How Technology Changes Airport Operations

April 18, 2023
Tim Hudson, Global Aviation Practice Leader, Gensler
Tim Hudson, Global Aviation Practice Leader, Gensler

Technology plays a crucial role in how airports operate today. Passenger amenities have evolved substantially in the past decade with the advent of mobile devices coupled with airports and airlines finding new ways streamline operations to overcome additional security and manpower issues.  

The post-pandemic world is supercharging these efforts as concepts slowly creeping into airports as nice-to-have tools become need-to-have tools to meet demands in this new era of aviation. Gensler’s Global Aviation Practice Leader Tim Hudson is at the forefront of many of these changes and designing new ways for travelers to move and interact with airports. He shares some of these insights and how some North American airports are laying the groundwork for fundamental change now.

Airport Business: Now that we’re past the pandemic, what does this new era of technology in the terminal look like?

Tim Hudson: The pandemic set into play a lot of things that we had thought about, but weren't really pushing forward aggressively enough, such as technology tailored to the passenger journey. There's the difference between contactless versus touchless. We're still working on touchless, but contactless is one of the big things we've pushed ahead. We're doing a program at Newark called the eGate, which is a contactless process. The passenger comes up to the beginning of a checkpoint and with their cell phone and scans the boarding pass again without touching something. Once that boarding pass has been screened and identifies that you are who you are, then you can go through the checkpoint, you can go onto your gate, and you're not having to produce any more documentation.

The next permeation of that will be biometrics, which will be similar to what they're doing in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport right now. Coming out of the pandemic helped push that technology ahead faster. Now it’s what people want. They want technology. They want speed.

AB: How prepared are we to handle this sudden change in North America?

HUDSON: The technology is readily available. We're working on a program right now in Newark where the next evolution of the eGate becomes biometric. Sharing the data has always been the hurdle. I was at a conference pre-pandemic and someone from Google had an interesting perspective on this. I can give you an indoor map of the terminal you’re going to be in, I can tell you where your gate is, I can tell you where your favorite concessions are, I can tell you where the restrooms are and I can tell you where the fastest checkpoint is, but in order for me to give you what you want, you have to give me access to your personal data, which you don’t want to do.  

AB: Privacy continues to be a concern with biometrics. But coming out of the pandemic, people are a little more comfortable with sharing that information. Did COVID force this change or are we seeing an evolution as a society?

TH: I think it’s an evolution of society. It takes time to get us to change the norm and people are starting to see the benefits. Look at Clear versus Pre-Check for example. Clear works off of biometrics and more and more people are getting it. Some of that is attributed to air carriers or credit cards that will reimburse you for an annual Clear membership. More people are enrolling in and now see the advantage of giving a fingerprint or retinal scan, having it reconciled against your boarding pass and then you’re done.

AB: How has the technology aspect of the Terminal 3 project at LAX shifted seeing as it started pre-pandemic and has started to open post-pandemic?  

TH: It’s a pretty substantial project taking Terminal 2 and Terminal 3 and combining them into one big facility for Delta. The pandemic put a different perspective on technology and what passengers are looking for. It also presented opportunities to deploy different technologies to make the experience better for the passenger. We’ve seen that elsewhere like the FIS project at San Diego. We were working with technology that was pretty typical from what you’d see in today to process boarding passes and passports and they changed to all biometrics midstream to speed things up.  

We took advantage of some of those same opportunities in the Terminal 3 project using technology to tailor the passenger journey. We tried to offer more curated experiences in their premium lounge and to make things more customized for passengers to make it easier to go through the terminal, order concessions off your phone ahead of time and create a better passenger experience.  

AB: When it comes to tailoring these experiences in an airport, are you designing with just the business traveler in mind or is there credence given to infrequent flyers?

TH: It’s all-encompassing. And because of the pandemic, we saw business travel drop off and it’s slowly coming back. That and a generational perspective pushes technology to the forefront. How do you have that curated journey with what you can control with technology? It really starts at your house all the way to the gate. I actually did that during the Thanksgiving holiday when I reserved a parking space in the parking garage at DFW. I didn’t have to worry about the stress of driving around trying to find a sport because I had one in advance. I knew which checkpoints had wait times of 10 minutes or less and I knew where the concessions were relative to my gate.

One of the best statements I’ve heard is that the journey starts at your home, so how can you engage with your passengers all the way back at their house? That takes the technology piece. People want to be on their phones, they want to check in and make a reservation on a computer and they don’t necessarily want to talk to people anymore. So it’s up to the airports and the airlines to creatively reach out to these people with different offerings once they get to the airport.

AB: How is passenger behavior changing with technology implementation like the eGate?

TH: It’s definitely a change. Go back to self-tagging when they had three pilots going in the U.S. and the utter shock people when through about how it works. Now people prefer to do it. It’s faster and you have more control because you’re doing it yourself. This is happening in the terminal as a whole. As an airport designer, I love walking through airports and just observing.

Hudson put in a concession at Dallas Love Field called On the Fly. You go through a gate, you grab the stuff off the shelf that you want and you use your phone to pay. You don’t touch anything but the products and you don’t transact with anybody. When it first opened up, they had people from Hudson there trying to convince people to come use it. Now there isn’t anyone there because people like it, so they go there to get their concessions. We’re seeing behaviors change and people are embracing technology. Once people do it, they tend to gravitate back because it was easy.      

AB: Biometrics and tailoring the passenger journey has airports at the precipice of an exciting new future. A lot of terminals will get updated in the next decade thanks in part to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. How can airports think about future-proofing designs to meet this new generation of technology?

TH: That’s the age-old question. Technology changes faster than most elements in a building. We do research-based design solutions, not just read the newspaper about trends coming. We research it, we understand the trends that are coming, we talk to our clients, we interview passengers and get a handle on what people are expecting.

A great example is sense of space. We’re working on JFK Terminal 1 right now and it’s got a substantial concessions program and the approach is going to be a New York City neighborhood. You’re trying to make passengers feel a sense of place and that they’ve never really left even though they’re about to get on a plane. You’re still in New York and you’re sampling foods you’re more apt to see in New York.

We’re working with other airports now doing the same thing and some lounge designers we’ve worked with have gotten into authenticating the club experience. If I’m in San Francisco, I’m going to expose the structure and I’m going to paint it the exact same pantone orange as the Golden Gate Bridge and put up a historical placard. People know that’s the Golden Gate Bridge and they know where they’re at with menu offerings tailored to that specific environment so people can get a taste of Fisherman’s Wharf before they leave.

It’s also all about openness and how do we bring the outside in? We’re finding ways to take roofs and capture space and make it useable for passengers now. That all went away with 9/11 and the additional security requirements, but now we’re finding ways to bring it back. Airlines are pushing for outdoor lounges. People want to get outside. They don’t want to feel cooped up in a building. They want to have a place to take their dogs out to a pet relief area that’s not a 10x10 room. And parents want to take their kids outside.  

We’re working on Terminal 5 in Fort Lauderdale, which as a substantial park at the front door. It’s not just about the passenger, but the non-traveling person who we’re also trying to engage with. We want people to go to the airport, stay at the airport and enjoy it. 

About the Author

Joe Petrie | Editor & Chief

Joe Petrie is the Editorial Director for the Endeavor Aviation Group.

Joe has spent the past 15 years writing about the most cutting-edge topics related to transportation and policy in a variety of sectors with an emphasis on transportation issues for the past 10 years.

Contact: Joe Petrie

Editor & Chief | Airport Business

[email protected]


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