If you spend any time at all at airports, you tend to form strange and overly developed opinions about them. When I lived in Chicago, I logged so many hours at O'Hare International Airport that the raw specificity of my preferences got outright weird. I honed my airport routine to a fine pitch—everything from the obvious, such as where to grab a Caffè Verona®, to the purely idiosyncratic, such as where to park. The latter became dicey if I were flying to a tropical locale, such as Miami. That's because my favored tactic was to toss my winter overcoat in the car and make a mad dash through the snow for the warmth of the terminal (I hate toting wool to the beach).
Airports are strange places. They are in some sense spaces that are liminal, to dredge up one of my arcane liberal arts terms from college. No one really wants to be at an airport. They go there only because they want to be somewhere else. Airlines operate out of them, but don't own them. Odd products are sold at airport shops, which cater to an odd demographic, i.e., that very special set of consumers who have an inexplicable yearning for pricey pens, perfume, booze, and electric massage gizmos — in that order.
Since I work for a travel company that is remarkably focused on peering into what travel will look like in the future, we recently commissioned a report on what the airport experience will be like a few years down the tarmac. You can take a look at it here. Such futurist gazing is a tricky, because it involves not just what could be better, given the types of technology and services available. If you asked someone from 1977 what air travel would look like in 2011, it would be difficult to predict what that person would say; but you can bet he would be certain that only cargo jets and island hoppers would still be flying slower than the speed of sound.
The report identifies a couple of critical topic areas that are wins for everyone—e.g., RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), and NFC (Near Field Communication) tool adoption and enhanced integration of existing airport systems. For the first one, there is a good example, that being "permanent" luggage tags and boarding passes, which actually are in place for domestic travel on Qantas. Sure, Walmart may have been using RFID for years, but this technology may take a wee bit longer before it becomes widely adopted by U.S. air carriers and airports. On the other hand, RFID could well be a catalyst for overhauling domestic baggage handling. I mean, let's not kid ourselves: millions of bags don't get lost each year merely because they lack RFID tags. They get lost because of outdated processes or careless employees who manage to ignore the current generation tags and the clear information on them.
As for the second part, i.e., about improving integration among existing systems, this is a natural evolution of the technology in place today. It's probably much more realistic that this will occur. The report correctly cites a history of "data territorialism" concerning passengers—which, BTW, serves no one; but it does scratch the itch of paranoia among the airlines. Tighter integration of the PSS (Passenger Service System) and DCS (Departure Control System) with other systems, like baggage and customer loyalty, can only improve and optimize the work of airline and airport staffs—which, BTW, leads to better passenger service and brand differentiation.
There are more of these topics that I might pull together; but if you're interested in the complexities of modern airports and the possibilities for the airport experience, I encourage you to look at this report (that was quite a sentence; just call me LeVar Burton). Airports are places which occupy a real niche in our lives. Airports get us where we need to go, even if sometimes we stay there longer than we'd intended. And even if a hell of a lot of overpriced designer fragrances, luxurious headphones, and other impuilse merchandise I'm not going to confess to buying gets sold there.
Road Warrior • Miami • Madrid • www.amadeus.com • Twitter: @tentofortysix