Can we automate the airport experience?

The whole flying experience is evolving, and there is a thin line between security and convenience. Passengers want to feel safe and secure but, at the same time, prefer a simplified process when checking-in, passing security and boarding the plane.
By Paul Everett, Research Director, Access Control, Fire & Security, IMS Research May 27, 2011

IMS research: excellence in market intelligneceOn a recent business trip to Europe, I found myself delayed at yet another airport. Facing a delay of 2-3 hours, I took the time to explore the airport and was able to admire the raft of new security technologies and automated processes. The whole flying experience is evolving, and there is a thin line between security and convenience. Passengers want to feel safe and secure but, at the same time, prefer a simplified process when checking-in, passing security and boarding the plane.

When checking-in, the number of automated self-check-in kiosks have grown considerably. As a passenger, I can now print out my boarding pass or download it to my smart phone and make my way to the boarding gate, avoiding the long lines, stress and inconvenience at the check-in counters. Security is not compromised as checks can still take place, but this part of my flying experience has undoubtedly improved. Making my way to the security checkpoint in record time and with a relaxed smile on my face, the long line that greeted me at the checkpoint illustrates that there is still more to be done in streamlining this part of the travel experience. Flying first class would speed up my transition through security but let’s be honest, this only happens on rare occasions.

Passing through security, I place my bags and shoes in a bin to be scanned for explosives, and then proceed through the metal detector hoping it does not sound and I’m led off for a pat down or to an advanced imaging technology (AIT) machine where TSA agents can make sure I am not concealing anything under my clothing. It’s at this point, I dream of that full body metal detector in the 1990’s Schwarzenegger classic Total Recall and how it would solve all of these problems. Unfortunately, the reality is somewhat different and unlikely to change following the events of 9/11 that have changed the world for good.

So the question is where next will the airports automate? For international travel, the gate area has, in some cases, become a place to check and validate documents such as passports and visas, a screening point to ensure bags do not contain banned items and a place to check on the size and number of hand-baggage pieces passengers attempt to take on board. Providing automated boarding gates for passengers, like in a train or metro station, can reduce boarding lines. Passengers can benefit through speed, convenience and control, airlines through simplified processes, reduced costs and increased customer service and the airports through improved use of existing infrastructure. Border control on the other hand, requires visual identification checks by immigration staff and is therefore one of the most sensitive and time-consuming aspects of passenger processing. Automated Border Control (ABC) is a next generation technology which will make it possible to speed-up passenger border controls, and to lighten the workload of border police. However, the biggest hurdle will be in convincing those responsible that the security to their national borders can be safely entrusted to technology.