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Future of Travel: Airports

Future of Travel Series - Airports

You might think that the logical place to start this series of articles about travel in the future would be airlines.  After all, you won’t be taking that cruise, staying at a resort, or doing a business meeting in a far-away city without the airline.   And a lot of media attention has already been on the steps airlines are taking to reassure passengers and make the onboard experience seem safer.

My money, however, is on airports as the key to recovery of the travel ind ustry.  Once you’re on the airplane, there’s no getting away from a wheezing, sneezing, coughing passenger seated next to you.  Even with the middle seat left empty (standard policy at the moment), your sickly seat mate would be less than a meter away from you.  It will actually fall to the airports to screen out suspect individuals, just like they do already with security.  If the sick person or terrorist gets on the plane, it’s too late, baby!

The consensus with airline executives is airports are going to do the lions’ share of the work to ensure flying is safe.  Look for kiosks with more scanning and less typing. Expect hand sanitizers everywhere. For the time being, physical distancing will be enforced, and probably the use of masks.  At the gate, for instance, you are now seeing “metered boarding”, where passengers are spaced out appropriately and boarded like in the old days, from back to front.

This physical distancing issue will create the real challenge for airports once numbers start to return to normal.  It is one thing for airports to enforce the two-meter rule right now when they are operating at 7 or 8% capacity.  We all remember those massive line-ups during peak travel times or weather delays.  How will they cope with these new spacing requirements when airports start to operate again, say, 50% capacity? 

Short-term, while the physical distancing rule remains in place expect to see new line-ups at the entrance of most airports.  Access inside will be limited to passengers with boarding passes.  (Expect to have a big problem if you cannot do or forgot to do online check-in!) Probably, line-ups inside the terminal – baggage drop, priority check-in, security, pre-clearance customs, and gate boarding - will all be enforced strictly by pre-assigned time windows posted on your boarding pass.  A bit like Disneyland! Show up too early or too late to one of these line-ups and risk being turned away.

Clearly, these strategies are not going to work long-term.  No airport has been designed to accommodate the two-meter rule when operating at full or near-full capacity, even with these measures in place. Clearly, new processes, procedures, and technologies will need to be introduced just to operate at normal levels.  I think that much of what we do at airports now will be shifted off-site.  I predict you will see pre-boarding stations built throughout major cities and at points close to airports. There you will complete your check-in process.  Biometric scanners will check your health and confirm your identity.  Credentials and passports will be scanned.  And probably even your checked baggage will be tagged for pick-up and shipped securely to the airport separately.  So, when you arrive at the airport, virtually everything will have been done already!

Inside the terminal, expect additional screening measures.  Expect medical screening to be merged with regular security.  Instead of passing through one scanning tunnel, expect in the future to pass through two.  Maybe even a third one, a decontamination closet that kills surface germs on your skin and clothing.  Won’t that be fun!

How will all this evolve?  I think 9/11 is a good parallel.  Immediately after the tragedy, emphasis at airports was on over-the-top security measures – to not only make flying safer, but make passengers feel safer.  Remember “security theatre?”  Stationing soldiers with automatic weapons everywhere?  Gradually, security restrictions eased up; and airports found ways to streamline the process for frequent-flyers (eg. Fast lanes for Nexus members) and ai rlines successfully lobbied for preferential treatment to their elite flyers and first class passengers (eg. “Fast Track”).  The same thing will happen with airport hygiene and health screening procedures.  At first, it will be a slow, tedious process to get to your plane.  Many long, metered line-ups, many hoops to pass through.  Eventually, processes will be streamlined and airlines will find ways to fast track their best customers. (There’s been talk about health “passports,” which might be obtained and updated at health clinics, existing and new.) 

What you experience at departure expect more of the same at arrivals, especially when arriving at a foreign country.  Ever since the SARS epidemic Taiwan has conducted medical screening on all incoming passengers.  So, this is not new; it will just become the norm.  Again, like airport security above, expect to see Customs/Immigration combined with medical screening.   And as with departures, procedures will eventually be streamlined for all travellers with ever-improving technology; and frequent-travellers will probably whisk through airports at both ends of the trip much like they do now.

As daunting as this whole new level of airport procedures seem now, it will eventually lead to new efficiencies that ultimately make the airport experience easier, quicker, and - dare I say it? - more pleasant!


David Elmy, President
The Travel Group




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