Technology Will Speed You Through the Airport of the Future



Like a good maître d’, the airport of the future will recognize you, greet you by name and know exactly where to put you.

Airports around the world are beginning to move in this direction. At London’s Gatwick Airport, beacons identify you by your smartphone and give GPS-like directions to your gate, pointing out food or shopping along the way. In Germany, robots at Düsseldorf’s airport park your car and return it curbside after you land, linking your itinerary to your license plate. Researchers are developing robots that will be able to check your bags and deliver them within minutes of landing.

Facial-recognition systems speed you through passport control in places including Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C. Some airports use facial-recognition systems to track your movements around terminals. Gates in some airports are automated with doors that flash open like a subway turnstile when you scan your boarding pass or flash your smartwatch.

At the airport of the future, directional signs will be only for backup. Check-in kiosks will be tucked in a corner. Human agents may be even more unnecessary.

The idea is to cut costs, speed up travel and make airports more hospitable. In theory, travelers will be more relaxed, with time to get work done, shop or enjoy entertainment since the airport will track their time and location and tell them where they need to be. Travelers may fret less about sitting down at a nice restaurant when a flight is delayed, rather than camping at the gate.

‘Ray,’ the car-parking robot at the Düsseldorf Airport, in Germany, delivers cars to the curb after passengers land and increased garage capacity by 32%. ENLARGE
‘Ray,’ the car-parking robot at the Düsseldorf Airport, in Germany, delivers cars to the curb after passengers land and increased garage capacity by 32%. PHOTO: ANDREAS WIESE
The airport “becomes fun again,’’ says Terry Hartmann, vice president of transportation and industry applications for Unisys Corp., which makes the technology for some of the new airport features. “You feel you know what’s going on, you interact with the environment and travel is an enjoyable experience.”


Of course, planes will still have cramped seats and airlines will still run habitually late. But flyers won’t need to arrive 90 minutes early if they know lines and walks are short. Travelers worried about the airport being too invasive can opt out by turning off their Bluetooth connections.

In June, Unisys announced completion of the initial testing phase of a facial-recognition system at Dulles to help U.S. Customs and Border Protection identify imposters attempting to enter the country. New passports have a chip imbedded with data including your photo. The facial recognition systems, also in use in the United Kingdom, Portugal, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and other countries, compare the traveler’s face with the passport and assign a score. If the match scores high enough, the passport control officer can be more certain of identity than today’s system of eyeballing people entering the country.

“Manually checking that the person in front of you is the same as a photo five years old is a challenge,” Mr. Hartmann says.

At Gatwick Airport, systems estimate queues in real time at security and immigration checkpoints. And some countries have automated border control setups where the facial recognition system automatically clears someone to enter the country without seeing an officer. The U.S. hasn’t gone that far partly because not enough travelers have the required chip in their passports.

San Francisco International Airport has 350 beacons installed in Terminal 2 and is testing an app that can give visually impaired passengers audible directions. American Airlines has signed on to a beacon rollout to help customers find their way, starting at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

In theory, with technology to speed up travel, airports will be more hospitable and travelers will have more time to relax, get work done, shop or enjoy entertainment. ENLARGE
In theory, with technology to speed up travel, airports will be more hospitable and travelers will have more time to relax, get work done, shop or enjoy entertainment. PHOTO: JAMES GULLIVER HANCOCK
Virgin Atlantic’s lounge in London and Cathay Pacific’s lounge in San Francisco have beacons that can recognize members when they walk through the door and offer information like food and drink menus. Miami International Airport has been doing limited trials. One potential use: tracking when someone enters the baggage carousel area and when they leave, showing how long they waited for baggage.

By 2018, 44% of airlines world-wide plan to use beacons, compared with 9% that have experimented with the technology currently, according to a survey this year by SITA, an aviation information and communications company. Geneva-based SITA is owned by 430 air transport companies and develops technology for the industry.

In Germany, Dusseldorf’s airport is growing in passenger traffic but it doesn’t have real estate to expand parking. The answer: a valet parking robot.

From the airport’s website, travelers make a reservation and enter flight information. Then they drive to a spot in the garage and lock their car. The system reads the license plate and decides where it will park the vehicle. A robot nicknamed Ray, which looks like a giant forklift, picks up the car by the wheels and moves it. At night, robots reshuffle the garage so cars that will be returned the next day are easily accessible. The system tracks if travelers’ flights are delayed or canceled and has their cars ready when they arrive.

The robots have operated for nearly a year and boosted garage capacity by 32%, says SITA managing director Christian Jahncke, who oversees the robot project. It has had one ding in one of the 40,000 cars handled. One problem: Sometimes the robot sets off the anti-theft alarm. Eventually the screeching stops. “High-quality cars are very sensitive to being picked up,” Mr. Jahncke says.

Close-in valet robot parking costs €29, or about $32, a day. That compares with €24.5 for premium parking the same distance from the terminal without valet service.

Each robot costs about $250,000, and Dusseldorf uses three so far. In all, Dusseldorf has spent about $1 million, far less than building a new garage, says Mr. Jahncke.

SITA is looking at whether it could make a robot to check bags, says Jim Peters, the firm’s chief technology officer. Travelers would self-tag, or have a permanent-use bag tag that identifies them. Robots would pick up the bags and maybe even deliver them, speeding up the process and reducing manual labor costs. “Managing your baggage and not making it a pain is a part of the airport of the future,” Mr. Peters says. The number of airlines offering self-tagging bag drop, but without robots, has increased to 17% from 9% last year. That is expected to rise to 74% of airlines by 2018, according to the SITA technology survey.