January 6, 2020

How smart airports are going to become more than transport hubs

Few of us would count the airport as a place to spend any longer than necessary. Airports are due for an overhaul that doesn’t just keep passengers there, but brings crowds of non-travelers all the same. We take a glimpse into the not-so-distant future where, both the appearance and role of airports will evolve to accommodate a world constantly on the move.

How they’ll evolve as airports

In an article for Skift by Sean O’Neill and Brian Sumers, they give a comprehensive overview of how airports will evolve in the near future. A key aspect of this transition will be underscored by several technological improvements that are meant to improve the passenger experience:

  • Passenger recognition: biometrics such as facial, iris recognition and passenger profiles might help to cut down on the importance of physical travel documents and the time it will take from arrival at the airport to boarding. Further, the use of Blockchain tech could make it easier to securely share information between parties.
  • Accessibility: Improved sensors allow airport admin to keep better track of the site-by-site situation and track passenger flows, improving their ability to allocate resources such as motorized carts and eventually self-driving electric wheelchairs, which have been tested at Tokyo Narita.
  • Bag processing: Computed tomography (CT) technology, will allow for improved baggage scans where passengers don’t need to remove liquids and laptops. London Heathrow has been trialing the technology since 2017 and is expected to install the equipment across its terminals by 2022. Paris’ Charles de Gaulle and Orly use the French postal service to send home prohibited items for passengers.
  • Green: Many airports are currently focused on boosting their energy efficiency, with particular attention paid to self-sufficiency. Beijing’s recently completed Daxing International Airport expects to derive more than 10% of its energy supply from renewable sources.

How they’ll become more

Of course, bringing airports into the future isn’t just motivated by the need to prepare for the increased number of passengers when air travel is slated to double by 2035, driven by the Asia-Pacific region. A lot of that change involves harnessing the economic potential of everyone that steps off an airplane entering a given airport.

Previously, airports had to play primarily to airlines, their principle tenants and some who might not always be about making things cheaper or easier for passengers. And of course, there’s the matter of keeping the airport structure itself maintained and profitable. These factors combine to make the idea of building and expanding airports to become destinations in and of themselves serious consideration, especially with all those people and potential dollars flowing through their gates.

Singapore’s chart-topping Changi airport is already leading the way with Jewel, a massive retail and entertainment complex that opened in October, 2019. Similar expansions such as at Hong Kong International Airport and Qatar’s Hamad International Airport are underway. And even if an airport doesn’t involve remodeling, a number in the U.S. are giving “terminal tourism” a shot, wherein they allow non-traveling visitors through security checkpoints to meet friends and family — or just walk around (and hopefully, buy something in the process.)

In short, these approaches to diversifying income sources means added stability for airports amid financial uncertainty for their airline tenants.

Next Step: Aerotropolises?

While we’ve only been talking about passengers, customers and similar visitors thus far, it’s important to mention that even with the advent of smart tech, airports will still take a ton of people to run them for the foreseeable future and these staff might start moving closer to their workplace.

Urban HUB talks about the transition from airports that were until now built on the periphery of cities or far from them to airports that are self-contained cities in themselves. In his book, Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, John Kasarda envisions a future where the urban core of such cities would be the airport itself. That said, reconciling the needs of positive and profitable passenger experience and the obvious security requirements for such an unabated flow of people will take time.

Still we’re excited to see the possibility of airports evolving into gathering places that draw non-passengers to them. Given that these airports are bringing in people from many different places, we can expect a lot of opportunities for meaningful connections, exchanges, creative projects and new facets of culture yet to be formed. Give it a few years and dropping “anyone wanna grab dinner at the airport?” in the group chat might not seem so weird.

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