Inside The Airport Of The Future

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Inside The Airport Of The Future

Words by Ms Juno Grey

23 March 2017

Sleep pods, robo taxis and living walls… what the terminals of tomorrow will look like.

By 2035, there will be 7.8 billion air travellers a year – that’s roughly double the 3.8 billion who took to the skies in 2016 – and, as a consequence, many airports will need to up their game if they want to reach global-hub status. The most cutting-edge will be giant single-terminal concepts (removing the faff of shuttling between multiple facilities) operating at optimal efficiency. You’ll get from landside to airside in less than a minute and there will be no passports. Human staff will be replaced by robots and facial scanners at immigration, tracking tech will mean your suitcase will never get lost and you’ll use a microchip implant in your hand to buy duty-free. Free Wi-Fi will be replaced by free “Li-Fi”, a way of transmitting data through light at speeds 100 times faster than Wi-Fi, meaning you can download box sets at the gate in seconds. Here are the eight key innovations for the airport of the future.

Airports can be soulless, inhuman places – endless greige corridors, clinical lighting and rigid seats with immovable armrests. The airport of the future, however, will bring the outdoors inside with a biophilic design. In so doing, travellers should feel calmer, more energised and refreshed. And the planet will be grateful, too, because rainwater harvesting and solar panels will become commonplace, cutting back on harmful carbon emissions. Chicago O’Hare already has an aeroponic garden, which grows fresh salad and herbs that are then harvested by on-site restaurants such as Wolfgang Puck. Vancouver International has one of North America’s largest living walls of plants, and just as 1 Hotels is leading the way with eco-luxury and the use of organic materials, airports such as Jackson Hole in Wyoming are choosing wood as the construction material of choice. Singapore Changi is the best example of what’s to come. Here you will find gardens populated with butterflies, cacti, sunflowers and orchids. The forthcoming Jewel Terminal will take the form of a glass biosphere filled with nature trails and cascading waterfalls. Smoking rooms will be banned and, because of all the greenery, the air will be better oxygenated.

In most airport food courts, the offering doesn’t extend far beyond greasy pizza and over-chilled “salad bowls”. In line with consumer demands for improved nutrition, an increasing number of airports are going out of their way to dish up healthier alternatives. Today, you can order bio-fruit smoothies at Harvest Market at Amsterdam’s Schiphol, and sushi from one of Madrid’s top Japanese restaurants, Kabuki, at Barajas. In tomorrow’s world, junk food will be gone, and vegetarian, vegan, vitamin-rich, dairy- and gluten-free items will be plentiful and varied. The wellbeing trend is already manifesting itself in the form of spas, yoga and meditation rooms in Helsinki, San Francisco and Frankfurt’s airports. Numerous lounges already offer rejuvenating massages. In the future, we’ll see gyms and spin studios, too.

In years to come, getting from landside to airside will take less than a minute. Better still, you won’t have to disturb your neatly packed belongings or even unzip your bag because there will be scanners that can tell exactly what is inside your luggage. No need to unpack liquids, laptops, belts or electronics ever again. The streamlining of this process has already begun with online check-in and mobile boarding passes delivered to your smartphone or watch. People can currently print baggage tags at home if they’re travelling with Air France, KLM and Swissair. The next step is luggage with built-in electronic tags, already available with Raden and certain Rimowa suitcases. Gone will be the days of searching for airline-specific check-ins and bag-drop zones. On arrival, you will be greeted by sleek, unbranded kiosks that weigh your suitcase. There will be no staff except for on-screen virtual helpers. (At Gatwick, Easyjet has already introduced self-service kiosks for bag-drop and luggage tag printing.) Passing through security will be rapid, stress-free and non-intrusive. People will simply walk through sensor gates without stopping (prototypes are predicted for 2020) and will not have to interact with security agents, who will be monitoring from remote locations. Liquids and laptops can stay put, thanks to 3D scanners that are twice as fast as X-rays. Bye bye, polythene bags.

You may have a sentimental attachment to your passport, with all its far-flung stamps and visas, and its monogrammed, leather-bound holder, but tomorrow’s airport will not require you to travel with it. At immigration, a combination of facial recognition, iris scanning, fingerprint and body temperature readers (to pick up on infection) will determine who you are and if you are fit to travel. Despite concerns about people’s right to privacy, airports will monitor your every move with sensors installed throughout the terminal. On the plus side, this will eliminate the need for questioning from staff and bottlenecks at border checkpoints. Early incarnations of this technology are already being trialled. Facial recognition boarding gates are being piloted at Amsterdam Schiphol, while over in Australia, plans are under way to convert 90 per cent of the country’s airports to automated biometric recognition by 2020. However, data breaches may occur (cybercrime is already becoming a huge problem in the travel industry), much to the horror of the public and airport authorities, which will lead to more secure microchip implants (tested last year at Stockholm Arlanda) and even DNA testing to verify your identity.

You only have to look to the UAE to get a glimpse of how science fiction will soon become reality. This summer, a self-navigating drone – the EHang 184 – will begin taxiing people around Dubai. The electric pod can fly one person and their bag about 30 miles, making it ideal for airport transfers, especially within congested cities. Aircraft manufacturer Airbus is also working on developing self-piloted flying vehicle Vahana, the first model of which may be ready by the end of the year. Over in Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City, self-driving cars have been on the roads for years. The airport of the future will have special lanes dedicated to robo transfers from the city centre and inter-terminal shuttles for premium passengers. Economy travellers will no longer have to walk miles either, thanks to fast-moving corridors that will transport them from the lounge to the gate.

From automated check-in, security and immigration to self-service payment points in restaurants and shops, aviation hubs will be devoid of uniformed flesh-and-blood staff. Baggage systems will be entirely managed by robotic lifters (no more injured backs or pilfered jewellery), holographic helpers will give directions, and C-3PO-polite droids fitted with voice and facial recognition will greet you by name as you board the plane. Although crude in performance and design, robot service agents have already been making an appearance in airports such as Glasgow, California’s San Jose and Taipei International. If you’ve seen Westworld, you will get an idea of what these machines will look like as they take a more human form.

We’ve all had that sinking feeling when our suitcase has failed to show up on the carousel, and there’s no time to buy a new jacket and smart shoes in time for dinner. Not to mention clean underwear. In years to come, this will be one #firstworldproblem we won’t have to endure. Over the past decade, the number of bags “mishandled” by airlines may have sunk to an all-time low of just over 23 million, but at 6.5 per 1,000 passengers, that’s still unacceptably high. At the airport of the future, luggage will have an in-built GPS tracker synced to flyers’ phones so they can see where it is. Next year, the International Air Transport Association will require all member airlines to track suitcases throughout their journey, ensuring they don’t get put on the wrong plane. Indicator lights will flash on your case when you are nearby, so you don’t accidentally take someone else’s, and a fingerprint scanner means it will open only for you.

For the sleep-deprived jetsetter, there is nothing sweeter than a few hours of shut-eye in transit. But trying to get comfortable on an airport bench during a stopover or a delay is never easy. YotelAir already has capsule hotels (the newest is in Paris Charles De Gaulle) with cabins available from four hours at a time, but more innovative are the handful of airports such as Tallinn, Munich and Delhi, which have installed nap pods that are bookable by the hour. The ultimate airport of the future will have banks of affordable cocoon units to slip into, fitted with showers, ambient lighting, wake-up timers, and vending machines stocked with melatonin, vitamin D and caffeine pills to help combat jet lag. We’re not sure they will take more than one person at a time, however.

Illustrations by Mr Neil Stevens