off. Elements like traffic and curb congestion can make airport access difficult and confusing, but technology is already changing that. Data-rich mobile phones linked to a community of mapping apps already permit drivers to make more informed decisions about when and how to access the airport.
But mobile is just the beginning: self-driving cars are poised to further improve airport access.
Self-driving cars have an uncertain impact on the potential for congestion within the terminal zone. They may make two trips for each passenger journey, but could also lead to more predictable journey times.
The technology comes with a slew of potential benefits: Cars would likely be able to travel in closer proximity to one another, enabling better use of road space and more stable traffic flow patterns, leading to higher predictability of journey times. They could also make greater use of high-density parking. Already in use today, such car parks still require a human operative, taking up marginal—but still potentially unnecessary—space. A car that can fully self-park very closely to the neighboring car could reduce the cost of operation of one of most airport’s principal revenue sources.
Self-driving cars could, however, create problems. If passengers can predict their journey with greater certainty, they (and their bags) might arrive closer to their scheduled departure times. That could mean reduced dwell times in terminals and, consequently, reduced commercial revenue. It would also mean less time for baggage handling. Finally, public self-driving cars that could take an arriving passenger away, or private cars that return to their own driveway, would bypass the car park entirely—further denting a significant revenue stream.
Check-in and baggage handling processes
As user technology improves and passengers become more experienced, self-service (individual kiosks, mobile apps) is changing the face of check-in. Is the old-fashioned check-in desk going to become legacy infrastructure—or rather, the preserve of the upper-class passengers who are willing to pay more?
Self-service check-in requires less space, can be common-user, and offers a lower operating cost. It does, however, demand higher capital expenditure than a centralized back-of-shop baggage handling system; multiple entry points need to be protected from wandering, inquisitive children, for instance.
In either case, check-in will capture biometric data. Passenger data collected at check-in will be used to manage the passenger’s journey, from departing airport to the final destination where they may cross a national border, reclaim bags, and clear customs.
Self-connecting passengers—those who create itineraries independent from an individual airline’s network—may present a greater demand on baggage handling. These passengers might reclaim their bag before returning it to the same baggage handling system for the circuitous and unwieldy process of re-processing. However, as self-connections increase and more airlines and airports facilitate through-ticketing on different airlines, such double-handling will become less common. In the future, self-connecting bags will be processed through the same seamless transfer systems used to process other luggage.