The Future of Air Travel Is Bliss — Really

The Future of Air Travel Is Bliss — Really
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Why you should care

Because we may not have to sacrifice airline security for convenience.

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When the taxi drops you off at the airport, you notice your flight doesn’t begin boarding for another 20 minutes — plenty of time. Entering the terminal, you flash a big smile at the discreetly placed infrared cameras that are sending a scan of your gorgeous mug to security central, where facial recognition software matches your likeness to the one on file. You attach the routing tags you printed at home to your Tumi and dump the bag onto the luggage belt, confident you’ll see your rollie again in this lifetime, thanks to the tracking app on your smartphone. You zip through a series of checkpoints: Some read the personal profile on your phone like it’s an airport E-ZPass; at others you stare into an iris-scanning camera or touch a fingerprint-reading pad. A few leisurely minutes later, you step on the plane and greet the flight attendant.

It’s then that you realize you’ve just had your first human interaction since you tipped the cabbie.

Talk about air-travel envy. No arriving two hours prior to your flight. No lines, no IDs (unless you’re flying internationally), no boarding passes, no belt and shoe shedding. This scenario may sound far-fetched, but according to the International Air Transport Association, the goal is for airports to provide a completely self-service experience to 80 percent of travelers within the next five years. With air-travel volume expected to double to 7.2 billion passengers in less than 20 years, and with building or expanding airports a nonstarter in many cities, the aviation industry is turning to tech to address its capacity and security issues. The key to it all is the “biometric token”: scans of the face, iris or fingertips, the three most common markers used to confirm someone’s unique identity. Its success, of course, depends on travelers’ willingness to surrender ever more of their personal information.

Research shows that more than 90 percent of airline passengers actually prefer to avoid human contact at the airport.

Michael Petrov, U.S. managing director, Vision-Box

The facial recognition technology behind one prototype, with the code name Happy Flow, is being tested on passengers flying from the Caribbean island of Aruba to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. If successful, Happy Flow may soon expand to other international hubs. Vision-Box, the Portuguese company behind the system, is convinced the traveling public is ready for a new way to fly, and for a simple reason: “Research shows that more than 90 percent of airline passengers actually prefer to avoid human contact at the airport,” says the U.S. managing director of Vision-Box, Michael Petrov, citing a study by SITA, an aviation research firm. That’s not too surprising, given that most travelers’ interactions with bossy Transportation Security Administration screeners and harried airport staffers don’t exactly induce unity consciousness.

Vision-Box isn’t the only company getting into the game. The biometric system developed by New York-based Clear, which is in use for domestic travelers at 17 U.S. airports, relies on fingerprints and iris scans to confirm a passenger’s identity, which means the traveler can jump to the head of the checkpoint line. The annual fee for this perk is $179; the firm claims that 600,000 members have used the service 5 million times. “When you think about not having to dig through your bag for your boarding pass or your driver’s license, that is transformative,” says Caryn Seidman-Becker, chief executive of Clear. When multiplied across the universe of airline customers, the savings in time per passenger could be huge, she claims. (Don’t confuse Clear with the TSA’s PreCheck, an expedited screening service with 4 million members who are fingerprinted and vetted by the government — it doesn’t use biometric IDs.)

The potential of these technologies goes well beyond air travel. Vision-Box is working on a variation of its airport ID product called “smart city,” which would be used to handle routine transactions, from making purchases at a shop to checking in to a hotel. Clear’s technology can be used at venues that handle huge crowds, like stadiums and arenas, which are heightened security risks since the attacks last year in Paris. Attendees who sign up with Clear can bypass long waits at the entrance and even at concession stands, according to a spokesman for the company.

But can the industry succeed in streamlining security while protecting citizens’ privacy? Charles Leocha, president of the passenger rights’ group Travelers United, is concerned that airlines and airports could use this trove of personal data to manipulate consumer choice and spending, as increasingly wired airports rely on wayfinding beacons and other tools to sell services and merchandise. “A lot of consumers accept that we’ve given up much of our privacy,” Leocha says. But “it’s already affecting how airlines are marketing to consumers and how they are testing whether their marketing is working.”

Privacy concerns aside, tech can go only so far to streamline the process — inevitably airports and airlines run up against the government’s security apparatus. But that last piece of the puzzle is also being overhauled. Souped-up checkpoint scanners that will let you keep your bottled water and laptops in place are already a reality and will show up in airports in the next five to 10 years. Combined with private-sector innovations, those changes might finally bring down the curtain on the security theater we’ve accepted as the cost of flying in a post-9/11 world. If that happens, fliers might actually look forward to that trip to the airport.

This editorial article was originally created by OZY Media and published on OZY.com prior to, and independently of its inclusion in this JPMorgan Chase & Co. sponsored series. OZY Media claims the full rights and responsibilities of this article.