The airport experience has long been synonymous with stress: huge arrival areas, frantic security checkpoints, cramped trams shuttling groups between terminals — with, of course, lines at all of them. And when airports return to normal passenger volumes, the stress of a long line or a crowded terminal will no doubt be exacerbated by the potential presence of the novel coronavirus.

A leading airport architecture firm says there must be a better way to organize and transport passengers after the pandemic, and it is already proposing some high-tech options to get there.

“Being in confined spaces with others no longer feels comfortable for passengers,” says aviation architect Ty Osbaugh of Gensler, a global firm that has designed many airports, including San Francisco, John F. Kennedy, Los Angeles and South Korea’s Incheon. “Now is an opportunity to think, ‘What do we want the airport experience to be three years from now?’ ”

As technologies like coronavirus testing and temperature screenings are being implemented in some U.S. airports, Osbaugh’s team is proposing not just outdoor airport spaces and touchless technologies, but also a whole new way to get around once travelers are health- and security-screened.

Self-driving ‘pods’

The most abrupt change Gensler is proposing involves “autonomous, individual pods” that transport passengers from outdoor health- and security-screening areas to their gates and, possibly, directly to the aircraft. The design would eliminate walking through an airport full of people and is being proposed for Virginia’s Dulles International Airport, which Osbaugh says is already properly laid out for the individualized transit to work.

“The airport experience of land-side and air-side bisected by a series of regulatory processes is not the model of the future,” Osbaugh says. In his vision of a new Dulles that uses personalized pods, “the iconic space of Dulles will become the primary air-side dwell lounge where we wait for our flights. As departure time nears, passengers take autonomous, individual pods to the gates, personally chauffeured to the aircraft.”

It might sound like a far-fetched fever dream to board a self-driving pod to your flight, but Osbaugh notes that Heathrow Airport already uses small autonomous vehicles as transit from its business parking garages to terminals. He envisions the one- to four-passenger pods as being sanitized between trips and replacing many airports’ existing tram lines.

“There’s no reason you couldn’t do this in lieu of a train system, like what Dulles and the Atlanta airport already have,” Osbaugh says. “I could see a scenario where an airport would mostly be individualized containers.”

Immigration self-screenings

The reverse benefit of Gensler’s proposal for curbside-to-gate pods is that arriving planes could shuttle passengers directly to their baggage claim, and those pods could implement a remote customs screening that would take place during the ride. That would mean no lengthy passport control lines, especially for returning citizens whose process wouldn’t require much else than a document check.

In May, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security put out a call for research and development opportunities for airport security self-screening technologies — signaling potential intent to automate checkpoints like the Transportation Security Administration’s and Customs and Border Protection’s.

Automating the customs process into the pods, Osbaugh says, would mean “passengers are no longer being rushed from one process and queue to another.” Even if all passengers couldn’t complete a remote screening, allowing certain groups would greatly cut down crowds and lines at customs checkpoints.

Outdoor terminals

Gensler also recognizes, however, that not all travelers are going to breeze through the airport and onto their flight. A proposed change is to make terminals open-air, or at least accessible to attached, controlled outdoor areas.

Terminals that “bleed between inside and outside” will be paramount, Osbaugh says, and similar terminals already exist as a good model. JFK’s Terminal 5 is beloved for its JetBlue Park, which opened as a dog-walk area. Osbaugh envisions something even more modern, however, mentioning courtyard-based layouts similar to Apple’s circular headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., which centers on a behemoth, open-air garden.

Touchless biometric screening

As touchless technologies expand, Osbaugh sees biometric screening, also known as facial recognition technology, emerging as the new security screening and even the new boarding pass. “Your face is your ticket. No fumbling for tickets, no handing over passport documents,” he says.

Airports around the globe have already begun to invest in facial recognition scans as a means of quickly processing passengers, but in the United States it has been met with questions about whether it is accurate, especially as studies show that it consistently misidentifies people of color. Wearing a mask can also throw off the technology.

All of these changes are costly, but Osbaugh says that airports will probably be focused on making passengers comfortable with air travel once again to get them back. Even as airports see lower profits because of reduced travel, now is the time to take advantage of the absence of crowds and invest ahead of a broader return to traveling. It’s entirely possible that the sooner airports built up newly comfortable infrastructure, the sooner that return will come.

“Every projection I’ve seen says airport traffic will rebound to pre-covid levels in 2022 or 2023. Why not build when passenger volumes are down?” Osbaugh says. “It has to be safe, and when it is, travel will come back.”

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