Airport of Tomorrow

In Germany, engineering giant Siemens tests features designed to make air travel less awful.

If Willy Wonka had gone into airport logistics instead of candy making, he’d work at Siemens Airport Center in Fürth, Germany. Siemens doesn’t have an airport-technology business, per se: The facility showcases innovations from different parts of the company. Its luggage-routing system is already catching on. Which of its ideas will transform your airport experience?

  1. Check-in
    Your iPhone (or any mobile device) could be your boarding pass. Download your ticket’s bar code to your phone, and you wouldn’t even have to go to a kiosk. This is just one of the mobile amenities that Siemens has developed: Change your seat assignment on the way to the airport, reschedule a flight to make a business meeting, even switch departing airports. Does it work? In the lab, yes. Is it likely? In the United States, the TSA still requires a piece of paper before you can go through security, and airlines would have to purchase special scanners to read your phone’s screen, akin to those found at grocery checkouts. (Alternatively, you could print out your boarding pass from your phone.) Expect to see it internationally first: Lufthansa, KLM, and SAS are all sniffing it out.

  2. Parking
    Tired of driving around and around, looking for an open space in the garage? At the Munich airport, not only do the garages have a designer look, the more than 15,000 spaces are tied into a central database, and ultrasound sensors detect free and used spaces. As you enter, LED screens direct you along the shortest route to an open spot. Airports in Helsinki, Kuala Lumpur, Oslo, Singapore, and Shanghai have also installed this system or are planning to. But because it’s an expensive luxury–Munich’s parking garages cost $153 per spot to upgrade–don’t expect to see it everywhere.

  3. Luggage
    No matter how quickly you’re moving through a labyrinthine terminal to make a connecting flight, your luggage can move faster and smarter. At the Siemens facility, a set of decentralized software brains and hundreds of routers and switches along more than 1.2 miles of moving track guide RFID-enabled trays that hold bags. Luggage whizzes by at up to 30 feet per second, automatically screened for explosives on its way. Siemens already has more than $500 million in contracts to install the system at airports in Beijing, Detroit, Dubai, Los Angeles, Madrid, and Seoul.

  4. Biometrics
    Fingerprint-based IDs, 3-D face digitization, and iris scans are just three of the ways Siemens (among others) is developing recognition and security systems based on unique physical attributes. At its Airport Center, Siemens is testing a setup that transfers fingerprint information to 2-D bar codes on a boarding pass; that pass then gets scanned at the gate. This entire concept makes civil libertarians queasy–and not just stateside. Germany has strict laws about this kind of information gathering and sharing (a legacy of its police-state past). Even so, Siemens expects the technology to be commonplace sooner rather than later.