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Thu 7 Dec 2017 04:32 PM

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Opinion: Preparing airports for flights of the future

With the SpaceX's bold plans to drastically reduce flight times, airports need to quickly adapt to the coming trends

Opinion: Preparing airports for flights of the future
Innovation: SpaceX is planning to use its Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) launch vehicle as a sub-orbital point-to-point transport

In September, Elon Musk revealed a proposal for one of his most ambitious projects to date – intercontinental rocket flights that will take under half an hour.

Musk explained that the BFR spacecraft developed by his company SpaceX, will be able to fly to the majority of major cities on earth in under 30 minutes and anywhere in under an hour, with the cost approximated to be equivalent to an economy flight on a passenger jet.

The reusable rockets are expected to have a maximum speed of 27,000 kph (16,777 mph), although flights within the earth’s atmosphere would travel at just over 7,000 mph, allowing flights of thousands of miles to be achieved in as little as 22 minutes.

So, is this new technology light years away, and not a concern for us at the moment? Musk believes that the technology required for these rockets will be available by 2022, so we really do need to be thinking about it now.

Airport adaption

With plans in place to lower flight times by such a drastic amount, potentially within the next five years, it is important that we begin to consider the effect this has on passenger expectation, in terms of ‘navigating’ an airport. The passenger who can travel from London to Sydney in 51 minutes, is unlikely to be content to spend the same time or more, making their way through check-in and security at either end of the journey.

In the 2016 Global Passenger Survey by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), airport users provided feedback on a range of areas covering airport facilities and operation, through to preferences on data sharing and methods of communication.

Most notably, passengers flagged a desire to see updating and improvement of operational processes, to better streamline the journey, from arrival to boarding, saving time and preventing frustration.

Key areas highlighted included management of boarding queues, issues and discrepancies around carry-on luggage, boarding gate facilities and the potential need for automation, and overall the need for “one message” – a consistent, consolidated communication from the airline and airport.

The survey results also indicate that passengers observe a range of duplicate measures, which if removed, they believe could improve customer experience and reduce processing time, without jeopardising safety and security; ensuring passengers only have to pass one security point into a secure zone without the need for further checks prior to boarding is one such example.

The main element of security that passengers hoped to see improve in the future, (mentioned by 59 percent of participants), was related to the removal of shoes, belts and jackets.

Could airports of the future be better equipped with scanning technology to remove the need for such processes?  The answer is surely yes. There is already work and development ongoing using technologies that do allow such ‘stand-off’ screening, but what is missing is the desire and focus needed to introduce such technology into airport operations.

As to communication, beyond the need for a joined-up message from airlines and airports, passengers also suggested showing wait times for border control and security, both in the airport and online, to help prepare passengers for what lies ahead, allowing them to arrive at the airport earlier if needed.  This is already in place in a very small number of airports, where the benefits are reported; what is needed is a widespread recognition of those benefits, and the adoption of the related technology.

Dealing with the numbers

It is obvious that with aircraft of the future likely to dramatically reduce flight times, those responsible for airport operations and the customer journey, must look for ways to do the same on the ground, of course without jeopardising safety and security.

This will apply to not only new airports, but also to existing sites. The growth of passenger air traffic has been resilient to shocks that negatively impacted other sectors; even the oil crisis and wars have not stopped the growth in passenger numbers.

Air traffic is expected to double in the next 15 years, with 70 percent of traffic growth up to 2035 expected to come from existing markets. The increase in load factor will put huge pressure on existing infrastructure; load factor in 1995 was around 68 percent, but by 2015 this was up to 80 percent – where will we be in 2020, a particularly relevant benchmark in the UAE?

It seems that Dubai International Airport (DXB) is already thinking ahead, announcing plans to build a high-tech tunnel in Terminal 3 (T3), which they anticipate will reduce passport control procedures to just 15 seconds.

The new tunnel, which is expected to be live by summer 2018, uses iris recognition technology, and passengers will have to first stand in front of the tunnel, before walking through for facial recognition. They can exit the tunnel in a few seconds without the need for passport stamping or any other human intervention.

It is simply not enough to focus our efforts on new technology alone, with the aim of improving detection and processing of threats. We must also put the same effort into reducing the time taken to process the passengers, in order to reduce the intervention experienced and inconvenience for, the item that is at the centre of all of this –the passenger.

Ian Todd, vice president, Professional Services and Airports at Restrata