Air support

The challenges of moving tens of thousands of people a day through airports are more acute than ever. But new technology promises to make the experience more rapid, painless, efficient and safe.

The late Douglas Adams once pondered why it was that no language has yet produced the phrase: ‘As ugly as an airport’.

Of course, this was in the days before the British Airports Authority employed fashionable architects to design its terminals! But Adams was not just talking about aesthetics. The airportexperience, in spite of soaring new atriums, walls of glass and luxury carpet, can still, at times, be very ugly indeed — so his question remains pertinent.

Even if the architect was given a knighthood for the pleasing look of an airport — delays, strikes, bomb scares and other problems associated with getting a large number of people through check-in, passport control, security and then on to the right aircraft (and doing the same thing with their luggage) will still inspire a degree of dread in every traveller.

And with ever-increasing numbers of people wishing to fly, the things that can turn airports into nightmares are getting bigger and more frightening.

Take Heathrow. Following the completion of Terminal Five in 2011, the number of passengers is predicted to grow by 30 million a year, while the airport itself will employ around 84,000 people. The challenge of dealing with such huge numbers is compounded by the ever-present threat of terrorism and the attendant emphasis on tight security. So what, in the airport of the future, can be done to make the passage through Terminal X a little less nerve jangling?

Expansion is the order of the day, and at many of the world’s new terminals the latest technology is, or will, be used to expedite passengers’ departure or arrival. At Heathrow a significant part of the budget for Terminal Five has already been spent on extending the Heathrow Express service and the Piccadilly Line, both of which require new tunnels. A new connection to the M25 is underway and other road improvements around the airport will be made.

But while new roads and railways make it easier for the millions to get to and from Terminal Five, what about moving around inside? The dimensions of the place alone make this an important question. The main building, Concourse A, is 396m long by 176m wide, and its satellite, Concourse B, is 442m long by 42m wide. When all phases of the project are completed, Terminal Five will be larger than most other international airports, contributing a total of 60 aircraft stands to the Heathrow complex.

Check-in is always the first hurdle. Long lines of slow-moving travellers and trolleys piled high with bags will hopefully, in the airport of the future, be a thing of the past. Some airports, such as Baltimore-Washington, have recently installed CCTV to monitor queue lengths, but this is purely for firefighting. In the future, automated and robotic baggagehandling systems should make a significant difference.

The baggage-handling system at Terminal Five will not in itself be revolutionary, but according to BAA it will feature improvements on previous systems. Developed by Dutch packagehandling specialist Vanderlande Industries, the system consists of three elements. The first will cater for the vast majority of passengers who arrive two to three hours before their flight, and will allow them to check in their own luggage at an automated baggage drop. If someone has an e-ticket, it can be used to generate a baggage tag, which will be attached to his or her bags. This is done before going through passport or security control.

Passengers arriving very early, say seven hours before their scheduled departure, will also be able to check their bags into the system rather than wait for check-in to open and add to the queues.

This luggage will be conveyed to an automated baggage store and when the flight is ready to be loaded, robots will pick the correct bags and send them on to the baggage make-up area. The system also has a function for dealing with the bags of passengers who are very late. In these cases, their luggage will be automatically fasttracked direct to the aircraft stand, at which point they will join the containerised bags ready to be loaded on to the aircraft.

‘This is intended to reduce delays and create a better chance of their bags travelling with them on the same aircraft,’ said BAA.

Automated baggage-handling systems are intended to be more efficient and accurate than manual operations. While they also save on labour costs, the developers of such systems claim that passengers will also notice how much faster they are.

ABB Airport Technologies conducted one of the first trials of a robotic system at ZurichAirport in 1999. After September 11 the company discontinued its baggage systems business, but the expertise was kept alive through a management buy-out and a new company, Grenzebach Onero, was formed last year. Its system breaks the process into four tasks: analysis; sorting; loading; and communicating with the passenger management systems. Items of luggage are weighed and measured as they pass along the conveyor and then identified either by a barcode or RFID chip. At the same time the load control management software calculates the most efficient loading pattern for each item, thus making best use of hold space.

Each piece of luggage is permitted to go on to the container only if the airport information system confirms that its owner has checked in and is going to fly as well. This constant feedback gives the system its greatest advantage over manual operations: if things suddenly change, the software can instantly recalculate the loading pattern, and if a passenger is missing and a suitcase has to be unloaded, the system can find it instantly. According to Grenzebach Onero each robot can dispatch 240 pieces of luggage an hour ‘without a rest break, change of shift or back complaints’.

To save yet more time, automated baggage-handling systems could also be integrated with security screening technology. For instance, the US Transport and Security Administration (TSA) has recently installed ‘in-line screening’ machines at 10 airports, whichcheck bags for explosives and other dangerous items as they move along the conveyors.

