Seven innovations in air travel
London's Gatwick airport is experimenting with iris scanning gates. (AOPTIX)
Between 5 and 7 September hundreds of representatives from airlines and airports around the world will visit Vancouver for the 2012 Future Travel Experience, an annual conference that showcases the latest technologies for making air travel easier.
Getting ahead of the event, I checked in with major airports and airlines to find out about some of the previously presented travel tech innovations that they’ve been testing this year.
Do-it-yourself boarding at gates
On 27 June, Las Vegas' McCarran Airport opened a third terminal for domestic and international flights. At all 14 of the terminal’s gates – where JetBlue is the primary airline -- there are self-boarding stations where passengers scan their boarding passes to open the automated clearance gates and board planes on their own.
Other airlines are eyeing the same technology as a replacement for gates overseen by personnel. Last year, Lufthansa installed similar gates at its three hubs in Frankfurt, Dusseldorf and Munich.
Never lose another piece of luggage
McCarran’s third terminal has also put in place a high-tech baggage-handling system, where airport workers attach a tag embedded with a radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip to each checked bag. The RFID chip broadcasts a unique signal, similar to a radio transmitter.
The RFID tags can be scanned more easily and quickly than tags with bar codes, helping crews correctly route bags and find misplaced ones. The airport has installed 55 sensors at the airport to track a bag at every stop, from conveyor belt to carousel. It is the first US airport to embrace the technology, though some non-US airports, such as in Lisbon and Milan, and airlines like Qantas, have experimented with RFID tags.
Instant upgrades while queueing for your flight
This autumn, budget carrier Easyjet will be testing "Halo" devices -- tablet computers that are connected wirelessly to the airline’s reservations system and enable the airline crew to walk among passengers in the terminal and process simple transactions without being confined to their podium’s desktop computers. These transactions could include upgrades, such as priority boarding or more legroom, and the airline is testing the technology at airports in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Basel, Edinburgh and Geneva.
Tag your own bag
This summer Alaska Airlines became the first US airline to install machines that allow passengers to tag their own bags. After a successful trial at Redmond Airport, in Oregon, the machines were put into use at the airline’s hub, Seattle-Tacoma International, in Washington.
While the machines are standard practice outside of the US, automated baggage checking is a new process for Americans. Passengers use an airport kiosk to print out a bag tag, put the tag on the luggage and then hand the bag to an agent to put on the conveyor belt. While technically giving the traveller more work, the automated procedure gives frequent fliers a chance to avoid becoming mired in queues behind inexperienced travellers while checking luggage.
Alaska Airlines plans to add the machines this year to airports in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Monterey and San Diego, California. Other airlines are also investigating the technology. American Airlines is debuting the self-tagging kiosks slowly over the next two years, with airport devices already operational in Austin, Texas, and being added to New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles.
London’s Heathrow Airport needed a security solution for its joint departure area, where passengers leaving on domestic and international flights both wait before being summoned to their gates. The airport worried that an international passenger might swap boarding passes with someone in the lounge and sneak onto a domestic flight, therefore evading an immigration check.
So starting in September, passengers at Heathrow’s terminals one and five (which cover many, but not all, international flights), will have his or her face scanned for identification upon entering and leaving the departure area.
For example, to go to a gate to catch a flight, passengers will step up to an automatic gate and wave their barcoded boarding pass over a scanner. Then, an infrared light will flash across each flier's face, taking about five seconds on average to identify a person -- even a twitchy one -- from up to 3ft away.
The machine will match the images of the passenger’s face with the images in the database, recorded when the passenger passed through an earlier set of automated gates to enter the departure area. If the identity match is successful, the automated doors will open
But facial scanning can also be used to achieve other efficiencies. If successful, airports may use facial scanners to supplement other methods of verifying a passenger’s identity, such as to detect who has permission to enter a first class lounge.
Next-generation iris scans for identification
Meanwhile, London's Gatwick Airport has been experimenting with iris scanning to solve the same problem. Its south terminal’s departure area is also a joint lounge where domestic and international passengers mix, so it has outfitted the entrances and exits to the lounge with 34 AOptix InSight VM iris recognition devices, which can record the unique patterns formed on the irises in a passenger’s eyes, which the airport stores temporarily as a form of identification. Similar to what Heathrow does with face scans, passengers must be scanned to go in and come out of the departure lounge.
Old iris scanners required passengers to stand still to work, which often caused delays and errors. AOptix claims its next-generation machines at Gatwick are much faster and can quickly scan a person at a distance, even a restless person standing up to 6ft away. It takes around eight seconds to record the pattern for both eyes on a passenger's first scan and about two seconds in subsequent scans to recognise them later.
Turn your mobile phone into a boarding pass
About 15% of Android phones, or about one million new ones sold every day on average, now contain near-field communication (NFC) chips, which can emit a short-range signal that transmits data even when a device is off. These chips turn a phone into a payment tool, similar to the cards that subway commuters use to open turnstiles in Hong Kong and London, and these chips also allow phones to be used as a replacement for a barcode-based boarding pass.
The iPhone does not yet have an NFC-enabled chip, though the next edition, being unveiled this autumn, might.
This summer Japan Airlines began installing NFC equipment at its major hubs in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Okinawa, becoming the first airline globally to enable smart phones with NFC chips to act as boarding passes for passengers flying domestically, relieving travellers of the need to fumble with an airline app or the relevant email to find the barcode currently used on mobile boarding passes. Of course, if your gate, airport or airline hasn’t yet installed NFC sensors, you’ll still need to rely on the old barcode boarding pass system.
The technology is being closely considered by other airlines, which are eager to use NFC chips to store frequent flier account numbers, which could enable the device holders to access private lounges.
Most prominently, SAS Airlines has, since March, been inviting the 50,000 members of its EuroBonus frequent flier program to use NFC-enabled readers at its gates at airports in Scandinavia for flights within the region. Frequent fliers whose phones are not yet NFC-enabled can instead receive stickers that contain the NFC chips to attach to their phones for the same benefit.
Other airports testing NFC technology include France's Toulouse-Blagnac airport and several Australian airport gates run by Qantas. Forty of the 50 largest airlines say they will experiment with NFC technology in the next two years, according to a January 2012 survey by SITA, or Societe Internationale de Telecommunications Aeronautiques.