Are airports the final frontier in travel technology?

NB: This is a guest article by Brian Beard, executive technology consultant, and Patricia Simillon, head of airlines operations strategy, both with Amadeus.

When you think about an airport today, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Long lines? Stress? Delays? Missed connections? Lost baggage?

To be sure, everyone has experienced the vast majority of these inconveniences, if not many others. Going through an airport is viewed by many as simply a means to an end, a necessary part of the process to get from one point to another.

But why couldn’t the time we spend in airports become part of the travel “experience” itself? Why is the airport such a throwback? Well, it doesn’t have to be.

Unquestionably, the airport is the last part of the travel process waiting for an “experience overhaul,” a digital renovation, and today’s passengers are clamoring for it.

Airport at the center of the “experience” chain

As travel continues to evolve, we will continue to see major changes across the entire industry. This will not be limited to just the traveler experience and the use of mobile devices—it will impact the whole travel industry supply chain.

And the airport, where many trips begin and end, is potentially poised to be at the center of it all. We are on the verge of a true convergence of technologies in travel.

The proliferation of smartphones and tablets is and will continue to lead the way, but big data, intelligent systems, predictive analytics, enhanced security monitoring technologies and improvements to broadband connectivity will lead us through the next phase of the evolution of travel.

Airports have always been a good litmus test for technological change, and they have a great opportunity to transform the passenger experience by collaborating with every player in the travel supply chain, from the airlines to the restaurants and shops in the terminals to the taxis and hotels at the final destination.

There’s already data and discussion underway in the industry about these new opportunities in the airport ecosystem and what models are available to transform the airport experience.

Through the use of innovative technology and collaboration between all parties that make up the travel process, we will exit the twilight of the era of “cattle herding” and enter the dawn of the new and nimble airport ecosystem.

This new era of mass personalized travel services will manifest itself in many ways: lines will shrink, stress will melt away, alerts will appear in real time, and travelers will be satisfied and more productive. Just the idea makes you want to travel again!

Traveler data will fuel the airport evolution

These may seem like grandiose ideas for an antiquated air-travel infrastructure, but much of the technology needed to achieve these traveler benefits already exists today. The key that will unlock the evolution of the new airport ecosystem is traveler data.

Here are a few ways that access to real-time traveler data can enhance the traveler experience:

1. Flight changes

  • If carriers have access to travelers’ locations through their smartphones, they can automatically recognize when a passenger is delayed and immediately rebook his/her flight.

2. Check-in

  • Biometric screening such as iris scanning can be used to check-in passengers automatically upon airport entry.

3. Security

  • Ambient technology can be used to scan all passengers upon terminal arrival.

4. Boarding

  • Airlines can use facial recognition to facilitate operator-less gate boarding.

5. Baggage

  • Airports and carriers can integrate with a secure intermediary to send baggage straight from the airport to passengers’ destinations.

Beyond these passenger benefits, airlines, which know the location of their passengers following check-in, are well equipped to enable new, personalized traveler experiences.

By collaborating with airlines, local retail stores and restaurants can send coupons to passengers’ mobile phones the second they step off the plane.

And airports can be set up and equipped to receive these types of travelers.

This is not to say that there will not be challenges. The security of personal information is clearly a hot topic, and all players within the travel supply chain will need to work together to protect and share that information responsibly and securely.

As we’ve seen with mobile platforms and social media networks, consumers will ultimately dictate the amount of information that is shared.

Airports are already “getting it”

There are a few standout airports that are already focused on evolving the airport ecosystem. Singapore’s Changi Airport is a perfect example of innovation centered on the passenger experience.

The airport features a “SWIFT” smartphone-enabled service for agencies and tenants to receive real-time feedback from customers and resolve any issues (such as dirty washrooms) immediately.

In addition, the airport features a wide range of traveler-centric leisure and entertainment options, ranging from gardens and nature trails to city tours, interactive art zones and a 3D electronics zone.

Tegel Airport in Berlin is another standout travel hub, capitalizing on what they say Germans are best known for: efficiency. As passengers approach the airport, a large, real-time departure board shows the gate for their flight, which they can drive directly to.

Check-in is located immediately behind the entry doors, and a few steps beyond take you through airport security.

In fact, the UK’s Centre for Policy Studies notes that “seven minutes after stepping out of the taxi a passenger can be in the departure lounge, boarding pass in hand”.

Vestiges of a bygone era

Where are you going? How many bags do you have? What is your flight number? Can I see your boarding pass and a form of government issued identification? What is your seat number? Can I see your baggage ticket?

In the airport ecosystem of the future, skycaps, ticketing agents, TSA officials and flight attendants won’t need to ask these questions anymore, and relaxed travelers will be able to focus on where they’re going and the traveler’s experience while getting there rather than stress out about where they are.

NB: This is a guest article by Brian Beard, executive technology consultant, and Patricia Simillon, head of airlines operations strategy, both with Amadeus.

NB2: Man with suitcase and globe airport images via Shutterstock.

