Can going on holiday get any better? Five snapshots of the future of air travel

From walk-on flights to augmented reality guides, fly the IT skies...
Written by Nick Heath, Contributor

From walk-on flights to augmented reality guides, fly the IT skies...

While the experience of flying itself may not have changed much in decades - get on plane, sit down, get off somewhere new - airlines know IT can still give them more legroom in making air travel an easier and more enjoyable experience.

silicon.com got a glimpse of how technology could change how we fly at the recent Sita Air Transport IT Summit, where technologies were on show that aim to make catching a flight as easy as boarding a train and allow passengers to manage their journey using smartphones, tablets and social networks.

Here are five ways technology is expected to change our experience of air travel.

Flying becomes as simple as travelling by train

Imagine if catching a flight was simply a case of turning up at the airport and walking straight on to the plane.

IATA checkpoint tunnel

In a rush? Walk-through body scanners could speed up pre-flight checks in futurePhoto: IATA

It's a scenario moving closer to reality thanks to technologies like iris recognition and walk-through body scanners, which could do away with cumbersome pre-flight checks.

"The grand vision is to be able to go into the airport and walk on to the plane without stopping," Jim Peters, CTO at air transport IT supplier Sita, told silicon.com.

"It is definitely going to happen as the technologies get cheaper but we have to get participation between lots of different groups for it to work - the airlines, airports, police, immigration and customs, federal agencies and the like."

Queuing to check in luggage could also soon be a thing of the past thanks to a self-service baggage drop system devised by Sita and baggage handling system company BCS.

Passengers simply scan their boarding pass or their fingerprint and drop their bags on the system's conveyor belt, where they are automatically weighed, measured and then transported to the correct flight. The system, which is being trialled at a number of airports internationally, knows where to route each bag based on information from the boarding pass and luggage tags, which can be printed by the passenger at a kiosk or online.

The next step to the walk-through airport could come from...

...biometric systems that automatically link passengers to their boarding card by scanning both their iris and the card.

The iris recognition technology demoed at the conference allows a computer system to link a person to their boarding card in five seconds and recognise a person in two seconds – automating and cutting the time it takes to authenticate a passenger's identity.

The final, and perhaps the biggest, hurdle to walk-on flights is streamlining security checks.

However, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) may have cracked this problem with its Checkpoint of the Future, which it says will allow passengers to pass through security in a few minutes, as opposed to the 35 minutes it takes each passenger on average today.

Passengers carry their hand luggage and walk through the checkpoint tunnel, which scans their clothes, shoes and luggage to check for explosives and other forbidden items as they pass through.

Passengers take different tunnels and are screened differently depending on whether they are deemed low or high risk. An iris scan of the passenger and a scan of a chip in their passport determines each passenger's risk level, with high-risk passengers, for example, walking through a tunnel that performs a full body scan.

The US Transport Security Administration is hoping to implement IATA's checkpoint system within five years.

Your phone becomes your boarding card

Airlines have already started allowing passengers to carry digital boarding passes on their smartphones.

QR code boarding pass

Airlines are already replacing paper tickets with QR codes containing boarding informationPhoto: Air France

Among them is British Airways, which allows passengers travelling on certain routes to download a QR code boarding pass to their smartphone, which can be scanned at the airport.

However, QR codes are only the first stage for digital boarding passes, with Sita's Peters saying the next generation of digital boarding passes will be read simply by touching a phone to a reader.

These next-gen digital boarding passes will be read using near-field communications (NFC), a short-range wireless technology that is already starting to be built into mobile phones and which will be...

...in 70 per cent of smartphones by the end of the year.

In 2009, Air France tested the use of NFC technology to scan electronic boarding passes at Nice Airport.

Plan your journey with your social network

Booking a holiday could one day be taken care of by smart software that monitors social networks for members' travel plans and books everything a traveller needs for their journey.

The Malaysia Airlines MHbuddy Facebook app, developed with Sita Lab, already allows people to book flights and find out which of their friends are travelling to or staying in the same destination. Friends can share their travel itineraries and choose seats next to each other if they are travelling on the same flight.

Malaysia Airlines MHbuddy Facebook app

Malaysia Airlines' MHbuddy Facebook app aims to help people plan journeys with friendsImage: Facebook

But Sita's Peters believes it's only the beginning of social networks being used to plan and book journeys. Smart systems, integrated into the back-end systems of airlines and other travel operators, will be able to monitor social networks for our travel plans and be able to book flights, taxis and accommodation to suit those plans, the CTO predicts.

It's a shift that will be most useful when a large number of people are trying to plan a large communal event like a wedding - where the system could co-ordinate travel and accommodation bookings for everybody within a group on a social network, according to Peters.

"The big deal will be when the airlines start to integrate social media sites and friends on those sites into travelling. So say you had a family wedding and there are a number of people travelling, they can plan and share their travel itineraries and integrate that process using their social graph," he said.

The Sita Airlines IT Trends Survey 2011 found that, by the end of 2014, 80 per cent of airlines plan to use social networks to promote products and services and 76 per cent of airlines plan to use them to provide flight information and operational updates.

Using social networks to carry out CRM is also popular among airlines, with 68 per cent planning to use social networks to handle relationships with customers by the end of 2014.

You'll never get lost at an airport again

Finding your way around unfamiliar airports and making sure you get to your flight on time could be a lot easier in future thanks to indoor location tracking and augmented reality.

Augmented reality apps on smartphones allow users to...

...find out information about the world around them by pointing their phone's camera at a real-life object.

The apps superimpose digital information over the top of the camera's video feed of the real world - for example, overlaying an arrow pointing to the nearest lift.

Copenhagen Airport recently rolled out an augmented reality iPhone app that allows travellers to locate facilities in the main airport, such as nearby shops and restaurants, using the camera on their iPhone.

Copenhagen Airport augmented reality iPhone app

Copenhagen Airport's augmented reality app superimposes information over the iPhone's camera feedPhoto: Sita Lab

The Copenhagen Airport app, jointly developed by the Danish capital's airport, IT developer Novasa and Sita Lab, works out what the phone is pointing at by combining data on the person's location with information on the orientation of the handset.

The passenger's location is calculated to within five metres using wi-fi triangulation, which pinpoints the location by looking at how long it takes for a wi-fi signal to travel to the phone from multiple transmitters.

The same technology could help passengers get to their flight on time, using apps that alert passengers when to set off to the airport gate based on how far away they are.

"Airlines will now be able to see where passengers are and find out if they are inside the airport," Kevin O'Sullivan, lead engineer at Sita Lab, told silicon.com.

Mobile apps will guide you on every step of your journey

With more than 100 million smartphones sold in the first quarter of this year alone, airlines are planning to go all out to target the booming smartphone market.

Airlines are planning to offer mobile apps and services to let passengers check in, check the status of their flight and access electronic boarding passes, according to Sita's Airline IT Trends Survey.

The survey found that most of the 200 airlines surveyed, 91 per cent, are planning to provide or pilot the provision of services to passengers via mobile devices, while almost nine out of 10 airlines are selling or planning to sell tickets on mobile phones by 2014.

"These days we all travel with our own technology in the form of smartphones, iPads and laptops, and a key innovation is going to be how we [the airline industry] link our tech to the customer technology," Paul Coby, chairman of the Sita Board and former CIO of British Airways, told the summit.

Editorial standards