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Check into the Future

In the early days of commercial aviation, airports were small, modest facilities, made up of little more than an airfield and a solitary terminal. As airlines multiplied and passenger numbers soared, airports have been driven to meet new levels of customer service, streamlining the way passengers are processed and exploring new ways to entertain them while they wait. Here is a round-up of new technological and recreational developments at airports around the world.

Biometric Screening

Passengers can be asked to show their documents up to five times when traveling through an airport. In the past few years, airports have begun introducing biometric devices at checkpoints, speeding up the screening process by verifying a person’s identity with a foolproof and accurate face or fingerprint scan.

In March, British Airways launched a facial recognition system that captures a passenger’s features and allows them to board the plane without showing any documents. Currently available for some domestic flights departing Heathrow T5, the system will eventually be added to international routes. Amsterdam Schiphol and Dutch carrier KLM launched a similar trial earlier this year.

In the US, a fingerprint or iris scan will soon replace boarding passes at 22 major airports, with biometric lanes launched this year at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson, Los Angeles International, Minneapolis St Paul, New York JFK and LaGuardia.

More ambitious still is Australia’s “Seamless Traveler” initiative, which aims to automate 90 percent of screening processes at the country’s international airports with no human interaction by 2020.

Beacon Technology

This uses location detection transmitters installed around the airport to track passenger movements, sending information such as flight times and boarding gates to their phones as they move through the terminal. Airlines have started using beacons to notify passengers of flight changes and sell add-ons such as lounge access, while airports are using it through their smartphone apps to map routes for lost passengers and to target them with advertising and retail promotions.

Doha’s Hamad International has installed 700 “iBeacons” to support its app, informing passengers of their flight status, baggage claim carousel, and time and direction to gate, while alerting them to offers as they walk past shops. In 2015, Hong Kong International was one of the first to introduce beacon technology in Asia, providing interactive maps that guide passengers to check-in counters, public transport points and departure gates.

In Europe, BA and Virgin Atlantic were some of the first airlines to test beacons at Heathrow as early as 2014. It was around this same time that Amsterdam Schiphol began installing some 2,000 beacons, which, among other things, help to monitor and inform passengers of queue waiting times at security. In May, Gatwick also installed around 2,000 beacons across its North and South terminals, which support an augmented reality route-planner that can be used through a smartphone’s camera.

Robotic Assistants

Robotic customer service agents are no longer a thing of the future, with many airports using them to check in passengers and provide useful information such as local exchange rates and directions.

Last year, KLM fielded its Spencer robot, which can scan boarding passes and guide lost travelers around Schiphol. At Tokyo Haneda, JAL tested its humanoid NAO robot, which could inform passengers (in three languages) about the weather at their destination as well as gate locations and opening times, while tech giant Hitachi tested a roller-skating robot guide. Seoul Incheon is trying out 15 robots – to clean floors, handle baggage and provide directions. The airport plans for additional robots to eventually perform security checks and serve food and drink in airport lounges.

Recently Air New Zealand tested a new social robot to help passengers check in and board at Sydney Airport. The limited-time experiment was part of a collaboration with Commbank and uses the company’s Chip Candroid social humanoid robot, which the bank introduced within its Sydney Innovation Lab late last year.

But Air New Zealand is not the only airline to introduce robots at airports. Taiwanese carrier Eva Air began operating two interactive robots at Taipei’s Songshan and Taoyuan Airports in February.

Fitness Facilities

Airport innovations aren’t just restricted to passenger processing. Gym facilities are growing in demand as travelers look to make better use of their time in transit. Hamad’s Vitality Wellbeing and Fitness Center offers a 25-meter pool, a hydrotherapy tub, squash courts and a gym plus anti-jet lag massages. Chicago O’Hare has a yoga room, while Toronto Pearson has a 10,000-square-foot fitness club with gear rental. At Changi, you can swim lengths in the T1 rooftop pool.


Changi is well known for its green spaces, from the butterfly garden in T3, which contains more than 1,000 tropical butterflies from 40 species, to the water lily, cactus and orchid gardens in T1 and T2. Taking the concept a step – or many steps – further, Changi is in the middle of developing a 1.4-million-square-foot mixed-use complex called the Jewel. The $1.7 billion facility features a five-story indoor green space called Forest Valley, the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, a botanical garden, 130-room hotel, as well as hundreds of dining and shopping options.

Dubai International’s Zen Gardens in T3 are replete with tropical vegetation, fishponds and benches to relax on. At Chicago O’Hare, passengers can visit an aeroponic garden where seedlings sprout from 26 vertical towers, growing herbs and vegetables that supply the airport’s restaurants.

Capsule Hotels and Sleep Pods

Japan was first to offer the capsule hotel, giving weary office workers and thrifty travelers a place to rest their heads back in the 1980s. At Tokyo Narita’s T2, capsule hotel Nine Hours has 129 pods with beds and shower facilities charged on an hourly basis. In May, Dubai unveiled 27 sleep pods and double cabins as part of its Sleep ‘n’ Fly lounge in Terminal 3.

In 2015, Helsinki was the first European airport to introduce sleep pods, equipping them with power outlets and handy storage for carry-on luggage, while Berlin Tegel and Munich’s Napcabs offer road warriors a 43-square-foot private cabins with a bed, desk, WiFi, iPod dock and USB port, bookable for up to 12 hours.

Luggage Assistance

Short of buying a new suitcase, there’s not much you can do if your luggage handle breaks or a wheel comes loose while in transit. But that’s all changed now – Frankfurt’s Baggage Service (FGS) can repair all manner of mishaps, from snagged zippers to stuck wheels, at no extra charge. In the event of a write-off, you can buy a replacement suitcase should you need one.

Tokyo Narita’s T2 also offers help with faulty luggage, whether it is opening a locked case, lubricating sticky wheels or making spare luggage keys. Delivery service Airport will collect and transfer your bags to Heathrow, Gatwick or City from any London address, and check them in for you if you’re traveling with British Airways.

Leisure Spaces

Frankfurt has recently opened a “Movie World,” where you can watch films and TV shows. It also has a “Gaming World” with the latest arcade and computer games available to play for free.

Amsterdam Schiphol hosts regular exhibitions in partnership with the city’s Rijksmuseum, presenting works by some of the country’s foremost artists. Seoul Incheon has an ice rink, a cinema and an 18-hole golf course a five-minute shuttle ride away, while Hong Kong has an indoor golf simulator and an IMAX screen accommodating 350 people.  

By Marisa Cannon