At Baltimore-WashingtonAirport, the in-line machines measure the densities of a bag’s contents and compare them to those of known explosives. Also, if a suspicious looking object is detected, the machine creates a 3D image of the object and sends it to an operator who will then decide if it should be checked manually.

The TSA claims the system will double the number of bags checked by X-ray and, being less labour intensive, save millions of dollars at each airport.

After disposing of their luggage, passengers must then go through passport control and a security check. Despite well-publicised failures, airport searches have generally become more rigorous and the same is true of the immigration checks on arrival. As a result, security and immigration control is a potential bottleneck, with all passengers for all flights having to filter through the same point.

Advanced technology, however, offers a single solution to the need for better security and the problem of long queues. Systems that allow biometric information to be used as a means of identification are being tested on a small scale at many of the world’s busiest airports, and are already making travel safer and allowing some passengers to beat the queues.

At Frankfurt, for example, Lufthansa staff are trialling a fingerprint check-in and boarding scheme developed by Siemens. The system, due to be made available to the public in 2006, will see a passenger’s prints scanned and stored on check-in at the Lufthansa terminal.

This information, along with the flight details, are converted into a barcode, which is printed on to the boarding pass. At the point of boarding the code is checked by a machine against the passenger’s fingerprint, and if they match, the passenger is allowed on the aircraft.

Some kind of biometric identification system will be obligatory at all airports of the future. The initial impetus for change came from the US after September 11. Under modifications to the US Visa Waiver rules all 27 participating countries now have to issue passports carrying some form of biometric data because it makes forgery next to impossible.

In May 2003 the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) adopted a global harmonised blueprint for biometric information on passports, which includes a mandatory facial image biometric held in a contactless chip and an option for secondary biometrics such as a fingerprint or iris scan. Australia is expected to be the first country to issue passports to this standard. There is also an EU directive imminent, which seeks to regulate the standards for biometric data on passports. Facial imaging will be obligatory and member states can choose whether to use digitised images of the face or biometric facial scans consisting of 1,840 reference points.

As an incentive for travellers to embrace biometrics, some airports are already using the technology to offer ‘fast lanes’ through security checkpoints. In 2001 Schipol, in Amsterdam, implemented the world’s first large-scale public biometric border crossing, developed by LogicaCMG.

The iris-scanning technology is part of a loyalty scheme for frequent fliers. The project’s success has led to the US and Dutch security agencies co-operating on a similar pilot at New York’s JFK. US citizens, permanent residents and certain frequent non-US visitors will be able to enrol on the ‘expedited traveller programme’.

But if biometrics can make border crossing speedier for the few, its value as a tool for improving security will only be fully realised if it is taken up by the many, according to Luc van Gils, a consultant on biometrics for LogicaCMG.

‘The importance of ergonomics should not be underestimated,’ he said. ‘The height, position and clarity of instructions on receiving equipment will affect user perception and ultimately determine the extent of adoption.

‘Another important question is whether the biometric data is stored on a database or a smart card carried by the user. Using a smart card held by the individual concerned can make it more acceptable to them,’ he added.

Earlier this summer the UK’s first large-scale public biometrics trial was launched at Heathrow’s Terminals Two and Four. Originally due to last for six months, the pilot was put on ice following July’s bomb attacks in London. But the success of earlier tests involving immigration staff at the same terminals suggests that it could be resurrected.

The Iris Recognition Immigration System (IRIS) would see passengers enrolling for the project in the departure lounges. After an interview with an immigration officer, both eyes will be photographed to capture the iris patterns and the data stored securely alongside personal details. The enrolled passengers will then be able to enter the UK through a special automated immigration control barrier that incorporates an iris recognition camera. The barrier will be located in the immigration arrivals hall and will form part of the immigration and passport control.

‘Low-risk passengers, known to immigration, will be able to beat the queues and move automatically and securely through immigration controls,’ said a Home Office spokesman. The Home Office has also suggested the possibility of inviting certain groups of foreign nationals to take part who have a track record of complying with the UK’s immigration laws, such as regular travellers or those who have permanent residency in the UK.

While the Home Office claims that enrolment to IRIS would take approximately five to 10 minutes, other, similar schemes have taken much longer to sign up to. For instance, at OrlandoAirport it was reported that volunteers had to wait up to three hours to register earlier this year. This was perhaps due to its popularity, but it prompted the company VerifiedIdentityPass, which is running the system on behalf of the TSA, to develop mobile enrolment stations that can visit offices for group registration and to set up initial stage on-line registration.

Biometric technology can also be used in less intrusive ways, to sweep for and identify known individuals discreetly, as soon as they enter the airport. Very soon it will be possible for automated CCTV networks to pick out and track people in a crowd, even before they have reached the security gates.

