What might the airport of the future look like?

The process of going through an airport hasn’t changed much with the advent of new technology (it’s obviously changed a good deal since 9/11, but that’s a different story). If you’re flying VIP, there might be a couple of interesting/different things you can do in terms of check-in and swiping things, but for an average passenger, it’s the same ol’ process it’s been for a while — with the possible exception of the Internet making it easier to check in in advance. Periodically, you’ll see interesting things — for example, at Terminal 5 in JFK in New York (I’ve written the word “in” four times in 2 lines, which is probably a failure of the English language), there are touch-screens where you can order food and drink as you wait for your flight. That could be part of the bigger trend of tablets trying to save the world, though.

The good news here is — there are people thinking about the airport of the future and what it might be like, and how to integrate it with technology and phones/tablets for a more personalized experience. Obviously, the primary concern is safety and who can access/hack what. But in 2011, 5 billion people passed through airports — and there’s a little over 7 billion on the planet. That’s a fairly high percentage of the world going through a type of space, so the process needs to be reinvented a little bit. The Incheon Airport in Korea is starting to do this with the architecture firm Gensler — a stage for live performances, community gardens, etc. — and the Munich Airport has a beer garden and an Audi showroom on site. There’s a swimming pool (closed until late February) at an airport in Singapore.

The overall hope is that, in the future, airports might be fun to be in — and not angst-ridden.

On the security side, there’s a Palo Alto-based company called Qylur that’s trying to make the security check process be self-service. Here’s the basic idea:

The machines, which are made of a series of honeycombed cells surrounding a sensor, automatically check for dangerous-looking items and sniff for chemicals and nuclear material. A person puts a bag into one side of the machine, scans a ticket or a boarding pass, and closes the door. The machine then scans the contents and compares their characteristics to those of every item it has ever scanned. The point is not simply match a knife in a carry-on to a knife in a database, but to understand what a knife is. As it scans bags, it stacks up more knowledge about such shapes, improving its decision-making over time, says Lisa Dolev, the company’s founder and chief executive.

CNN did an entire feature in early December on the airport of the future and referenced a couple of already-in-existence factors: for example, in London, the trek from parked car to terminal (which usually requires waiting for a bus, or multiple buses) has been replaced by “Urban Light Transport” pods. These run on “off-the-shelf” products to keep costs down — but it’s still into the millions to operate these things, and it depends on space and infrastructure in terms of whether other city airports could follow suit. CNN also mentions iris scanning technology as a possibility at some airports by 2017, as well as sync up between your smartphone and baggage drop. There’s actually an entire magazine dedicated to the idea of airports in the future, as a side note. There’s also a contest/discussion from Fentress Architects, although it hasn’t been updated in a little bit.

I think one interesting thing here is the difference in regional attitudes — it seems across all these links and ideas that European and Asian markets care more about making the airport an experience, or at least better-integrating them with technology. The North American attitude seems to be more about getting to the airport, trudging through, and getting on the flight, then doing the same again a few days later. I wonder if that reflects broader ideas about what it means to interact with responsibility and process.

Ted Bauer