The new airports of the 21st century are so vast that a new word has been coined to describe them: “aerotropolis”. The idea behind this concept is that with the explosion in air traffic – both passengers and freight – rather than being on the outskirts of cities, airports are gradually becoming a new focus for living, working and leisure. These airports are so large and generate such a high level of activity, that they become cities in their own right. 

Singapore airport, with its 659,100 sq. m of terminal space, is currently the best example of this concept. For the future Dubai World Central, set to be the largest airport in the world, the developers are planning a new city with a population of 750,000, including shopping and residential districts. In terms of traffic, as many as 120 million passengers a year are expected. 

The aim of these often gargantuan projects is to make airports an intrinsic part of the “vacation” experience. Changi airport in Singapore has a five-storey vertical garden, waterfalls, four cinemas and a swimming pool, making the stopover another opportunity for relaxation. The airport of the future will also encourage business development. The future Dubai World Central, for example, is located close to a “free zone” subject to lower taxation in order to attract companies. 

More services for greater fluidity

With the help of technological advances, the designers of these future gigantic urban complexes also aim to improve the user experience by reducing the number of bottle-necks experienced by travelers. The first of these is luggage check-in. In the future, luggage will be deposited at automated points around the airport. Passengers will then be able to check in via their smartphone or using voice commands at a smart terminal. 

To reach their departure terminal or boarding gate, personal guidance systems are being developed to direct lost passengers. Indeed this is already the case at Copenhagen airport, where a smartphone app provides users with the quickest and easiest route from any point in the airport to their boarding gate. 

Finally, for passengers in less of a rush, duty-free shopping will also offer new services, such as delivery of purchases directly to the customer’s plane, home or vacation address.

 Faster and more secure inspection

Identity and luggage checks are one of the most complex challenges to resolve, particularly given the international context post-9/11. For the vast majority of passengers with nothing to hide, these checks should be completed quickly. They therefore need to maintain a high degree of security, based on physical documents (cards and passports) which are becoming increasingly difficult to falsify, while also looking into new technologies and machines for solutions to increase fluidity and efficiency. 

Biometric identity documents already allow data on a passport chip to be read using an NFC scanner or cell phone in order to verify the holder’s identity with near-certainty. Technology does not end there, however, and facial recognition software can be used to automatically detect suspects. 

Finally, in terms of luggage, new solutions are now being developed to replace time-consuming inspections using x-ray machines. Molecular laser body scanners, already authorized by the Department of Homeland Security in the United States, are 10 million times faster than conventional scanners and are capable of checking luggage in a fraction of a second from a distance of 50m. 

The security threat is such that checks on people and freight will become increasingly present in airports. Meanwhile, these bustling new living spaces need to respond to the constant demand for services. In a context of increasingly fierce competition, the winning airports will be those that are able to harness technology to achieve a successful balance between service and security.