Technology has underpinned many of the advances in the aviation industry over the past 100 years. It has enabled improvements to the comfort and safety of aircraft, helped airport operators cope with the increase in air traffic and allowed airlines to process passenger information more quickly and effectively.
The rapid and widespread adoption of online check-in, which now includes the ability to print boarding passes at home, demonstrates the appetite of the travelling public to be more in control of the process.
In 2014, more changes that will come into effect have the potential to improve all aspects of a person’s journey.
Late last year, IATA and ACI announced plans to jointly tackle one of the main stumbling blocks to a positive passenger experience – security screening at the airport.
While people expect a high level of safety during their travels, their tolerance for the inconvenience this can cause is not always high. Long queues at checkpoints will quickly overshadow any assessments that may have been made about the processes ability to keep them from harm.
Smart Security, also known as the SmartS programme, will trial new technology with the stated aim of making security screening more sustainable (given the predicted rise in passenger numbers) and less disruptive to people’s journey.
Individual components of the system have already been tested in airports, including at London’s Heathrow and Geneva, and the next step is determining how they work together.
As Angela Gittens, director general, ACI World, explained at the time the programme was announced: “A touchpoint in the passenger journey that triggers a sense of dread is the security check. Through Smart Security, ACI and IATA will drive the needed change.
“Airports, airlines, control authorities and system suppliers all have a role to play in making the process more effective, efficient and pleasant for the passenger. Smart Security brings these stakeholders together with the shared goal of transforming the security checkpoint for the benefit of all the travelling public.”
But there are wider ambitions as well. Technology is already changing passengers’ experience at the airport from the time they check-in through to the time they board an aircraft.
And, capturing and connecting the information gathered at each stage of their journey is one of the biggest challenges we face as we plan for more streamlined services.
One of the initial requirements at an airport or in any environment that requires controlled entry and exit, is confirming the identity of the passenger.
Atkins’ Passenger Authentication Scanning System (PASS), which has been implemented at Heathrow, uses advanced facial biometric technology to link passengers to their travel documents as they pass through security checks.
The infrared facial recognition system, developed by Aurora, was accepted because it gives reliable results even in variable light conditions.
During trials, airport operators and providers explored the ways in which passengers interacted with the technology and determined how the experience at checkpoints could be enhanced.
The system that has now been implemented balances a number of factors. They include:
Speed: The image capture and verification of identity can’t create delays. The system must be easy to use, keeping in mind most people will be infrequent passengers and self-service options are needed
Security: The system must meet the stringent standards of the relevant authorities, in this case the UK’s Border Force
Cost: The security solution must operate on the airport’s standard client and server machines
It has already been applied in a self-service environment. Passengers’ biometric information is captured at e-gates prior to entry to security, so they can be checked later in the process as they seek to leave the departure lounge.
The early indications are that the benefits of the technology extend beyond security as well. Travellers, for example, welcome self-service options, particularly if they smooth their journey.
It also enables other airport services to become automated, which is good for airlines and operators. Last year, passengers at Heathrow’s Terminal 1 trialled a self-boarding scheme through an e-gate controlled by PASS. The trial was conducted in partnership with South African Airways.
Speaking recently about the trial, Heathrow’s Terminal 1 director, Ian Hanson, said: “We are working in partnership with our airlines to trial this technology which should help make our passengers’ journeys smoother and simpler. Since its introduction we have had positive feedback from both airlines and passengers.”
Technology that allows authorities to link an image of a person’s face to a travel document is one of the building blocks of the SmartS programme. Trials have shown that biometric facial recognition can be used to accurately check identity.
IATA, working with Heathrow and Atkins, demonstrated the capability to check that the person presenting an e-passport was its owner. This opens up the possibility of a full self-service channel through the departure process, and acts as a key trigger in the SmartS vision.
A positive experience
The supporters of SmartS speak about the possibility of having “an uninterrupted journey from kerb to aircraft door”. While it’s acknowledged that this will take time and there are numerous hurdles to overcome before the vision becomes a reality, the technology to transform the passenger experience already exists.
But a final solution will need to amalgamate online check-in, airline data, biometric technology and departure lounge systems into one seamless end-to-end solution. People already check-in online, drop their bags at self-service bag drops and use electronic boarding passes, so what’s next?
The award winning Positive Boarding solution, developed by Heathrow with Atkins, hints at what can be achieved through the integration of existing data.
The system links the passenger, via their boarding card, to live flight information and provides appropriate feedback and updates. For example, for passengers, it might be a friendly hurry-up message that includes which gate to go to, or a warning that the passenger doesn’t have enough time to get to the gate and will therefore need to reschedule their flight.
Airlines, on the other hand, can make informed decisions about the likelihood of passengers arriving at the gate in time, allowing them to offload bags if necessary to avoid lengthy delays for the majority of people.
According to Heathrow Airport’s passenger process programme leader, Mark Walker, PASS technology underpins Positive Boarding.
He said: “We’ve gradually developed that product into something that allows us to control access to our airside environment at Heathrow, and will, in the future, drive how we actually operate things like our self-service boarding gates.
“It will also interface with self-service check-in kiosks and bag drops as well. So, it will effectively tie all that information together and provide a wealth of joined-up data for us around how passengers are using our airport.”
The complexity of the airport environment and the context in which it operates means very Iittle can be achieved by working in isolation.
IATA’s and ACI’s joint backing for SmartS is an indication of the integrated approach that’s needed to improve the passenger experience.
Technology will assist in this endeavour, but there are a series of non-technical hurdles on the way to achieving a streamlined service that require all participating groups to work together so all may benefit.