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Face scanners, robot cleaners to make flying a breeze

Passengers’ baggage is collected by robots, while the owners relax in a waiting area complete with an indoor garden before getting a face scan and passing swiftly through security and immigration. This could be the airport of the future.

It’s a vision that planners hope will become reality as new technology is rolled out, transforming the exhausting experience of getting stuck in lengthy queues in ageing, overcrowded terminals into something far more pleasant.

The Asia-Pacific region has been leading the way but faces fierce competition from the Middle East as major hubs compete to attract the growing number of long-haul travellers who can choose how to route their journey. The regions “are the two leading pockets of technology growth because they are really competing to be the global hubs for air transportation”, said Seth Young, director of the Centre for Aviation Studies at Ohio State University in the United States.

But the changes also represent challenges that could upend decades-old business models at major airports, with analysts warning that operators may face a hit to their revenues to the tune of billions of dollars.

Facial scanning is generating a lot of buzz. Changi, in the city-state of Singapore, regarded as among the world’s best airports, is to roll out this biometric technology at a new terminal to open later this year.

Passengers will have their faces scanned when they first check in and at subsequent stages, theoretically allowing them to go through the whole boarding process quickly, without encountering another human being, other than passengers.

Australia announced in July an investment of Aus$22.5-million (R230-million) to introduce face recognition technology at the country’s international airports, and Dubai Airport is also trialling it.

Robots are appearing at some major hubs, including at Seoul’s Incheon Airport, where they carry out tasks such as cleaning and carrying luggage. Changi’s new terminal will have robotic cleaners complete with butlers’ uniforms.

Self-service check-in and printing of boarding passes is already common, with many people printing their passes at home or at airport kiosks, or downloading them to their smartphones, and some hubs are now introducing self-service baggage drop points.

The service, which allows passengers to print and tag their baggage and then send it off on the conveyor belt, is available at airports including the Australian hubs, Hong Kong, London’s Heathrow and Amsterdam’s Schiphol.

Airports are also trying to overhaul their image as dreary places that must be endured to get from A to B into somewhere travellers can enjoy spending time.

Changi is building a new terminal complex called Jewel, a 10-storey development filled with shops and restaurants whose centrepiece will be a 40m indoor waterfall surrounded by an indoor garden.

The complex will make the airport look more like a shopping mall than a traditional travel hub, and is aimed at cashing in on passengers in transit.

“They are looking at retail, non-aeronautical profits,” said Shukor Yusof, an aviation analyst from Endau Analytics.

Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport is aiming to become the world’s leading digital airport by 2019, and has been testing hand luggage scanners that allow passengers to keep liquids and laptops in their bags. It is also looking at biometric technology. — AFP

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Sam Reeves
Sam Reeves
News editor for Malaysia and Singapore at AFP

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