x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Distress-free travel easy if you try

The frustration of modern airline travel that includes lengthy security procedures could be soothed with sophisticated passenger profiling and high-tech methods of self-service check-in, passport scanning, re-booking, luggage tagging and boarding.

A security staff watches on as airline passengers empty the contents of their pockets and bags onto trays at a checkpoint at Reagan National Airport in Washington. Jason Reed / Reuters
A security staff watches on as airline passengers empty the contents of their pockets and bags onto trays at a checkpoint at Reagan National Airport in Washington. Jason Reed / Reuters

Imagine there's no more check-in, it's easy if you try.

No more queues of people trying just to fly.

You may say I'm a dreamer …

Well, dream no more. We have the technology to take the pain out of the strain of that airport experience and return to the fun days of the 1960s.

Readers who are of a certain age will recognise the pastiche of John Lennon's utopian maunderings. This song, however, is about reality, and we had better grasp it, because failure will cost us more than US$2 billion (Dh7.34bn) a year, not to mention the tears of frustration and rage of a predicted 11 million travellers.

"Passengers no longer enjoy air travel, especially those based in Europe and the US ," CAP Strategic Research, an aviation research and consultancy, says in a report released this year. "They regard flying as expensive, stressful, time-consuming and uncomfortable."

"Airports and airlines will need to adapt to meet these market developments," the CAP report says.

This will mean that passengers will enjoy a smoother experience, with more eating and shopping, and less queuing at immigration and security.

The fact that airports will have to change is not just down to customer care.

"Our forecast is for worldwide passenger traffic to double between now and 2029 - that is from over 5 billion today to 11 billion," Angela Gittens, the director general of the Airports Council International (ACI), told the International Civil Aviation Organization Air Transport Symposium in Montreal last month.

Expansion of airport capacity is critical to economic facilitation worldwide, Ms Gittens said. To accommodate that growth, airports need better collaboration and cooperation from air transport stakeholders in industry, government, and regulators.

With the unprecedented growth in air traffic - in the UAE alone it was up 7.6 per cent last year - the challenges that governments need to face are ensuring security and safety, while delivering a smooth and efficient journey for passengers.

And sharing information is the key.

Increasing passenger numbers bring increasing security concerns,says Thomas Marten, the vice president for government and security solutionsat the technology company SITA.

Governments and border control agencies need fast and accurate systems that will help in verifying inadmissible travellers such as those on watch lists, while meeting efficient traffic-flow objectives at borders, including rapid immigration clearance, Mr Marten says.

Cutting down those snake-like queues at check-in and at security will be the key.

In the future, information will allow the system to discriminate between the frequent flyer, who makes the same business trip three times a month and the 21-year-old who has spent the last three months in a country "of interest" to a security service and has paid cash for a one way ticket.

It allows the system to build profiles of passengers, and rate their risk so the frequent flyers and genuine tourists do not have to remove their shoes and can keep their toothpaste. They can be fast-tracked.

Of course, they will still be scanned, but it is just a walk-through, leaving security staff more time to look at the passengers whose profiles are "unfamiliar".

Everyone seems to agree on how that airport of the future should function: from technology companies such as SITA, which supply the electronics to make it possible, to the International Air Transport Association (Iata),which represents the airlines, and ACI speaking on behalf of airports.

Passengers will check in online at home or at work, or through self-check-in kiosks. This will do away with check-in desks.

E-passports and biometric-based technology will allow travellers to swipe and go, on departure and arrival.

Frequent flyers will have the option to undergo security vetting by the police, security forces or government departments to be identified as "trusted travellers" and to be issued with a biometric security pass allowing them to cut the queues.

Iata is already on the case, and a small coterie of airports and airlines, among them Abu Dhabi Airports Company (Adac) and Etihad Airways, are working to implement the fast-track systems that will improve the passengers' lot, cut costs and keep flying safe and secure.

Iata's Fast Travel programme is aimed at offering, "up to 80 per cent of all passengers a formalities-free trip by 2020, a move that will save up to US$2.1bn across the industry every year".

The programme includes:

Ÿ Check-in: passengers receive boarding passes via the Web, kiosks or mobile phones, avoiding long lines at check-in.

Ÿ Self-service facilities to free up airport space for other use.

Ÿ Bags ready to go: enables passengers to self-tag their bags, speeding up check-in and bag drop.

Ÿ Document check: passengers scan their travel documents at kiosks. The airlines and government agencies, including border control and other security services, read the data, making ID checks at check-in and gates redundant.

Ÿ Flight re-booking: enables passengers to handle the re-booking of cancelled or delayed flights and obtain new boarding passes via self-service kiosks, avoiding lines at transfer desks.

Ÿ Self-boarding: provides automated boarding for passengers, reducing queues.

This year, Iata has set a target to sign up 100 airline and airport partnerships to implement its Fast Track programme.

Etihad Airways and Abu Dhabi International Airport were among six airline-airport partnerships to join last year. The others were SAS and Copenhagen; British Airways and London Gatwick; Lufthansa and Frankfurt and Munich airports; Air New Zealand and Auckland; and Air China and Beijing.

"Under the current security environment, everyone is treated the same - as a threat. That is not efficient," says James Bennett, the chief executive of Adac. "What risk-based security does is narrow the pool of potential security threats. It makes sense to focus on the guy you're not familiar with."

The technology has been around for a while, Mr Bennett points out, but what has been lacking is the will to pull it together. Economics and common sense are now driving the change of heart.

"Security is a risk-based business," Mr Bennett says. "And that is why I believe this way of doing things will enhance security, because long queues for everyone does not enhance security.

"And because it is imperative we get smarter and more efficient. Otherwise the volumes [of passengers] will overwhelm us."

dblack@thernational.ae

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