No matter how well-regarded a particular airport happens to be, the slog from curb to cabin is pretty much the same wherever you go. A decades-old paradigm of queues, security screens, snack vendors, and gate-waiting prevails—the only difference is the level of stress. Transiting a modern hub such as Munich or Seoul is more easily endured than threading your way through the perpetual construction zones that pass for airports around New York.
The sky portal of the 2040s, however, is likely to be free of such delights. Many of us will be driven to the terminal by autonomous cars; our eyes, faces, and fingers will be scanned; and our bags will have a permanent ID that allows them to be whisked from our homes before we even set out. Some of these airports
will no longer be relegated to the outskirts of town—they will merge with city centres, becoming new destination “cities” within a city for people without travel plans. Shall we get dinner, watch a movie, see a concert, shop? People will choose to go to the airport. Your employer may even relocate there.
These are the types of infrastructure investments and technologies that will, in theory, allow airports
to largely eradicate the dreaded waiting. Travellers will migrate around the terminal faster and see fewer walls and physical barriers thanks to the abundance of sophisticated sensors, predicts Dallas-based architecture and design firm Corgan.
The company recently assembled its concepts of how airports
will evolve, based on extensive research of passenger experiences at various airports
and the greater role technology may play.
One day, the airport will know “everything about everyone moving in the airport,” said Seth Young, director of the Center for Aviation Studies at Ohio State University. The goal will be to deploy “a security infrastructure that’s constantly screening people from the door to the gate, and not having this toll-booth mentality,” he said. “We know that 99.9 per cent of the passengers are clean, so why are we wasting time screening all of those?”
Much of this technology is likely to be seen outside the US first, given the advanced age of most American airports
and the more robust infrastructure funding available in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. In the 2017 Skytrax
awards, only 14 airports
in the US even made the top 100.
One can look to Singapore for a glimpse of how airports
will change over the next 20 years. Changi Airport, a pioneer of the industry, recently opened a “living lab” to pursue further innovation. In March, it was named the world’s best airport for the fifth consecutive year by Skytrax.
One reason airports
tend to look and function remarkably alike is that they’re designed to accommodate air travel infrastructure—security, passenger ticketing, baggage, ground transport—with the primary concerns being safety and minimal overhead for their tenant airlines.
“Today it’s what you call a transient space—it’s not a space to be in, it’s a space for you to move through,” said Jonathan Massey, the aviation leader for Corgan, which has overseen the design of major terminals worldwide, including Atlanta, Dallas, Shanghai, Dalian, China, and Los Angeles. “We need to evolve the terminals into being little cities.”
As part of the research, Corgan
designers measured anxiety levels for different passenger types. The greatest offender among all groups was the security checkpoint, that confined space of shoe-doffing, laptop-extraction, and frisky government agents barking orders. “A lot of the stress in an airport is perceived, it’s spatial,” said Samantha Flores, a Corgan
associate. But when it comes to the biggest infrastructure burden, one aspect of today’s airports
“The big, big issue,” said Dwight Pullen, is luggage. Pullen, national director of aviation at Skanska USA, a construction firm with numerous airport projects, including the renovation of New York’s infamous LaGuardia, said: “Think about how much infrastructure and technology and time is spent on bags. It’s a huge issue. It’s not one that has been figured out.”
Changi Airport’s new Terminal 4, which will open later this year, will feature an array of “fast and seamless travel” (FAST) technologies to speed people-processing without the need for human supervision, from face-recognition software to automated bag-tagging and checking.