Going Mobile: Travel's Eventual High-Tech Future
Welcome to the airport terminal of the future.
There are self-service bag drops but no check-in desks. Your passage is seamless, punctuated behind the scenes only by discrete Near Field Communication (NFC) sensors.
Occasionally you stop to scan your NFC-enabled smartphone at a touch point. Your biometric information, picked up by automated surveillance cameras, will ensure there's no need to queue up to see whether you pose a security threat.
This is where travel needs to be, say technologists who also insist that their wizardry, if employed universally, could solder together the jagged edges of the industry.
It may sound far-fetched, but automated systems that talk to handheld devices are in the trial stage: In Australia, Qantas has rolled out frequent flyer cards with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to streamline the luggage-tagging process; Japan Airlines (JAL) is deploying NFC-based mobile boarding passes later this year for domestic flights.
"Technology is joining the dots by giving passengers the opportunity to 'automate' their way through the airport touch points," says Renaud Irminger, a director at air transport communications and IT solutions provider SITA.
But a report from global IT group Amadeus on how airlines, airports, ground transportation firms and hotels can be more collaborative, argues that there is no focus on the interfaces where travellers feel the pain.
Andrew Curry, a director of The Futures Company who helped research the Amadeus report, told Reuters that if nobody leads on this, nothing could happen for five or 10 years.
Recent SITA surveys have reported that of the top 50 airlines almost 80 percent are planning to deploy NFC technology by 2014, but only 27 percent of airports expect to implement the technology by then.
This could be because they are unsure if the investment is worthwhile. For mobile solutions to work internationally for example, agreement across multiple jurisdictions would need to overcome a jungle of data privacy and security regulations.
"If only 10 percent of customers use new technology, all the old systems must remain, meaning you've simply added another layer of complexity, not greater simplicity," said Peter Morris, chief economist at aviation consultancy Ascend.
SITA projects 80 percent of travellers will use mobile check-in by 2018. Forced to bear the brunt of check-in responsibility, it is far from certain whether passengers will benefit from these airports of the future.
"We remain to be convinced about customer reaction, which should be measured by proper impartial surveys rather than simple assertions by self-interested purveyors of technology," Morris told Reuters.
Paul Behan, head of passenger experience at the International Air Transport Association (IATA), said a focus on mobile boarding neglects other aspects of traveller stress.
"The boarding process itself is not necessarily a major hassle for passengers; rather any frustration seems to come from the issue of trying to find all-important luggage space in the overhead bins."
The benefits of new technology are certainly being enjoyed by the aviation industry. IATA's "Simplifying the Business" programme is, it has said, saving around $5.5 billion a year from the switch to e-ticketing, bar-coded boarding passes and self-service kiosks.
An ongoing baggage programme replacing manual luggage systems will save an estimated $1.9 billion per year.