Flying. Once upon a time, this way of travel was as luxurious as it was quick. Full-service meals, recliners, lounges, even the airports were a simple affair. The so-called golden age of air travel of the 1950s and ’60s brings with it the nostalgia of Pan-Am, gourmet meals and most of all the legroom. At least that’s what the movies would have us believe. It seems we’ve lost the art of air travel these days. A 737 these days promises crammed seats offering ever-decreasing legroom, a bag of stale pretzels for a gourmet snack and the guarantee of an unpleasant boarding and deplaning experience. All at the cost of what? Increased safety, lower cost, and many more destinations? Sure modern-day air travel is all of those, but surely we can use technology to help find a way back to comfort. At least I’d like to believe.
Flying anywhere begins with one very uncomfortable, long and unpleasant experience– the airport. Cue traffic at the departure drop off, a line for checking a bag, TSA is a nightmare and of course, the dreaded wait to board the plane. You’d be forgiven to think that a drink would make this process much more bearable until you realize that drink will set you back about $15 for just a beer. There’s one word to sum this all up– a mess. Let’s try to tidy it up, for now at least in theory.
Many of these issues can be attributed to the US airports aging infrastructure. Newer and larger airports around the world don’t face the same issues as they’ve been built to handle passenger loads in the tens of millions. Traffic at airports is certainly one of these infrastructure issues. Solving it is actually a simple fix– get rid of cars at the airport. It’s simple but not easy. LAX, one of this country’s nightmare airports, has invested in some solutions to fix the traffic. Namely, banning ride-share pickups at the terminals and instead shuttling them to an offsite location. Combine that with a people mover (construction underway) to make traffic at least bearable at Los Angeles International. To solve traffic completely, there should be no cars at all. Autonomous shuttles and people movers only! Rebuild parking and drop-off structures and use automated shuttles in constant rotation for transport. Why condense all that traffic into one small loop. Open that loop for airport expansion and have the traffic disperse to four or five locations.
Airport problems don’t stop at the door though– next is check-in. To solve this many airlines already have implemented mobile check-in and self-service kiosks to help speed along that process (and conveniently save them some money). Everyone traveling by air has encountered these and we all know there’s a problem– the kiosk. Sure, the mobile check-in can cause issues as well but it’s far more reliable than a check-in kiosk which can be hard to navigate, often breaks down and requires you to print your own tags. What if instead of a kiosk, we used the same mobile check-in to check a bag? It would allow you to pre-weigh, create a code which you show to an attendant at the conveyor who then tags it, and go. Essentially take the middleman kiosk out. Make most of the check-in mobile friendly and the rest is handled by an actual person. No need to present an ID, print a boarding pass or anything else. Scan your code, drop off the bag and off you go. Easy for all.
Now, on to the security. This one’s easy– TSA Pre-check. No, I don’t mean everyone go buy it. I mean to use that as a model for all security scans. Have a standard pre-check procedure. You submit documents and proof of identity days or weeks before your flight. You’re checked through the same pre-check system and you’re verified before you even enter the airport. At TSA, you show a similar mobile code that has your Identification and boarding pass matched already. Finish with a quick bag scan, which won’t require taking out any electronics or liquids, or taking shoes off (just like pre-check) and off you go. No bins, no taking electronics out, just a simple scan and walk-through detector. Better yet, take a note from Disney– yes, the theme parks. Much like they handle long lines with their Fast Pass system –which has guests come back at a specific time for a shorter line– TSA could have a system to manage lines similarly. Split the heaviest loads into 20-minute blocks. Voila!
Right, we’ve cut a few of the annoyances out and finally, it’s time to board. Oh, the lovely and pleasurable experience of waiting. Wait for the plane to be cleaned, for first-class, for your group to board and then wait some more on the plane itself. Is this the DMV or an airport? What if the groups were completely re-imagined? Instead of boarding in the slowest way possible, front to back, we boarded back to front? Sure, First Class will always want to board first so they can sit on the plane longer than anyone else, getting their cramps started early while sipping on an 8oz water. But after the first class and those who need extra assistance/have children boarded, net boarding would be from the back to front and outside in. All the A seats from the back to the front, then the F, and so on. You wait for your seat number to be called and board in that exact order. All accessible of course on your phone as well.
The main problem with the airport right now is that they’re not designed to process that many people at the same time. Every aspect of it is overloaded and under planned. The quickest solution is to outsource some procedures of the airport and into our phones. We have identification technology in our very pockets, we have the ability to pre-screen before our flight and we can handle checking in and checking a bag all on our phone. The majority of flyers already do some of that. Flying out of an airport may never again be the cakewalk of the past, but it certainly doesn’t have to be herding cattle. With some of these changes, we can make the airport less awful. Unfortunately, that $15 beer is a bit more than simple tech can handle. Next week– how tech can help make the flying portion better and safer.