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IT Last modified on October 30, 2012

Reality bytes: The airport of the future

Touchable holograms and floors that generate electricity are just some of the things we can expect to find at the airport of the future, write John Jarrell and Julia Sattel.

Technological advancement – from the terminal to the runway, and boarding to baggage – is fundamental to the future of airports worldwide. 

Innovations that were once positioned squarely within the realm of science fiction (accessing flight information via biologically embedded electronics; creating an immersive duty-free shopping experience with touchable holograms; speeding-up boarding by using facial recognition software) are now close to becoming a reality. 

By implementing state-of-the-art technology, airports have the opportunity not only to fulfil customers’ complex, changing needs, but also to ensure that their operations are as efficient and cost-effective as possible. 

With airport and airline profitability under pressure, and revenue channels diversifying, that is welcome news for both the aviation industry and travellers alike.

While Amadeus predicts that the airport eco-system will be unrecognisable 20 years from now, the guiding principles of futuristic airports will be informed by a ‘golden age of travel’, and should, therefore, be reassuringly familiar: prompt, personal service, tailored
to each traveller’s requirements. 

The airport of 2030, for example, will have a fantastically wide range of technology at its disposal, enabling it to provide every customer with the high level of personalised service reminiscent of a journey on the Orient Express or a stay at the finest hotel.

The report we recently commissioned, Reinventing the Airport Ecosystem, explored the technology set to improve the airport experience and secure business profitability, as well as analysing global travellers’ views about how it could change air travel. 

More than 40% of passengers surveyed want the aviation industry to rediscover the sense of wonder originally associated with flying.

Championing technological innovation will allow airports to make air travel exciting again. In the light of the report’s findings, we believe a new golden age – best described as a ‘digital age’ – of air travel is now beginning.

One size fits all is an outdated concept
To offer a truly tailored approach to air travel, airports need to provide more than flight-related services; airports of the future will use advanced technology to respond to the wider needs of their diverse customer base. 

Reinventing the Airport Ecosystem emphasises that airports should re-imagine their role now in order to safeguard their future. It states that to achieve commercially viable business models, a fundamental mindset shift is required from managing a travel ‘process’ to delivering an integrated travel and leisure ‘experience’. 

With ancillary services becoming valuable income streams, giving customers more control than ever before over travel options, Amadeus believes that now is the ideal time for airport services to expand further. 

In the operational environment of the future, the most successful airports will be those making effective use of customer-centric technology in order to cater for individual preferences.

Personalised shopping, airport-only dining experiences, or instant language translation – the possibilities are endless. Visiting an airport could become a form of entertainment, rather than simply the prelude to boarding a plane.

When asked what a futuristic airport might resemble, the most popular choice among travellers in the report was a ‘mini-city’. 

Airports will evolve into self-sufficient entities encompassing unique work, leisure, retail, and accommodation services, believe 41% of travellers. These mini-cities will showcase innovative design, local culture, and high-tech entertainment such as 6D cinemas. 

Pioneering the destination-airport concept is South Korea’s largest gateway, Incheon International Airport, which plans to offer luxury-goods outlets, medical centres, and malls. 

Current attractions include a museum, spa, and picturesque gardens. 

In 2011, Seoul-based Incheon became the world’s most successful airport in terms of its duty-free sales, allowing it to obtain around 65% of its revenues from sources that were not flight-related, and enabling it to keep landing costs low. 

Its status as a forward-looking airport is celebrated with an aeronautical sculpture, ‘Flying to the Future’, which powers an impressive, solar-powered LED lighting display. 

Airports of the future could be powered by the energy generated by travellers’ footfall (called piezoelectricity), which consists of pads that form flooring in terminal buildings and channel kinetic energy back into the grid or directly to source. 

Such innovations will increase airports’ efficiency and drive down running costs.

Collaboration is crucial to fulfilling the vision 
Close collaboration between organisations in the airport eco-system is essential in order to support wider adoption of a holistic, tailored approach to services, and will enable the aviation industry as a whole to benefit from airports’ reinvention. 

Collaborative efforts to bridge the long-standing IT gap between airports and airlines, for example, would make a significant contribution to broadening and streamlining airport services. 

If organisations in the aviation industry lay the foundations for greater co-operation now, travellers can soon look forward to airport experiences that are as stress-free and enjoyable as possible, as well as tailored to their requirements. 

Collaborative Decision Making will be key to ensuring real-time sharing and processing of passengers, aircraft, and goods data, and will contribute to better predictions and strategic decisions at airports. Airports will become more efficient and cost-effective.

For the majority of airport users (72%), stress or unhappiness can be attributed to the journey from check-in to boarding failing to run smoothly. Long queues at security, language difficulties, or inadequate signage can make navigating airports stressful.