NB3: Beard, Simillion and Glenn Gruber from Ness Technologies will discuss these and other issues further on a FREE webinar on Tuesday 12 June 2012. Sign up here.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInEmail to someone

About the Writer :: Viewpoints

A founding principle of tnooz was a diversity of viewpoints from across the spectrum. Viewpoints are articles by guest contributors from around the travel and hospitality industries. The views expressed are those of the author. and do not necessarily reflect those of the author's employer, or tnooz and its partners.



Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. adam tsao

    The operating cost per passenger of rail is 5-20x that of an airline (depending on the type of train). Rail is also far more more capital intensive and has a lower utilization rate of assets vs. airlines. Planes can take off from a runway at rate of of 1 per minute. High speed trains need minimally 20-30 minutes between trains. Add in the fact that the airlines function as a natural redundant looped network while trains have to function on a branch networks and you have a losing proposition in this country.

    • Garl B. Latham


      By “this country,” I’m taking for granted we’re discussing the U.S.

      I also presume “operating cost per passenger” is actually “operating cost per passenger mile.”

      At any rate, the potential militating factors you mentioned are one reason I do not advocate true H.S.R. in these United States – at least not as a starting point, nor as the basis of a comprehensive network.

      Just as there are certain financial advantages to transport by air, there are also financial advantages to the myriad rail-based technologies – among them the ability to cost effectively serve city centres, call on outlying population nodes of insufficient size to rate scheduled airline operations, easily alter the capacity of a particular conveyance in direct response to demand, use commercially generated electricity as their primary power source, and allow for en-route division of consists in order to serve divergent markets without requiring passenger transfers.

      Dual-purpose infrastructure (designed and operated for both passenger and freight service) has the capability to substantially reduce overall operating costs per passenger-mile without undermining service levels…unless, of course, the ultimate goal is actually to create little airliners-on-the-ground.

      Personally, I’d much rather see substantial investments made in conventional domestic railway transportation applications, then allow each mode to do what it does best – and give travelers the choice to use those alternatives in any manner they see fit.


  2. Chicke Fitzgerald

    Garl – you are right about the technology that we will see emerge over the next 20 years that allows cars to “board” new high speed transportation highways. I actually think it will be beyond rail as we know it.

    This would be so much better than traditional rail, as you end up with your car at the end of the journey! I have a good friend in Austin that is working with an innovative group on such a concept.

    Look forward to your comments on the white paper.

    • Kevin May

      Kevin May

      @chicke – like one of these?

      MotorRail is huge already. And getting faster with more HSR lines.

      • Chicke Fitzgerald

        No, it is actually conceived to be layered onto freeways, not existing rail track.

        While rail is ubiquitous in Europe, here in the US we are woefully behind. As a resident of Tampa that frequently has to travel to Orlando and Miami, I would LOVE this concept to be in place, so I could have my car on the other end and be able to relax, as if I were on a train.

      • Garl B. Latham


        The “auto-train” concept is alive and well between Lorton, Virginia (suburban Washington, D.C.) and Sanford, Florida. That train, on a consistent basis, financially out-performs any other long distance service Amtrak currently provides (essentially covering its “above-the-rail” costs, depending upon the way certain statistics are used).

        The fact that approach has not been expanded to other U.S. markets is due more to political realities than anything else.

        Because of various regulations and other reasonable considerations (safety, operational, risk-management, etc.), the present routine for loading and unloading motor vehicles, as well as switching the train’s consist, takes far too much time to make domestic “auto-train” service competitive along short-haul or regional routes.


  3. Garl B. Latham

    Thank you, Chicke!

    I firmly believe the idea of establishing true high-speed railways – designed, built and operated in direct competition with commercial airlines – is counterproductive…especially when we consider the current state of conventional passenger train service in these United States.

    Traditional passenger trains, operating at top speeds around the century mark along existing rights-of-way, could (and, even today, occasionally do) offer reasonable, marketable alternatives to the “drive-or-fly” culture our society has so carefully established.

    After all, why should “overnight travelers” fly OR drive, when they could sleep their way between points in a real bed…on a TRAIN?!

    The real domestic king is the private automobile and, as you said, there’s a great deal of “untapped opportunity” remaining in the transport world. Specialty modes, including railways, can develop sizeable niche markets and still leave enough business for everyone else to enjoy.

    I have downloaded your white paper and look forward to reading it!


    • Kevin May

      Kevin May

      @garl – yes, rail indeed… Especially in Europe… But rail has a huge overnight network in Europe, established for decades.

      I should know, I interrailed around the continent throughout the 90s. Much better way to see the world 🙂

      • Chicke Fitzgerald

        Wish we had the option here in the states! You have to live in the Northeast corridor to really take advantage of rail here.

        • Garl B. Latham

          Well…yes and no.

          Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor operations – especially Acela – bring us right back around to the idea of competing head-to-head with scheduled commercial airline services.

          Furthermore, even the N.E.C. no longer hosts overnight trains equipped with sleeping cars between (for example) New York City and Washington, D.C. or Washington and Boston.

          Conversely, I can board a train in Dallas bound for St. Louis, enjoy a leisurely dinner and some nice conversation in the club car, then go to bed in my own private room. After a full night’s sleep, I’m able to complete my morning toiletry rituals, eat a fresh, hot breakfast AND be in St. Louis before the next business day has begun!

