Five Realities Shaping The Future Of Airports | Hyperloop One
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Five Realities Shaping The Future Of Airports

Leslie Horwitz
Strategic Communications, Virgin Hyperloop One

Airports today are in the midst of a functional, architectural, and cultural evolution, in response to the changing needs of populations and cities around the world. In order to thrive in the twenty-first century, airports must adapt to the following realities: innovate on the non-aeronautical side of the ledger, rethink cars and bags, tackle security bottlenecks through biometric solutions, face capacity restraints through connectivity or expansion, and integrate airports as urban resources.

This past November, we joined architects, public space advocates, designers, artists, engineers, planners, academic, and manufacturers to discuss these cross-sector solutions at the Aerial Futures Symposium in Downtown Los Angeles. Our talk at the symposium focused on the potential for Hyperloop One systems to connect two or more airports in minutes to alleviate congestion and improve passenger experience. Read more about this concept here.

Personalized experiences to boost revenue

Airports already generate as much of their revenue from passengers as they do from airlines. That split will tilt even more toward the non-aeronautical side of the ledger in the coming years. Landing fees, typically set by regulators, have been stagnant for the last two decades despite the growth in travel. That is putting pressure on airports to sell more perfume and Toblerone bars or, better yet, rethink everything they do with regards to passenger experience.

Airports have been heeding the call. At the Hong Kong International Airport there’s an an Imax 3-D/2D in Terminal 2 — the largest in Hong Kong — with seats for 350 people. At Incheon International Airport you can find a movie theater, an ice-skating rink, an array of gardens, napping areas, a driving range and golf course and a dry cleaner. Luminescent, live jellyfish float and glide hypnotically at Vancouver’s airport, as part of a massive aquarium collection, and others have public art, movie theaters, yoga studios, even rooftop pools, to make airports more fun and less of a slog. The ultimate goal is that passengers linger longer, and buy more stuff. “The number of passengers that flow through airports really rivals any other mechanism out there that can congregate that many customers in one place,” says Ken Buchanan, executive vice president of revenue management for Dallas-Fort Worth International, in a recent Bloomberg piece. “It’s like having a Super Bowl worth of people every single day.”

At Singapore’s Changi Airport, travellers can watch planes taking off from a  rooftop swimming pool and Jacuzzi. Image: Alamy
At Singapore’s Changi Airport, travelers can watch planes taking off from a rooftop swimming pool and Jacuzzi. Image: Alamy

Rethinking cars and bags

Parking, which has been a reliable revenue stream especially in North America, is under threat as the rise of Uber and Lyft hurt parking revenue. Parking makes up 40% of non-aeronautical revenue in North America compared to 20% at European airports. To compensate, many airports are charging transportation network companies a fee to pick up passengers, to make up for potential revenue loss and to prevent an unfair advantage. Some also charge for drop-offs, an annual permit fee or a one-time operating fee.

Jackie Coburn from ARUP highlighted another idea in her talk at Aerial Futures: to disaggregate parking, security, and bag-check completely from the airport. In this model, security and bag check functions would occur in the city center, and then passengers could travel via a secure transportation network to a more bare-bones airfield site. This approach could be enabled by the adoption of biometric technologies and secure bag services -- including self-bag-drops, remote bag drops, and bag tracking service.

One of the first successful bag drop models started in New Zealand. New Zealand is a small country and other than international flights, Air New Zealand runs very short domestic flights running 1-2 hours. It was taking their passengers more time to get to and from the airport than it took for them to take their domestic flight, and the operator was losing market share as passengers chose to make the drive instead. In 2015, their new self-service bag drop allowed customers to scan their passports and boarding passes, have their identities verified by a biometric camera, and then weigh and offload their luggage -- reducing the time spent in the terminal.

