Virtually Real

I’m always fascinated by how aviation and airports will change for the better in the distant future. In the past it seemed like real significant enhancements would be light years away, especially when existing airports in major metropolitan areas have no place to expand and often get a Band-Aid fix, rather than a full redesign to address the current and future needs of travelers. However, with such rapid advancement in global technologies today, that distant perfect future may be just around the corner.

In researching what the future may hold for travelers, I came across some amazing innovations and promising futuristic technologies that will be transforming airports in the future and the experiences of travelers during our journeys.

Bigger and (Hopefully) Better Airport Design Trends

Prominent global airport architects have already been developing airports that are virtual cities within the cities they serve. But when is it just too big to be functional for the average traveler? International design firm Kohn Pederson Fox has identified the “X” factor in their latest design for Abu Dhabi International Airport’s Midfield Terminal Complex. Shaped like an X, it boasts over seven million square feet upon completion in 2017, has an entire city planned with a civic center that has an open feel with high ceilings, a hotel, office building, art gallery, and world class shopping mall. As the largest scale project in the world today, which they believe are architecturally pleasing, but most importantly, functional and efficient.

Another renowned global design firm, Fentress Architects, is also creating what they have dubbed ‘Sky Cities,’ which have the ability to bring local flavor to the passenger experience.  These enormous airport developments offer more than the usual retail shop chains that are found in nearly every airport. These new facilities will still offer high-end shopping, but also include vaulted ceilings, open spaces, local entertainment, artwork, and unusual eateries to provide a more enjoyable and relaxing atmosphere indicative of the host city. Currently underway is the massive challenge of redesigning Los Angeles International Airport to handle the growing numbers of supersized aircraft like the A380, and the increase in passenger traffic in a way that makes spending time at an airport relaxing and comfortable. Can that really be accomplished?

Artificial Intelligence for Airport Crowd Control

A U.K. company, VenueSim, has made significant advances in artificial intelligence (AI) using sophisticated data analysis and complex algorithms that can be effectively employed anywhere large masses of people congregate or pass through, like airports, shopping malls, or bus terminals. Being able to evaluate minute-by-minute passenger flow to enable predicting passenger movements in the future would allow airports to plan for how to handle large volumes of travelers more efficiently, thus improving the passenger experience overall.

This predictive AI system, Q-Alert, uses data that is already available to the airport to accurately forecast passenger demand weeks and months in advance. By modeling and correlating available data sets, airport operational resources (staffing at the ticket counters, security, gates, etc.) can be allocated appropriately at peak times for more efficiency and a reduction in long lines and extended wait times.

Virtual Technologies: Augmented Reality

Augmented reality (AR) has the ability to blend virtual information with real-life environments and continues to be a hot mobile app trend. Copenhagen Airport is reportedly the first airport to employ augmented reality with its free iPhone app, “CHP Airport,” to assist passengers to find their way around the airport.

The iPhone’s camera “scans” the passenger’s immediate surroundings, while the application provides a real-life view on the screen showing the locations of check-in counters, restrooms, gates, stores and airline lounges, and how far away they are. It also shows reviews by other passengers for stores and restaurants. Currently the system uses the airport’s WiFi network for tracking, and in the future could display wait times at security, how long the check-in lines are, and whether there are seats left at the gate.

Airport Guides – Not Humans, but Holograms?

Instead of videos providing helpful information to passengers, or having Red Coat staff available to answer questions, several airports in the UK are testing the use of holograms of real customer service staff. At Birmingham Airport, it’s the female hologram that educates and informs passengers about security screening procedures. 

Dulles International Airport’s six-foot tall Paige is an eye-catching, helpful hologram located in the baggage claim area. Paige serves as a virtual airport assistant directing passengers on finding their bags and exiting the terminal.  

Some travellers find the holograms unusual; others say they are weird. Then there are those passengers who just want answers to simple questions, like where is the nearest restroom? Perhaps hologram technology will evolve in the near future to inform and respond to questions, much like real humans.

What’s next? Molecular Scanners for Security Screening?

Certainly this is already on the way. The Central Intelligence Agency was instrumental in the founding of In-Q-Tel, developers of the molecular scanner that possesses some amazing capabilities. A compact laser scanner, its beam can reach more than 150 feet and can detect explosives, drugs and chemicals. It’s so powerful that is can even detect what you had for breakfast that day. The manufacturer claims its molecular scanner can collect data without anyone’s knowledge for threat assessment and is ten million times faster and one million times more sensitive than any other system. Both the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration are planning to use molecular scanners as part of their technological arsenal in the future.

Brace yourselves. We may be seeing remotely based human agents through innovative telepresence technology where passengers will speak face-to-face with a human agent who is based in another state or country. Or the use of technologies such as biometrics, genetic profiling and bio-mimicry, which imitates nature’s designs, systems, and processes in human engineering. These types of advances in travel technology will certainly have a significant effect on the next generation of travellers and the design and operation of future airports globally.


# # #

Agnes Huff, PhD, has more than 25 years of experience providing specialized strategic public relations and marketing, crisis management and business consulting to a diverse group of clients in the aviation industry. In 1995, she founded Agnes Huff Communications Group (AHCG) an integrated marketing and PR consulting firm headquartered in Los Angeles. Clients include national and international airports and airlines, government entities, travel and tourism organizations, and transportation companies, among other high-profile industry clients. She welcomes feedback and will respond to comments at More information on AHCG is available at