LogicaCMG has already conducted trials with PSV Eindhoven to monitor crowds for known football hooligans. High-resolution video surveillance can check individuals in a crowd against a database. Further into the future biometric experts believe that it should even be possible to implement systems that can identify individuals by the characteristics and idiosyncrasies of their gait.

After passport control, travellers and all their hand luggage are checked for weapons and explosives. Bags and some clothing and shoes, are put through an X-ray machine. The passenger then walks through a metal detector and might be subject to a ‘pat-down’ or hand search by a security officer if the metal detector’s alarm is triggered. Hand searches, unless highly intrusive, can seem perfunctory and unlikely to reveal a well-concealed item. To be sure that passengers are searched thoroughly the UK and US governments are running tests on a new and controversial body-scanning technology that lets security officials see through passengers’ clothes. The back-scatter X-ray machines effectively reveal the passengers’ naked body — and as a result certain groups in the US are protesting against their use.

A spokesman for the UK Department for Transport said a back-scatter X-ray machine, Rapiscan Secure 1000, has been on test at Heathrow Terminal Four since October last year. But he would not say how much longer the test is going to run or whether the machine might be used at other UK airports.

‘The machine is being used on a voluntary basis. If somebody is selected for a hand search they have the option of being scanned by the machine instead,’ the spokesman said. However, a passenger who recently departed from Heathrow told The Engineer that when he was selected for a hand search it was not explained to him that he had this option.

‘I also had no idea they could see through my clothes,’ he said.

Back-scatter X-ray machines project a high-energy beam that is more likely to bounce and scatter than penetrate an object. The beam is low radiation, which moves through materials such as clothing, and scatters when it reaches the skin. The signal produces a highly realistic image of the naked body and also very distinct images of metal, plastic or organic materials such as explosives that might be hidden beneath clothing.

The Heathrow test will establish how suitable the machine is for scanning large numbers of passengers and what its service costs might be. In the US, where customs agents at 12 airports already use the machines to screen suspected drug carriers, it is expected that the technology will be employed eventually to routinely screen hundreds of millions of passengers a year. However, the TSA will not confirm which airports will get the machines, and has responded to public pressure by asking the manufacturers to modify the system to protect privacy — a move that engineers say could reduce the machines’ effectiveness.

Back-scatter machines are designed so that the operator has no direct view of the passenger. The TSA has asked manufacturers Rapiscan and American Science and Engineering, to develop software that blanks out certain areas of the body.

Trials are due to be held this autumn.

X-rays, however, can’t weed out the unarmed terrorist who arrives in a country intending to carry out an attack at a later date. The TSA plans to protect the US against this threat with a system similar to a lie detector, developed by Israeli company Suspect Detection Systems. Passengers entering a country will put their hand on a panel and then be presented with an array of questions; the device measures the psychological response. The experiment is planned to be run at Atlantic CityAirport. The technology has been used in Israel to identify would-be suicide bombers, whose greatest fear, apparently, is being caught.

Yeshayahu Horowitz, SDS chief scientist, said the system is based on the belief that the terrorists’ fear is reflected in measurable psychological parameters. The system, housed in a kiosk at immigration, will take approximately three minutes to give a verdict on the passenger’s answers.

After passing through security the passenger at the airport of the future will then have to get to the aircraft. As these become larger, so the distance between check-in and the stand itself grows ever longer. Many airports, including Heathrow, put passengers on buses to take them to the waiting aircraft.

This is not always the neatest or most efficient means of transport, however, as the buses share the same area as the aircraft and service vehicles. Congestion and the potential for collision between ground vehicles and aircraft have led French company M3 Systems to develop a new traffic monitoring network, Airnet. This uses wireless technology and the EGNOS satellite-positioning system to communicate with transponders onboard aircraft and vehicles, and locate them to within 7.5m. Intended to give controllers a live overview of all movements at the airport, it will be tested at PortoAirport next year.

After check-in and security screening are completed at Terminal Five some will have to make long journeys to the satellite buildings to board the aircraft. This will be made possible via a driverless train system developed by Bombardier. Passengers will descend by escalator to the basement of the terminal building and board a train that will follow a dedicated guideway on the floor for a 45-second journey to one of the satellite buildings. Then it’s just a matter of boarding the aircraft and enjoying the complementary bag of peanuts.

So will it be easier to catch a plane at the airport of the future? By the time Terminal Five is finished technology will almost certainly have made a difference to the passenger’s experience. Airports are also being remodelled to accommodate the latest design of passenger aircraft and this, in the long term, as more possibilities for flight become a reality, could have the greatest impact on the way we travel.