If there’s one key issue that the industry can’t afford to ignore, it’s the ongoing growth in passenger numbers. According to the International Air Travel Association (IATA), the number of airline passengers is set to double to 8.2 billion by 2037, from 4.08 billion in 2017.

This growth is good for the industry and for global connectivity. However, it poses some serious challenges.

“In about 20 years’ time, we’ll double the passenger volumes, and we don’t believe that airport extensions will be able to cope with that demand,” says Hasse Jørgensen, a manager at IATA. “I would say that the growth in infrastructure will not develop at the same pace, and that growth will take place faster in some regions than others. So there are things happening right now that we have to take into account when we think about the future.”

Many major airports have already reached their limits and are facing capacity constraints on a daily basis – especially in countries such as China, which are forecast to see particularly rapid growth, airports will need to adapt significantly to accommodate tomorrow’s passenger numbers.

While new runways and terminal extensions will play a role, it is far from the whole story. According to the IATA, preparing for the future will entail nothing less than a reimagining of the passenger experience. It will mean ensuring that the journey through the airport is swift and seamless, eliminating the current bottlenecks.

“Imagine if a passenger was recognised throughout the journey at all touchpoints, and all relevant data had been shared among stakeholders and transferred in advance,” says Jørgensen. “Airports, airlines and governments would be prepared and the passenger would be ready to fly even before leaving home – no papers or boarding passes would be needed and no repetitive checks would be done. In essence, this is a world that we’re preparing for.”

It’s a bold vision, and Jørgensen admits that the industry has a big job to do before it becomes a reality. However, many stakeholders are already taking steps towards changing the status quo.

“I think we may see airports take a completely new approach to what an airport should be,” he says. “Obviously this will happen in steps – there will be a transformation period, there will be some intermediate solutions and then we’ll have the end-state.”

Brand-new thing

In his role at IATA, Jørgensen has worked on several industry initiatives. He has headed up the Fast Travel Working Group, which addresses the future of travel when it comes to selfservice options. He is working on the One ID project, which looks at how passengers could navigate the airport journey without multiple identity checks. There’s the New Experience Travel Technologies (NEXTT) programme, which seeks to develop new concepts for improving passage through an airport.

“Recently, IATA and the Airports Council International (ACI) jointly launched a major rethinking of the passenger journey with the NEXTT programme,” says Jørgensen. “This will define how technology and advanced processes can deliver the necessary enhancements to the entire ground journey for everything that moves through an airport.”

While these programmes cover a lot of ground, the overriding message is clear – an improved passenger experience will be to everyone’s advantage, not just to passengers who want to cut their queuing times, but to airlines and airports as well.

“NEXTT is a very good example of how major stakeholders – airports, airlines, governments and technology providers – are collaborating in finding solutions that will help overcome capacity challenges, increase security and enhance the passenger experience,” says Jørgensen. “It’s not all about technology, it’s about smart thinking, and our meetings give everyone a chance to throw good ideas into the basket.”

Implementation of tech

Of course, this is not to say that tech will not play a role. Jørgensen thinks we will soon move into an era of ‘process optimisation’, in which new technologies are used to make existing procedures more efficient.

“One of the major technologies when it comes to passenger experience is the use of biometrics,” he says. “We see biometric trials taking place everywhere, and I think it’s safe to say that the technology has really matured over the past few years. We’ve reached the point where it’s actually an off-the-shelf kind of product.”

Governments are becoming more comfortable with the idea, too, and biometric solutions such as facialrecognition technology are now an ingrained feature of many airports. According to SITA, 77% of airports and 71% of airlines are planning major developments in this field within the next five years.

“Within the One ID project and the Fast Travel Working Group, we’ve registered around 30 different biometrics trials globally,” says Jørgensen. “Everything that comes out of these trials will feed directly into our industry meetings and help us to define standards on how to implement this biometric automated passenger flow.

“We’re likely to see improvements in areas relating to baggage, or bag drops and baggage recovery. Following the IATA Resolution 753, which came into effect in June, airlines are required to track every piece of baggage throughout the duration of the journey.

“Passengers want to track their bags – they are not comfortable with the way things are now, and a lot of things are happening in this area. I think it’s going to prove to be quite beneficial for the passenger,” says Jørgensen.

On top of this, we’ll see a continuation of the trend towards self-service. IATA’s Fast Travel programme provides self-service options in six areas of the passenger journey – check-in, bags ready to go, document check, flight rebooking, self-boarding and bag recovery. This represents annual savings of $2.1 billion for the industry, not to mention improving passenger convenience and cutting queue times. By 2020 airlines and airports, are aiming to offer a full range of self-service options to more than 80% of global passengers. As of October 2018 it is at 46.34%; however, there are more than 16 major airlines already offering a complete suite of self-service options to more than 80% of their passengers.

As Jørgensen points out, initiatives of this kind don’t only make airports more efficient, they also stand to improve security.

“Automation – and self-service, for that matter – is not a threat to safety or security. It’s quite the opposite,” he says. “I believe I can speak on behalf of the IATA when saying that new technologies and automation would help improve safety and security. Random, and sometimes even inconsistent, processes could ideally become 100% and always consistent.”

Over the next few years, he thinks we’ll see further advances in personalisation and identity management. The One ID project could end up being a real game-changer for passengers – it would mean they wouldn’t have to keep presenting their passports and boarding passes at the airport.

“What we’re trying to achieve with One ID is that everything a passenger has to do can be done at home,” he says. “Let’s imagine we have a future where bag drops at airports are really just there as backup, because you drop your bag before you come to the airport. And security’s there, but they already know who will be showing up at the security point. There’ll be no need to do check-in because you’ve done that at the time of booking. And there will be border control, but maybe security and border control are one and the same.”

Made to measure

Once this new type of journey becomes the norm – free from all the usual touchpoints, and with no need to show any travel documents – the metrics we used to determine the passenger experience would need to change. If you’re not queuing up for check-in or bag-drop, queue times will become less important, and it may be necessary to rethink our service indicators.

“Right now, it’s all about time and not wasting time, but it’s going to be interesting to see what’s going to happen and how the measuring tools will change,” says Jørgensen.

He adds that, as well as the obvious benefits to the passenger, this new system would reap rewards from an operational, and even a commercial, perspective. After all, if all the stakeholders are sharing data and building up a profile of the passenger, it would be possible to achieve new levels of personalisation.

“Government authorities, service providers, airlines and airports would be able to recognise the passenger and link this to the individual profile or customer preference,” he says. “All stakeholders would do everything they could to optimise the passenger flow itself, but we’ll be able to communicate with the passenger about products and services, and send them relevant travel data throughout the journey. So we’ll have a passenger who has a much better understanding of his or her current situation.”

The upshot is a seamless, hassle-free passenger experience, coupled with new opportunities to make a sale. It’s a radically different proposition from what we have today, and means that tomorrow’s passengers – all 8.2 billion of them – would likely have a much easier time at the airport.

“With fewer, or just a few, touchpoints at airports, we may see a completely different approach to what airports should be and how they’ll be designed in the future,” says Jørgensen.