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24th May 2019

The Future of Airports: Will they be bigger or just more efficient?

Remote baggage check-in, autonomous vehicles and aircraft with folding wings: Just some of the items discussed at the recent Future of Airport conference in London, presented by New Civil Engineer as part of their Future of… series.

This conference was an opportunity for the industry to discuss the latest developments in innovative airport design and delivery practices for airports and passengers, and to look at development plans for Heathrow, Bristol and Dublin Airports.

How technology is shaping airport design

A panel discussion with Tom Carpen, infrastructure and energy planning associate at Barton Willmore; Cristiano Ceccato, associate director, at Zaha Hadid; and Peter Adams, chief asset and programmes officer at London City Airport discussed the effects of new technologies at airports.

It was agreed that a lot of airport terminal space is taken up with waiting areas: baggage check-in, security checks and baggage collection. And none of these activities generate profit.

As well as online check-in, which we’re all familiar with, new technologies will allow for remote baggage check-in too. So, a bag can be checked in at a city centre location, making the journey to the airport easier and the process through the airport much quicker too. This is already in place in Disneyland. Baggage could then be delivered directly to the passenger’s final destination, so they no longer have to wait around in baggage reclaim.

In addition, new technology will let passengers receive real-time information on baggage check-in/ security clearance waiting times, so that they can decide whether to proceed to the gate or wait. But it was noted that there is the potential for everyone to wait until the last minute!

Other developments such as augmented reality wayfinding through airports, walkthrough security using biometric data, and options for pre-cleared security at rail hubs, are all set to speed up the process at airports.

Smart airports

Is smarter rather than bigger the way forward?

Most airports are expanding their passenger capacity, and Simon Earles, the planning and sustainability director at Bristol Airport, and Larry O’Toole, Head of Asset Management and Development at Dublin Airport both outlined their expansion plans to delegates. Dublin has already started construction of a third runway and Bristol’s plans to accommodate 19 million passengers by 2045 will soon be published in their upcoming Masterplan.

But Tim Houghton, the Additional Capacity Programme Director at Heathrow T5 explained that the airport was now catering to an extra 10m passengers per year with no additional building footprint. And that was due to the use of new technologies and automation.

He also noted that it was important to not just automate current processes. This may give an initial benefit. But he recommended that processes should be evaluated to see if they are even required at all.

The effect of automation on revenues

It was agreed that airports need to be more accessible if they want to increase passenger capacity. But environmental constraints restrict the ability to expand infrastructure. As such, many airport’s surface access strategies have identified that an increasing number of passengers will arrive on Rapid Transit Systems in the future. This and the introduction of electric cars and autonomous vehicles will inevitably reduce the need for acres of parking.

But how will this affect airport revenues? Currently more than 50% of an airport’s revenue comes from car parking and retail. So with car parking numbers predicted to fall, and increasing automation meaning passengers spending less time in terminals, this is a challenge that airports are facing.

Henrik Rothe, Head of the Urban Turbine Research Project at Cranfield University, proposed that we should be looking to synthesise airports and cities together rather than have a remote airport on the outskirts of a city. Airports should be a gateway to a region.

Airports could increasingly become intermodal transport hubs, he suggested. By incorporating more retail, leisure and even residential use, people will be encouraged to visit and support them, irrespective of whether they’re flying or not.  

Airside technology set to improve efficiencies too  

Other developments that could improve efficiencies included: planes with folding wings to allow for shorter gates; planes with interchangeable bodies that could be removed and replaced to fixed wings; autonomous tugs to move planes; robots packing baggage containers; and even digital air-traffic control to allow for a more efficient and intensive use of airspace.

The challenge for the future

Airport design is changing to keep pace with the evolving nature of air travel. The biggest challenge for airport designers is not only to design airports to accommodate new technologies that we know about now, but to design flexible airport spaces that can accommodate future technological developments. Whatever they may be.


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Bob Green Transport & Infrastructure Sector Head

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