The primary purpose of new technology for airports must, therefore, be to promote travellers’ wellbeing by increasing operational efficiency and improving communication methods. 

As a means of ensuring that passengers are well informed and problems dealt with quickly, communicating via mobiles and the Internet is a highly effective starting point for airports wishing to use technology to enhance their services. 

The initiative is certainly popular among travellers: Reinventing the Airport Ecosystem found that 90% would welcome key flight information being delivered to their mobiles. From sending details about departure gates to requesting feedback via social networking websites, the use of mobile technology brings airports closer to their users. London’s Heathrow Airport, for example, uses Twitter to answer passengers’ questions and to offer travel tips.

In the future, engagement with social networking websites could also lead to airports generating ancillary revenue by hosting face-to-face networking sessions for travellers with similar professional experience or personal interests, creating a greater sense of
community and shared experience. Service with a personal touch is the way forward.

As portable devices become more advanced, opportunities to tailor services will increase.  Cutting-edge apps will allow travellers to use mobiles as tickets, access real-time language translation, or track their luggage.

In addition, Google’s Project Glass is developing futuristic eyewear for augmented vision.  Perhaps at the airport of 2030, travellers wearing ‘super glasses’ will benefit from maps of their surroundings being superimposed onto their line of sight, making the nearest café or check-in desk easier to find than ever before. 

In fact, augmented reality apps already allow detailed information about airports to be overlaid across a person’s mobile device, so that, for example, a person might point their phone at a terminal and be provided with a detailed virtual map of retail outlets and boarding gates.

Responding to changing traveller needs
The importance of making the airport environment responsive to passengers’ needs is clear when we consider that 39% feel that the atmosphere in terminals – including sights, sounds, and smells – directly affects their well-being. 

When ambient or embedded intelligence (sensors, actuators, etc which enable objects to respond to changes in their surroundings) become widely available, it could be used extensively at airports. 

Imagine a departure lounge in which each chair adjusts itself to suit the occupant’s height and weight; washroom facilities that alert staff when cleaning is required; or walls that soundproof themselves when a meeting is underway! 

Airports could also benefit from adaptable, intelligent systems when aiming to boost retail revenues, by introducing shop layouts that change according to the tastes and interests of particular groups of customers. 

Augmented reality mirrors could contribute to this compelling shopping experience, by helping individuals to decide whether particular clothes and accessories would suit them, all without the use of a changing room.

In the quest for aesthetically pleasing, energy efficient terminals, airports may wish to follow the lead of aircraft manufacturer Airbus by designing their facilities according to the principles of biomimicry (the imitation of structures found in nature). 

For example, Indianapolis International Airport in the US features supporting structures similar to trees – an example of sophisticated design and advanced technology being used to remind passengers of the natural world rather than distance them from it. 

Sustainability is another increasingly important consideration for airports, especially in light of the fact that 63% of travellers expect airports to have low carbon footprints by 2025. 

The UK’s Manchester Airport aims to make its buildings, vehicles, and so on, carbon neutral within three years, thanks in part to sourcing a proportion of its electricity supply from renewable sources.

For airports interested in broadening their passenger transportation services while remaining committed to environmental protection, new automotive technologies are likely to be crucial. 

Fleets of electric vehicles, with charging stations located in airport car parks, could ferry passengers from home to terminal. Such convenient, technologically advanced services are likely to appeal to travellers, and could be particularly beneficial to the elderly. 

With the UN predicting that the number of older people could exceed the number of children around the world for the first time by 2047, airports may soon be called upon to provide streamlined, door-to-door services for elderly travellers. 

The airport of 2030 could further enhance its passenger transportation services by using driverless vehicles; other potential uses for such hi-tech vehicles include transporting baggage to and from planes, helping to reduce the labour-intensive nature of ground-handling work.

The future of the airport eco-system is inextricably linked to the development of a vast range of new technologies – everything from intelligent furniture to augmented vision is likely to feature in the airport of 2030. 

The transformation of airports from functional transport hubs to exciting mini-cities will usher in a new era of air travel, characterised by personalised service, highly efficient operations, and intelligent design. 

For the aviation industry to benefit fully from the reinvention of the airport eco-system, all of the organisations involved must work closely together. Furthermore, it makes sense for these players to share common information technology infrastructure now.

It is perhaps surprising, that when an aircraft lands today, the airport has no knowledge of how many travellers are aboard, let alone who they are. We welcome the exciting future for the world’s airports, and hope that all players in the eco-system can now begin moving towards collaboration, in the knowledge that a shared approach to technology can benefit us all.

About the author

John Jarrell is head of airport IT for Amadeus. Julia Sattel is the company’s senior vice president of airline IT.

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