Airports: The best security experience is one you don’t know you’ve had

Advances in biometrics, facial recognition and scanning cameras are helping to make security invisible

“It’s about making it as seamless and easy as possible, using AI or biometric screening, so that people are hardly aware they’ve been through security”

Antoinette Nassopoulos-Erickson, Foster + Partners

Even the most frequent flyers admit that air travel can be stressful. “It’s viewed with a certain degree of glamour, but for most people it’s unsettling,” says Robert Chicas, director of aviation and transportation at HOK. ”You don’t know how long it’s going to take to get to the airport or how long it will take to go through security. You’re not sure whether you’ll be permitted to carry your bags on or whether you’ll have to check them. You don’t know if your flight is going to be on time.”

Much of this is down to heightened security measures: the biggest drag on the airport process, and the most disruptive element for how airports look and function. The first were introduced in the early 1970s in response to the threat of hijacking, but it’s since the terrorist attacks on the US in September 2001 that security has become such a dominant feature of airport operations.

There is no question of relaxing security. But we aren’t far off the next best thing: making it invisible. Advances in biometrics, facial recognition and scanning cameras that detect hidden objects will allow passengers to be identified and cleared to fly while they are walking through the terminal. And it helps that almost every passenger now carries a tracking device — otherwise known as a smartphone. Greater data collection and analysis will be used to screen people and track their progress through the terminal building and on to the plane.

70% of travellers are prepared to share their personal information for a quicker airport experience. 64% would prefer to use biometric identification

IATA 2017 Global Passenger Survey

“All of the separate processes that passengers are filtered through nowadays — check-in, immigration, security, boarding — will be much more integrated in future,” says Jelmer van der Meer, director of airport civil engineering at Netherlands Airport Consultants (NACO). “You’ll go through one process and all the others will automatically run in the background without you noticing.” Frequent flyers who are well known to airports, airlines and immigration services could have a “trusted passenger” status, so they go through an even quicker, streamlined process. “There will be a lot of focus on using data to predict human behaviour and to find out their preferences and how to cater for them.”

This is not necessarily far away, says van der Meer. “There is a lot to gain by optimizing how we use the infrastructure we already have, but it very much depends on the willingness of countries and government bodies to work together. That will always be a big bottleneck. Security services, immigration, aviation police, airlines and airports will all need to collaborate, rely on each other and share data.”

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You won’t have to worry about that suitcase either. “Uber and Lyft have revolutionized what it means to take a car service or a taxi to the airport,” says Chicas. “It’s pretty clear that there’s going to be a similar revolution in how baggage goes from point A to point B. Rather than travellers taking their bags to the airport and waiting in line, the baggage handling process will be completely streamlined.”

More and more elements of a passengers’ journey have been relocated outside the airport — it’s possible to check-in and buy duty free before you arrive at the airport, and baggage is likely to go the same way. Passengers might drop their suitcase downtown before continuing to the airport unencumbered, or it might be collected by an autonomous vehicle from their homes on the morning of their flight.

LaGuardia's terminal cure

Enhanced security has been extremely difficult for older airports to accommodate. “The evolution and unexpected consequences of today’s security protocols were simply never anticipated,” says Chicas. “Airport terminals that pre-date security either function very poorly or they’ve been replaced. The US is littered with airport terminals built in the 1950s or early 60s that have failed to adapt.” One airport of this vintage is New York’s LaGuardia, where HOK and WSP have designed the new 35-gate, 1.3 million ft2 Central Terminal B, set to more than double its capacity. The existing terminal was built in 1964 to accommodate 8 million passengers a year, but now serves 15 million. The vision is to restore LaGuardia as a “unified airport”, rebuilding outdated infrastructure, streamlining passenger flows and creating an exceptional traveller experience, says Chicas. “This is a very good example of the type of terminal that the industry needs as we move into the 21st century.”

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