          Speed isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. Time efficiency can be far more important.

          After all, if I’m moving while I’m eating and sleeping, how can I be wasting time?

          If you have an opportunity to do so, I encourage you to read “The case for time efficiency” (part 4 of my “Grid and Gateway” series on the Progressive Railroading web site):


  4. Chicke Fitzgerald

    Make no mistake. The final frontier is NOT the airport. It is the “road”. Just 15% of all overnight travelers fly and 85% drive. And if you count those that do not overnight, it is just 8% of travelers that fly.

    We all want smoother airport transit and I applaud Amadeus for taking a lead in ensuring that the technology is available when the government entities involved get their act together, but PLEASE pay attention to the “other 85%” of travelers.

    There is so much untapped opportunity left in this industry. We are hardly at a “final” frontier.

    Dare to differentiate.

    • Kevin May

      Kevin May

      @chicke – roads as a final frontier??!?

      anyway, that’s a bit of a US centric PoV, whilst I suspect Amadeus has a global perspective on this.

      Besides, of those 85% of overnight travellers, how many are leisure or business travellers, rather than truckers, delivery drivers, etc, etc?

      Finally, not sure I understand why you put that link in your comment – what’s the relevance?

      • Chicke Fitzgerald

        True that my stats are US centric. Fair. But it is here that a huge opportunity exists and none of the traditional travel marketers/tech providers, including the GDS companies, have even begun to scratch the surface.

        We have 1 billion overnight trips in the US involving a hotel booking. In 2010, Travelclick reported a measley 117 million electronic bookings (GDS and Pegasus driven online). They haven’t published 2011 full year numbers yet, just the percentages booked by channel.

        The GDS companies as a whole, even after over 30 years of marketing travel, still only have hotel representing less than 5% of their total bookings worldwide.

        8% of all US travel is vacation, 23% is traditional business travel and the other 69% is for every other reason that people travel. I don’t believe that the US Travel Association includes commercial truckers/delivery companies in their statistics.

        There is something wrong with the metaphor that we use for travel booking engines, both offline in the agency (powered by the GDS) and online. Even hotel bookings assume you are flying to your destination.

        I included the link to the white paper to answer the question of why this is important. I’m not selling anything. We conducted the Project 85 research last year to put numbers to the opportunity.

        I fully believe that this is a global problem/opportunity, but when a tech company sets out to solve a problem, it is best to start in the market where the problem/opportunity is the greatest, and that is the US.

        Amadeus has the resources and frankly, needs the US penetration, so why not focus on the mass market!

      • Chicke Fitzgerald

        Also Kevin, quite of few of your readers are in the US. And once we solve this here, in one of the most complex road travel markets, it can easily be exported to ROW.

  5. Garl B. Latham

    In response to Andrew’s question, I know of a technology which has changed my airport – and flying – experience completely.

    It’s called the “train.”

    It may not be desirable, practical or even possible for many…but it works for me!

    I only wish there were a lot more of ’em.

    Garl B. Latham
    Dallas, Texas

  6. Andrew Metcalf

    These all seem like fantastic innovations but it sounds like it could take 5-10 years to implement technically and politically. Any thoughts on technologies that could change the airport experience in the nearer term? Is it possible to drive any of these changes through the traveler rather than through infrastructure investments by the airports and airlines?

    We’re always interested in how new tech will effect our airport partners @cloudninemedia.

  7. Sceptical corporate traveller

    ??????????????? What are you smoking??

    Just as long as somebody (government or airline) want to check or verify something, there WILL be delays and queues when the volume of travellers exceeds the capacity of the system to handle them. And that will always happen because
    (a) nobody is going to invest enough to handle peak load + a margin for error/growth (eg LHR T5 at almost max capacity on the day of opening!)
    (b) foul ups happen, awkward/inexperienced travellers block the system, particularly at peak load when it needs little to cause congestion.

    Many of the airports I’ve been through in the last year work OK (some peak times apart, see above). There may be SOME conspicuous (notorious?) hub airports where making them “destination like” (Changi a good example) can prevent terminal insanity in those stuck for a long time between flights, but in most cases, for most travellers, just render the thing a tolerable experience with decent food and drink NOT at rip-off prices and you will have happy passengers. I for one have NO wish to arrive in enough time to take in a film (movie) – adding another 1-2 hours to what is already a 3-4 hour door to door experience for even quite short flights.

    Oh, and beware the law of unintended consequences …. a colleague tells me the story of his recent trip with Air France ……….. a delayed flight prompted a surge of SMS messages to that sub set of passengers registered for this – at which point they besieged the poor AF agent who, it turns out, had not yet been told of the delay on her local system (Ground handler using third party applications perhaps?).
    ….. and automated re-booking would not have helped, because AF had no idea what re-arrangement might have suited him (and many others I suspect).

    OK, I am having a more than usually crabby day!


Newsletter Subscription

Please subscribe now to Tnooz’s FREE daily newsletter.

This lively package of news and information from Tnooz’s web site provides a convenient digest of what’s happening in technology that drives the global travel, tourism and hospitality market.

  • Cancel