Some airports have remote bag drops, which serve passengers taking public transportation. Passengers going to Zurich and Geneva airport can now check and claim their baggage at more than 50 Swiss railway stations. Bags can be checked more conveniently at these off-site locations up to 24 hours in advance of departure. Airlines are also looking to ease uncertainty, post bag drop. For example, Delta Airlines and United both have bag-tracking apps. One reason is to make it more enticing for passengers to entrust their belongings, and clear up room in the overhead compartments. Overhead bags are such a headache for airlines that Teague, in their ultimate concept airline, even eliminates most carry-on luggage in favor of smaller “fedora” bins.

A biometric fix to the security bottleneck

Biometrics are coming, meaning no security lines for passengers, and hopefully longer shopping periods for airport retailers. Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection is proposing to do away with passports or even interaction with border officials by using facial, iris and fingerprint recognition instead. The government's Seamless Traveller initiative wants to be able process 90% of travelers with no human involvement by 2020. Airlines are also experimenting. JetBlue has been testing facial recognition equipment in Boston to match travelers with their passports and visa photos, and Delta is trying out fingerprints as a potential future replacement for boarding passes and ID.

Dubai International Airport, on track to host some 124 million people by 2020, is installing a tunnel outfitted with 80 facial recognition and iris scanning cameras. The tunnel's walls can display images of aquariums and deserts - or even advertisements. Passengers would walk through the tunnel, gazing around at the fish or landscape while scanning devices capture a quality image of their face, eyes and gait. By the end of the tunnel, the database would know to notify the passenger to have a nice journey or to alert officials to take another look.

Dubai airport security tunnel. Satish Kumar for The National
Dubai airport security tunnel. Image: Satish Kumar for The National

Capacity is the elephant in the room

Airports are running out of room to grow. The number of global passenger trips is expected to double from four to eight billion between now and 2036. Around the world, many of the busiest hubs are unable to meet this growth. All of London's major airports will be full by 2030. India's airports will exceed capacity by 2022. The US needs more than $75 billion in new runways, terminals, and other facilities to meet projected demand through the early 2020s. And Asia’s main hubs are already at capacity, despite being among the largest in the world. Solutions are never easy. Airports can expand runways, the way Heathrow is proposing, but new runways can cost close to $20 billion each. Even if money was no object, there are a number of concerns. In London, for example, local MPs are uniting against the third runway, citing noise and air quality concerns.

At the same time, there are many airports around the world that are underserved. In some places like India, regional connector flights are being subsidized by the government to stimulate economic growth. We’ve spoken with governments around the world about this issue and are exploring how a hyperloop connector could help airports expand capacity by connecting regional airports into one airport hub.

The Noise Landscape: A Spatial Exploration of Airports and Cities, by Benedikt Boucsein
The Noise Landscape: A Spatial Exploration of Airports and Cities, by Benedikt Boucsein

Airports integrated as urban resources, not city appendages

The airport is many travelers’ first interface to the city. “Smart cities recognize that airports are their calling card: it’s the very first and last impression that visitors have of your town, and also of your country” notes Max Hirsh, also a contributor at Aerial Futures, in our recent Q&A. In his keynote at Aerial Futures, Benjamin H. Bratton, Professor of Visual Arts at the University of California, San Diego, drew a parallel between the organization of airports and the nature of leisure and policing zones within cities. “The airport discloses without fanfare, that cities are airports, airports are not simulations of cities, rather cities are simulations of airports. It is where police deep scan your person, while blending you a delicious smoothie of your choosing.”

While there was a call for airports to assume a role of the “commons,” of localized, connected, adaptable, public spaces for entertainment or even civic action, Curtis Fentress, Principal Airport Terminal Designer at Fentress Architects, noted the commercial and organizational reality of these spaces. “Those spaces inside the building [in the airport, past security]...those are all driven by economy, what people will pay for, and how it’s paid for is one of the issues in terms of it developing as public space and in a natural way.”

The future of airports is constantly evolving, morphed by sometimes harmonious and sometimes contradictory objectives: better wayfinding and aesthetics for passengers, faster and more secure flows for security agencies, more profitable and efficient operations for airlines, and greater revenue for airport authorities. As airports and air travel develop, the dynamic conversation among industry stakeholders and the collaborative innovations already underway makes us ever more confident in our aerial future.