Out of time

Passing through security gates

Airports are stuck in a time warp when it comes to streamlining passenger processes. Gary Mason hears from one airport which is turning to existing technology to come up with a brand new concept.

Henry Ford, inventor of the motor car, famously said that “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Instead, of course, he decided not to ask advice but come up with a revolutionary concept – based around the internal combustion engine –  that nobody had yet thought of.

Do airports need to take the same approach to dramatically improve the passenger experience? Particularly at a time when checks and security requirements have increased exponentially making it even harder for people to pass through an airport  relatively unhindered.

Albert van Veen is CIO for IT with Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. “You do need to put passengers at the heart of what you do but to really improve the passenger experience you do not stop by simply asking passengers what they want,” he says. “You also need to think from your specialism and area of expertise how improvements can be made.”

According to van Veen airports now need to think completely differently about how they develop technology to improve the passenger experience.

“The shift started with the widespread adoption of the internet although that happened a long time ago,” he says. “Before then as an IT professional you just went to the client, asked what they wanted and put that down in a long, wordy document. You then built that requirement in a year or two years and by the time you came back to the client they would say in the time it took to build the system their requirement had changed and they now needed a different system.”

He says the lesson is not always to ask first but to build something because it is possible to do it and would make life better.

Airports have traditionally adopted a business to business approach to the use of technology but a more personalised digital offering gives them the chance to do business directly with passengers for the first time – and this offers all kinds of possibilities in terms of making airport security and checking processes much more passenger friendly and seamless.

Of course other service providers such as Google – are way ahead of the game in this respect. If a passenger has Google Now for example and books a flight and a hotel online using that search engine Google knows when he or she is travelling and sends reminders to leave the house on time and can keep them informed about traffic congestion on the way to the airport etc.

According to van Veen airports need to become a lot smarter and willing to share the same sort of update information with their passengers. “The main question if you have a transfer flight and you on board a delayed connecting flight is  – do I need to run?,” he says. “Do I need to get to the front of that plane as quickly as possible and run to get the connection? That is dependent on a lot of different factors  – walking time to the connecting gate, queues at security. These are all things that the airport in question will know the answer to but do not automatically share that information with the passenger.”

The increasing introduction of biometrics in the airport business also offers huge potential benefits to the passenger he says. Schiphol recognised the potential of the use of mobile facial recognition and fingerprint systems and set out a goal to become the best digital airport in the world.

“This makes sense both to provide a seamless passenger journey and the best use of all the assets at the airport,” he says. The Schiphol airport app is one of the widest used apps in the whole of the Netherlands  – with more than five million downloads.

But he says that the adoption of an open data philosophy is crucial to the app’s success. “For example if you have detailed maps of the airport which encourage efficient wayfinding you should share them with the airlines. You don’t share all data because of privacy and commercial concerns but you need to think cleverly about how you are going to share it.”

Adults travelling with small children are a good example of where things can be improved dramatically, he says. Passengers may have children who cannot or will not walk unassisted and the adults in the party may have their hands full with luggage and other items. But they still need to find information such as flight details. If they are travelling with small babies they may need to check in and produce a passport or multiple passports and boarding passes.

“The need to show paper certification, watch your children and multi task can be a bit of a nightmare,” he says. “Even when you get rid of your luggage and feel you can relax a little the need to constantly produce a boarding pass when entering a secure area or even shopping at duty free can be very annoying. This is good for the airport of course because it provides important passenger information but for the passenger they feel it is not a necessary check because they have already shown their boarding pass or passport at least once in the process.”

Security provides a whole additional raft of tasks including removing shoes, phone and laptops and there are a myriad of international inconsistences. “It is always a little different depending on which airport you are travelling through,” he says. “At Schiphol I can keep my shoes on when going through security but in Milan security staff look at you strangely if you don’t automatically remove your shoes.”

With all those requirements for checks and to manually show documents why are airports not using existing technology that can provide “digital disruption” to those tasks, he says. Because if you can pay with a fingerprint at an airport why can you not use the same technology to go through the security processes?.

“Or even better why can an airport not use facial recognition to check a passenger once and use that process to conduct all further checks at the airport without having to constantly produce passes and documents?,” he asks. “If you ask the passengers what they want they will never mention this but if you look at what is possible with existing technology all this can be done,” he adds For example a passport reader using Near Field Communication technology that works via a passenger’s smart phone has been developed by Google as a free app.

“It reads the chip in your passport,” says van Veen. “Passport chips have photos, fingerprints and all kinds of security information. If you download that app it is able to see the same information as the border control police do at the airport. This is very interesting because if you have a passport and smart phone and the phone can read the passport you effectively have a digital passport. Similarly if the same passenger could share the information on their boarding pass which is also on their phone, technology can automatically check whether a validated face has a passport and a boarding pass. It could then send that information to one of the border control ports that many airports already operate.”

Schiphol has tested a proof of concept technology in the laboratory to see how it would work in an airport environment. This is effectively a hands down, walk through, self service boarding pass check for passengers. The system tested in the laboratory uses a commercially available biometric gate or b-gate. The gate communicates with a passenger’s smart phone via a Bluetooth connection but it also uses a facial recognition search engine to verify the passenger.  The idea is that a passenger would sign up and “home enroll” themselves before travelling so the airport systems would already have their biometric information stored in their system when the passenger arrives on the day of travel.

“What is really remarkable about this prototype is that a lot of specialists worked together to produce the self opening gates,” an airport spokesman said. The prototype remains in an innovation laboratory setting currently but it is hoped it can be tested in real time at the airport in a few months time.

“What we are really aiming for is a paperless airport,” says van Veen, “in which passengers would not require any documents at all. They need simply to turn up at the airport and show their face in order to carry out all the different checks that are required.”

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