Image: Baggage claim
Ben Margot  /  AP
Picking up your baggage is just one component of the travel experience that can lead to angst and anger.
By senior editor
updated 5/20/2007 5:33:30 PM ET 2007-05-20T21:33:30

Millions of people find air travel frightening and exhausting, but for many the most daunting part isn't the flight itself.

It's getting to and through your departure airport and at your destination navigating your way from the plane to the street outside.

Even after fighting traffic jams or manhandling heavy bags on and off public vehicles, when you reach the airport the hard part of the trip has just begun.

You have to make sure you're at the right terminal and that you and your bags are checked in. After you've passed through security, often a slow and anxiety-inducing process, you have to find your gate — not always simple in a big airport stuffed with shopping malls.

At your destination, the process can be just as confusing, particularly if you're flying internationally.

But a variety of existing and new technologies should make things easier for flyers, says travel technology expert Nawal Taneja, chairman of the Department of Aviation at Ohio State University.

The Internet has already assumed a crucial role in facilitating air travel. Airlines now rely greatly on the Web for bookings. Many now charge an extra fee for a telephone booking and some won't even let you make reservations by phone or through a travel agent.

Internet check-in is commonplace and through their Web sites airports and airlines are providing flight schedules and updates on the timing and progress of individual flights. Some airports, such as Frankfurt and Amsterdam, also offer flight, hotel and rental car booking on their sites.

Boston, Portland and Montreal airports are innovating in a different way. Their sites host computer-graphic Airport Wayfinder videos that are designed to familiarize travelers with key airport features.

These videos can be designed to highlight the locations of parking, check-in, security, dining and retail facilities. Airports also can — and do — use them to show passengers how to navigate through huge departure concourses and international arrival halls.

Several major airlines use the system, too, showing destination-specific videos inflight to help passengers navigate through the airport upon arrival and to provide local information.

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Airports are also helping passengers in other ways. Many are offering remote check-in and baggage drop-off facilities at hotels, car parks, car rental offices and train stations. Auckland airport in New Zealand provides signs informing passengers how long it should take to reach their gates at a comfortable walking pace.

Airlines and airports have begun using radio frequency identification device (RFID) tags attached to luggage to route checked bags automatically to the right flight and to make it easy to find any wrongly routed bags.

Eventually, 512-bit RFID tags will be incorporated into luggage during manufacture, say experts at RFID manufacturer FKI Logistex. Your luggage tag will be reprogrammed every time you take a flight, providing full details of your exact routing — including connections — and how to contact you at each end of the flight. Soon, hopefully, airlines may find it much harder to lose a suitcase.

Together, RFID and wireless communications will transform the airport experience, said Taneja. Airlines and airports already send text messages to passengers' cell phones providing updated flight information. But that is just the beginning.

Manufacturers such as Nokia are developing 'teleconvergent' interactive mobile devices containing GPS position-locating chips, RFID tags and enough processing power to provide "analytics," as well as audio, video and text capability.

In the future, not only will passengers be able to use their handhelds to avoid traffic jams on their way to the airport, but when they reach it their wireless units will be invaluable.

GPS-enabled handhelds will allow passengers to navigate airport terminals easily and on a real-time basis they will identify the shortest security lines, blocked exits and gate changes, said Taneja. The units' analytics will tell passengers how long it will take them to reach their gates and if they can make their connections.

Airlines will be able not only to let passengers check in through their cell phones — Japan's All Nippon Airways already does so — but also to send barcodes to mobile units to act as boarding cards, said Taneja.

Should passengers go to the wrong terminal or become too absorbed in shopping and miss boarding calls, airline gate staff will be able to "blip" them both to alert the passengers and to show staff exactly where passengers are. This will allow airlines to decide whether to close a boarding gate on time or even to offload baggage if checked passengers can't be located.

Meanwhile X-ray screening technology is becoming so capable of showing the details of people's bodies that in the future passengers might have to decide between 'privacy' and 'non-privacy' security lines, said Taneja. They may have to choose whether or not to join what might be a quicker-moving line at the expense of displaying very private information to security staff.

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