Airports of the future

In the midst of holiday travel season, we continue our transportation series with innovations that will impact the airports of the future. In case you missed it, check out our last transportation story about Elon Musk’s supersonic transport system, Hyperloop.

Seth Young, the director of the Center for Aviation Studies at The Ohio State University, dreams of the day when travelers will step out of an Uber at the airport and walk all the way to their airplane seat without being stopped at a single checkpoint.

“There are technologies to do that right now,” Young said. “If we can use that technology to just walk through the airport and get on the plane and go, that’s cool!”

Airport operators will need to adopt these types of technologies as one billion passengers are projected to be flying the friendly skies by 2029 and 1.14 billion by 2035. In the next five years alone, airports estimate they will need $75.7 billion to improve existing infrastructures and those capital campaigns will need to consider innovations for alleviating congestion at security and baggage checkpoints, as well as the most innovative airport amenities in the marketplace.   

The automation of airports 

Young’s vision for going from curbside to airside without a single checkpoint could begin with air travelers’ cars being parked by robots.

Robot valets are already employed at Dusseldorf Airport in Germany, where passengers use a smartphone app to make a parking reservation. Travelers leave their vehicles at a designated area so the robots can transport and park their cars. The robot detects the size of the car in order to assign it to a spot that makes the most efficient use of space, allowing the garage to fit 40 to 60 percent more cars than it could otherwise. The system also links itineraries to license plates, so cars can be returned curbside after their owners return home.

Inside the airport, self-service baggage drops could await travelers too. These machines already exist in Amsterdam and Madrid, and United Airlines has self-tagging baggage kiosks in 11 terminals throughout the United States and Canada. These services allow passengers to check their bags and print boarding passes at the same time without interacting with agents.

Earlier this year Iberia Airlines installed self-service check-in kiosks at Madrid-Barajas Airport.

The most innovative solution for checking bags, however, are smart baggage tags. Sam Sleiman is the Director of Capital Programs and Environmental Affairs at the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates Boston Logan International Airport. He said smart tags would not only be specific to each passenger but they would be embedded with computer chips so that they automatically know each individual’s itinerary. When a passenger chooses to check a bag while purchasing their flight online, that information would automatically be sent to the smart tag so that the passenger can simply put their bag on a conveyer belt when they arrive at the airport.

“You can just drop your bag and keep going,” Sleiman said.

But while automation would streamline bag checks, today’s baggage-check queues pale in comparison to snaking security lines.

The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport says its average security wait times are 20 to 25 minutes but can take as long as 50 minutes.

Imagine if you could just walk through a free-flowing hallway with passive scanners featuring facial recognition technology and thermal imaging that can detect cold spots on a passenger’s body that could represent a gun, knife or explosive devise. Young said these innovations exist today and could streamline the currently snarled security checkpoints without sacrificing safety.

“It’s overseen by someone you don’t see,” Young said. “That would do everything to improve security and improve efficiency.”

In fact, these security corridors could be implemented in five to 10 years, according to the Transportation Security Administration. The TSA recently unveiled a next-gen scanner that can passively scan a crowd of people from 50 feet away. The TSA is also testing an automated, self-service security screening system being used at the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium. The system can process 600 people and their bags per hour as opposed to a traditional system that can scan about 250 people per hour. This new technology accomplishes this by allowing people to put their bags inside a hexagon-shaped cell that scans it without help from a security guard and without having to wait for it to come out of the other end of a conveyer belt while other bags are scanned. The devise scans the fan’s bag as they walk through a metal detector and they retrieve their bag on the other end. This is faster than a traditional bag-scanning system because it lets multiple people scan their bag simultaneously. 

Amazing amenities 

Passengers view airports as a place to get through as quickly as possible, but travelers also want the time they spend in airports to be as enjoyable as possible. Sleiman, the Massport official overseeing several construction projects at Boston Logan Airport managed by Suffolk Construction, said passengers should feel like they are in their “living rooms” rather than a “processing center.”

Some of the more lavish airport amenities across the country include lounges complete with spas and showers and outdoor terraces that allow passengers to get some fresh air. Several airports also have dog runs and playgrounds.

Logan Airport installed two giant touch screens to help passengers find their way more efficiently.

Other amenities include free WiFi, ample plugs for devices, and better food and drink options such as a microbrewery in Denver and a Margaritaville in Miami. Giant touch screens that provide information about terminals and destinations have been installed at Boston Logan Airport. Logan is also considering a smartphone app that lets passengers order food that can be delivered directly to their gates.

Urban farms and gardens at airports are also providing green spaces for passengers to chill out before flights. But outdoor space could also be planted directly inside the terminal. The rendering below shows a grassy, open-air corridor where passengers can watch planes taking off and landing while walking to their gates. The concept won Denver-based Fentress Architect’s recent international design competition that challenged students to conceive the “Airport of the Future.”

The winning design in the Airport of the Future competition. Photo courtesy Fentress Architects.

Three, two, one … lift off   

As airports across the country continue to be crammed with passengers, congestion is not just in the terminals. It’s spilling over to the runways and airways as well. The added traffic is being felt most acutely at airports that can’t expand their footprints because they are boxed in by major metropolitan cities and large bodies of water such as LaGuardia Airport in New York.

One solution for a lack of space could be floating airports. The runner-up in the “Airport of the Future” contest dreamed up just that concept for an airport in Jakarta.

Students from across the globe dreamed up innovative and sustainable designs such as this floating airport in Jakarta and the landing pad perched on a building’s roof pictured at the top of this post. Photo courtesy Fentress Architects.

Still, the most innovative fix is also considered the brass ring in aviation: planes that takeoff and land vertically. With the advent of this technology, aircraft could simply land and takeoff in smaller areas that are closer to cities. Or they could even land on top of buildings.

But for the airports themselves, the biggest advantage is that terminals could be built where runways currently exist because the jets wouldn’t need as much room to takeoff anymore. This would be game-changing for currently cramped airports that have no extra land for expansion.

But while vertical-takeoff planes such as the ones in the Hunger Games pictured below might seem like science fiction, these technologies are already in the works.

Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 5.16.35 PM

The XTI Aircraft company is currently developing a six-seat vertical takeoff and landing airplane.

The XTI Aircraft Company is currently developing a six-seat vertical takeoff and landing airplane that is pictured to the right. And Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk just said he has a “design in mind” for a vertical lift-off supersonic electric passenger jet.

Even more concrete progress has been made by the Marine Corps. Over the summer, the Marines tested the new F-35 fighter jet that can land vertically.

Nothing excites Massport’s Sam Sleiman more than the prospect of planes taking off and landing vertically at Logan Airport.

“I would just have pads for the aircraft to land and takeoff,” Sleiman said. “That would revolutionize the industry.”

This post was written by Justin Rice. If you have questions, Justin can be reached at or follow him on Twitter at @JustinAlanRice.

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