Most lines at airports exist because there is a bottleneck of human resources. This is mainly because there are a few things that humans still have to do. Verify ID and check passport, accept bags, scan for security threats in luggage.
But what if they didn’t? Can machines replace these bottlenecks and do it in a way that doesn’t slow us down? What would an airport look like? Let’s take a look at the worst offenders of wasting time.
This is a continuation of a series I’ve been writing for the past few months on the future of travel. You can read the other articles here:
- End-to-End Connectivity
- Agentless Airports
- Thinner, Longer Route Networks
- All-Business Class Flights & Terminals
- The Rise of Inflight Branding
- Autonomous Aircraft
- Hotels Becoming Homes
- The End of Tourist Traps
Check In and Bag Drop
More and more airlines are launching mobile and online check-in, but some like Ryanair and Vueling are going one step further and issuing boarding passes when you book your ticket.
Online check in is great, especially if you don’t have to check bags. While flights domestically in the US and within the Schengen Zone in Europe don’t require a passport, making it possible to mint boarding passes online and send them to your phone, most airlines require passport information to be both input and verified. This means a person has to look at it, to ensure the person at the airport matches the person with a ticket (which goes through a security database).
But perhaps one day, immigration laws will become interoperable or reciprocal. Or more likely, we could use facial recognition to validate that the right person is going with the appropriate ticket, much like automated immigration in the EU.
Bag drops are already becoming self-serve with the three major US carriers piloting them at their hubs. Passengers can now print their tags at home or at the kiosk and the dropping off doesn’t really need a person to mind it (think of it as a reverse baggage claim), so quite soon we may head straight to security, even for an international flight.
Much of the theater at security checkpoints is improving. Rather than posting a person at the line to check if you have a valid boarding pass (because, it’s not like anyone can buy a refundable ticket…), many European airports (LHR, TXL, CPH) are using automated gates that open when you scan them.
More interesting is the idea of screening bags with a remote reviewer or using machine learning to recognize dangerous items. Rather than having security teams at every checkpoint, you could have one centralized center that reviews bags and station people only at the checkpoints to handle secondary screenings. Delta is piloting a system that allows passengers to unpack and pack their belongings in parallel. Startups are currently developing technology that can identify explosive residue from a distance and localize it to an area only a few feet across, so we may get subjected to fewer pat downs swabs.
While most passengers don’t have access to airport lounges, one gripe of road warriors that do are crowded lounges or those that have a huge line to get in (usually caused by a bottleneck due to a passenger unable to find their credentials or a lounge that is completely full. This is partially solved by similar access gates to enter, but some airlines, like Finnair, are toying with the idea of variable pricing for their day passes so that lounge utilization is high without being 100%
While I’m not a huge duty free shopper, some people are and dread waiting in line to checkout. I’ve been stuck waiting watching the clock tick closer to departure. Frankfurt and London are both piloting gate delivery of duty free items, but what’s cooler is that you can buy the items on your phone.
Boarding is probably my least favorite part of the process and probably the hardest to improve (many researchers have tried), there is still value in self-serve automated boarding gates, particularly to process frequent travelers so that personnel can better focus attention on less frequent flyers who may need help with document checks or finding their boarding passes.
With more and more bus gates, airports sometimes permit boarding from the front and back of the plane, roughly halving the time to board. 380s also board more quickly because of their two floors and four aisles (branching is good for efficiency, as are taller ceilings. Newer plane designs will likely take advantage of learning from the past, with larger overhead bins, steps cut into the seats and better signage.
Transit and Ticketing Desks
One of the biggest pains when traveling is getting stuck in a reticketing line after a cancellation or missed connection. These lines take forever because everyone has a different itinerary and it takes a while to search and book the ticket. Many non-standardized actions makes for a long wait, which can be particularly frustrated when you see your viable options to get home depart before you can see someone. Sure, calling the phone center can boost your chances of a faster rebooking, but many carriers abroad still require you to talk to a person.
Airlines are getting better at writing rebooking algorithms and presenting them to you via their app or website, in a similar tabular fashion to what you see on OTAs or their own website.
Automated vouchers for food, taxis and accommodations are right around the corner. You could envision a future where a flight cancels and everybody is immediately emailed food and hotel vouchers and the app springs up a notification, presenting options to rebook (though there may be a mad dash for limited inventory). United has a system like this in place, and AA has an autodialer call you with an alternate flight you can accept (although I usually can find a better one)
Immigration and Customs
Immigration lines can be really trying, and I’ve already mentioned some of the automation already being rolled out (Global Entry, gates in the EU, facial recognition) which is applicable here too. Mobile Passports on your phone are being piloted in the US and kiosks are becoming more common, allowing immigration facilities to process passengers 2-3x as fast.
Lastly, just before we’re about to leave the airport, we’re stuck waiting for our bags, which may come out first or last. But bags are getting tracked more closely. While current trackers can tell you whether a bag has made it to your arrival airport, trackers in the future, combined with your phone or a clever set of monitors might be able to tell you to be at the claim at precisely the right time rather than waiting around like a chump. Delta has already installed thousands of RFID readers and instlled 3800 RFID tag printers at most of its stations. All it would take is making the sensor data available on the app and you’ll know exactly where your bag is.
With airports devoid of lines, how would things change? Would the cutoffs for check-in and boarding be closer to the actual departure time? Would it become a series of lounges of various quality and price points? How do you see lines being tackled by airports? Comment Below!