Aircraft Boarding Challenges Bring Innovative Designs

Boarding commercial aircraft, from a traveler’s point of view, is all about getting to our seats, stowing gear and getting underway. We hope to have overhead bin space available, a reasonably comfortable seat and an on-time departure. Airlines are right there with us on the getting to our seats part and getting underway; they could not agree more. It’s a major issue so aircraft designers devote a lot of time and resources to making the whole process efficient.

Airlines want the boarding process to go as fast as it can for a couple big reasons. They want to stay on time, sure. But the less time they spend boarding passengers, the more flights they can fit in a day. As airlines cut back on the number of flights, choosing to insure full, profitable planes, they are constantly looking for ways to increase that efficiency.

One way might be slider seats that promise quicker boarding.Using the new Molon Labe Designs approach during boarding, the aisle seat slides on top of the middle seat, creating a 43-inch wide aisle. That gives boarding passengers much more room to navigate, stow gear and be seated. When boarding on each row is completed, the aisle seat then slides back into position.

The manufacturer promises they can cut loading time in half, adding up to 120 minutes flying time every day. Good news for airlines that could fly the same number of passengers with up to 15 percent fewer aircraft. But what about passengers?

“I’m not going to tell you it’s a comfortable seat,” Hank Scott, founder of the company said in a LA Times article. “It’s a quick, turn-around seat.” A prototype is due in November and the company has presented the idea to Boeing and Airbus.

Like it or not, aircraft seating is a huge topic to designers. The amount of time it takes to board passengers is on the table for discussion. To those with mobility issues, its also about the indignity and discrimination they face boarding aircraft.

Air Access is a concept designed by Priestmangoode that speeds up the boarding process for passengers with reduced mobility by enabling an easier transition from gate to aircraft. Air Access is a detachable wheelchair the passenger gets in at the departure gate or on the jet way. After seating, the passenger is wheeled onto the plane where the chair slides sideways and locks into the fixed-frame aisle seat without the passenger needing to get up.

On arrival, ground staff unlocks the seat, slide it out into the aisle and wheel the passenger to the jet way or arrival gate as we see in this video:

[Flickr photo by Slices of Life]

Could you handle a gate agent’s job?

Running a travel blog and working with twenty wonderful writers, thousands of media and industry contacts and maintaining a dozen side projects keeps my stress level remarkably high, but I could never handle what an airline gate agent goes through.

Airfarewatchdog‘s Ramsey Qubein spent a day working as a Delta gate agent recently, and his experience was as dramatic as I had expected. In one day, he experienced the full spectrum of travelers, from crazy, angry and delayed passengers to the nicest people in the world. Among the experiences that he collected in one single day were passengers who handed him boarding passes with their teeth, decrypting the archaic booking system and angry flight attendants offloading from Detroit. You can read about them all over at Yahoo news.

Needless to say, I now have further respect for a vocation that I already thought was pretty darn dramatic. I’m amazed that anyone can handle that job every day without developing an ulcer.

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.