The future at the airport involves your phone, fingers and eyes

The year is 2016, you wake on time and make your way to the airport in your battery powered car. At the UnitedDeltaContinental airlines desk you wave your phone in front of the check-in kiosk and a green light indicates that you are cleared to proceed to the security checkpoint.

At the checkpoint, an agent waves his rfid reader tag in front of the wallet in your pocket, and you stick your hand in a biometric ID reader. The agent stares at a hidden display for a few seconds and allows you to walk through the full body scanner. As you pass through the device, you think back to the days when you had to place your bags on that stupid conveyor belt, and how it always delayed getting to the gate on time.

At the gate, you connect your iPhone 5G with the gate information system, and you instantly receive a message about your upgrade request, sadly you’ll be stuck in coach again for this flight.

Boarding is delayed 20 minutes, once it begins, your phone begins to vibrate that your boarding group is allowed to get on the plane. At the gate, you stare into the airline iris scanner, and the gate attendant allows you to board.

A lot of what I just wrote sounds very much like science fiction, but the idea behind it is based upon developments being made in the world of aviation technology. Airlines and airports have long been very outdated places, and innovation meant investing in new equipment, which is something airlines hate doing.
Mobile boarding passes

The “swipe to board” mobile phone boarding pass may not be here just yet, but the foundations for this kind of technology are already in place. Our very own Grant Martin was one of the first people to post a real life review of using an iPhone instead of a paper boarding pass, and wrote about his experiences here.

The idea of using your phone as a boarding pass is nothing new, but now more and more phones are being sold with large high-resolution displays, airlines are beginning trials that will allow you a true paper-free experience. There are even some phones out there with the ability to “swipe and read”, like a system being offered on some Nokia phones called “Near Field Communications

My prediction? We’ll be seeing more airlines introduce trials of mobile phone boarding passes in 2009, and by 2011 all airlines will have the equipment in place to let you board using a bar code image on your phone display.

TSA/immigration biometric ID readers

In an ideal world (in the minds of the Department of Homeland Security), we’ll all be fingerprinted, and will have our personal information stored in a massive government database.

The first steps are already being taken at the immigration checkpoint where visitors to the country are fingerprinted. The next step beings early next year, when US Permanent Residents get fingerprinted when they return to the US.

As the fingerprint database begins to grow, it probably won’t be too long until someone floats the idea (again) of a national ID with fingerprint information.

Some airports already have government backed biometric systems in place; Amsterdam Schiphol introduced the Privium system back in 2001 and London airports have been offering passengers the ability to bypass the immigration desk with their IRIS system since 2006.

The US “INSPASS” biometric immigration system was in place as early as 1993, but was abandoned in 2002. The foundations of INSPASS are now being used for border crossings between the US and Canada in the NEXUS system.

My prediction? A nationwide US biometric database won’t happen for at least 10 more years. Privacy is something far too important to allow technology to intervene with, especially when the government has a poor track record of implementing these new projects. I do forsee larger projects by the private sector allowing travelers to pass the checkpoint faster. Clear already does biometric authentication at the airport, but only at a limited number of cities.

Security checkpoint full body scanners

The full body scanner is not new, but it is needless to say that the concept of a full body x-ray doesn’t sit too well with many people. The scanners are currently being tested at 10 different US airports, but the trial only involves offering the scanner as an alternative to a pat down in a secondary security search.

The obvious question is whether the scanner can see “everything”, and the answer is yes – the full body scanner will see all your “parts”, the TSA tries to alleviate passenger concerns by moving the screener away from the machine, hidden away in a dark room. Your face is also blurred on the display, so there is no risk of TSA agents pointing at you while giggling like little school girls.

Sadly, the truth is that the full body scanner is probably here to stay, and will eventually become the way all passengers are scanned at the airport. There is no denying that the ability to see right through you and your clothes is the most effective way to scan for weapons or other unwanted items at the airport. Whether this technology will also involve you walking through with your bags is just a matter of time.

My prediction? By 2012 we’ll have full body scanners at some of the major airports in the country, and by 2015 all airports will be scanning passengers with these devices.

Gate technology improvements

A large number of passengers at the airport already walk around with a Bluetooth enabled phone in their pocket, so when you mix that technology with tracking software, you end up with something that can tell where you are, or more importantly where you are when you should be at the gate getting on your flight.

Copenhagen airport has a system in place that uses this technology to track passengers who voluntarily participate in the program.

Imagine a world where the airport announcement doesn’t just ask Mr.Jones to proceed to gate 12, but also tells him to get the hell out of the duty free store and run, because it is a 9 minute walk from where he currently is.

My prediction? Within the next couple of years, we’ll see a true “real time” boarding announcement system that can communicate with your mobile phone. It may be as simple as an email telling you to hurry up, but I have no doubts that airlines will do everything they can to speed up the boarding process, and try to get a better idea of where passengers are when they should be at the gate.