Unless you can afford to pay a premium, today’s passengers often complain of vast, confusing terminal buildings, a lack of coordinated travel information and – worst of all – long, unpredictable waits at check-in, security, passport control and baggage claim.
And airports are only set to get busier. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), airlines are expected to see a 31% increase in passenger numbers between 2012 and 2017 – with 930 million more passengers in 2017 than the 2.98 billion carried in 2012.
"That kind of growth will outstrip the ability of airports to grow," says Chris Goater of IATA. "We’re simply not going to see an equivalent 30% increase in the size of our terminals. So airports around the world are having to engage in radical thinking about how we process passengers, luggage and cargo. How can they manage the logistics of mass transportation – while also enhancing the experience of passengers?"
It is a problem that Angela Gittens, director general of Airports Council International (ACI), which represents airports worldwide, has been wrestling with for years. "We can’t work as we are with that kind of passenger increase," she admits. "Everyone recognises that airports have to evolve, or we’ll simply not be able to cope. Which is why we’re now turning to new technologies as an enabler."
Dulles International Airport, 26 miles (41.8km) outside of Washington, is one such example. Its construction in 1962 – incorporating radical designs by famed Finnish architect Eero Saarinen – was seen as a pinnacle of the aviation era. Today, more than 22 million people pass though Dulles every year, travelling to and from more than 125 destinations around the world.
And yet, according to Skytrax, worldwide publishers of passenger surveys of airports, Dulles was voted the second worst airport in the US in 2012. And despite spending $4.1 billion on improvements since 2000, Dulles received an average customer rating of just 3.9 out of 10.
Cutting-edge technology is now offering a solution. Blue Eye Video is a queue management system previously used at the Al-Masjid al-Nabawi mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia, to control the vast numbers of worshippers that arrive during the Hajj. But now, the system, designed by France-born Pierre-Jean Riviere, is being used to solve the biggest problem facing Dulles today.
"Quite simply, the wait times are too long, " says Pierre-Jean. "Currently, passengers can spend over an hour standing in line at check-ins, security or immigration and can easily miss their flights due to long queues."
To solve the problem, Blue Eye taps into the existing CCTV cameras at Dulles to physically count people arriving at the terminals, predicting waiting times – and pushing travellers towards the shortest queues.
"We give the passenger information they need to manage their own time," says Pierre-Jean, "so they know if they have time to have a coffee with their friends before going to the security checkpoint, for example. Or the time they need to make their connection between flights."
There are similar passenger flow systems being tested elsewhere too. A next-generation visual queue management facility installed in Madrid’s Barajas Airport projects a six metre ‘floating’ image, displaying the status of each check-in desk – showing green if a desk is free, red if it is occupied and grey if it is closed. The system, part of Spanish airline Iberia’s Project Ágora, has been found to reduce queue times by six seconds for every passenger.
Much of the new airport technology is designed to put control back into the hands of passengers themselves. Aéroports de Paris (AdP) are already trialling self-service baggage drops, such as the new BAGXpress system, whereby passengers can scan, weigh and drop off their own bags within 17 seconds.
British Airways are also demonstrating a similar initiative using reusable digital bag tags. These small tokens, with Kindle-like e-paper displays, enable passengers to synchronise their luggage with their smartphones through a uniquely generated barcode, containing their flight details and their bag’s destination.
And Smart Security, a joint program between Iata and ACI, aims to minimise stops and searches at security checkpoints – by combining new video technology with allowing passengers to pre-register their plans.
"Security checkpoints have always been a huge bottleneck," says Iata’s Goater. "But if passengers can register a certain level of information – and research says they’re comfortable with that – they can go in a lane that will move faster."
Bob Hazel, an airport specialist at management consultants Oliver Wyman, says this represents a shift in how airports see themselves. "Apart from focusing on the basics, the best airports are focusing on making the airport experience memorable, so that passengers consider the airport a destination in itself," he says.
"The check-in process will mostly disappear, while the bag drop process will become a painless drop-and-go experience. Technology is improving the customer experience by providing faster processes, more information, and even more entertainment."
Enhancing a passenger’s experience is also about improving the logistical processes that they don’t see – from baggage handling and cargo management to hitting departure times. In 2013, for example, airports worldwide welcomed 93.6 million metric tonnes of cargo and 79.6 million aircraft movements.
To accommodate this, a new airport-wide Wireless Ground Handler Solution system is being developed and installed across multiple airoprts with the help of global information and communications technology company, Huawei Enterprise.
One airport trialling the system is Xi’an Xianyang International Airport in China which, since opening a third terminal and an additional runway in 2012, has increased capacity from approximately 24 to 33 million passengers a year.
At the core of this system is the new wireless standard Enterprise LTE (eLTE) – which uses the high data transmission rates of 4G mobile technology to move essential data quickly around airports. It means that the dispatch command – the central organisational nexus in airports – can not just ensure efficiency and safety, but also react quickly to problems and emergencies.
"For airport authorities, guaranteeing the quality of ground services and ensuring that flights are able to leave and arrive on time are important challenges that can help reduce operating costs as well as improving the experience of passengers," says Mr Shengli Li, general manager of Huawei Enterprise Wireless Broadband.
The new system has already reduced energy consumption by 20% and labour costs by 10%. And most importantly for passengers, flight punctuality was found to increase by 40%.
Current airport dispatch systems typically use a combination of telephone calls – which can be problematic on noisy airfields – and paperwork, which has to be manually transferred to the aircraft itself. If the aircraft is at the opposite end of the terminal, or luggage needs to be removed, delays can occur.
But systems such as that being used at Xi’an Xianyang could soon be standardised around the world. In 2010 the ACI announced ACRIS, or Aviation Community Recommended Information Services – a set of data protocols that coordinates all the working parts of the airport, so decisions can be made collaboratively. "It’s a question of combining all the information more efficiently," says Gittens.
"At the moment, every one only has their own piece of information – from the airlines to the air traffic control,to cargo handlers to the maintenance crews. But the technology exists to combine all this data. So throughout the whole process of landing a plane, getting the passengers off, getting the luggage off, refuelling and so on, the most efficient as possible decisions can be made because everyone is in the know."
And it’s new technology like this which, it is hoped, will once again revolutionise air travel. "Such a wide range of solutions isn’t just about coping with increasing numbers of passengers," says Iata’s Goater, "but actually improving the experience of passengers. There’s a lot of work to be done yet, but we’re really hopeful it could mean a return to the golden era of air travel."
Huawei’s eLTE broadband trunking solution is specially designed for sectors including oil & gas, public safety, rail and aviation. Using the solution, industry customers can improve their operation efficiency and deploy their networks even in harsh environments.