Getting to the airport by booking an autonomous electric shuttle or a taxi-drone from your home, hotel or station to take you directly to the micro-terminal. Entrusting your luggage to a personalised collection and delivery service and get through the boarding process without interruption, with biometric recognition. Buying a meal on e-commerce and receiving it from a robo-delivery in the lounge, waiting for the gate call with a notification on your phone.
It is a possible portrait of the intermodal, digital, personalised and green experience available in the world's airports to every user in the next 20 to 30 years, open and integrated with the urban fabric, automated and powered by green energy.
The scenario is described in the report The evolution of airports - A flight path to 2050 prepared by Oliver Wyman, the Airports Council International (ACI World) for the world's airports and the Centre for Sustainable Global Tourism (STGC), incubated by the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Tourism.
Amidst the challenges of innovation, decarbonisation and increasing demand, the authors predict that, by 2030, the global commercial fleet will expand by 33 per cent to over 36,000 aircraft; passenger traffic will grow by 5.8 per cent each year between 2022 and 2040 and 19 billion travellers will pass through the world's airports each year by 2040. So how will airports change by then? Here are the five megatrends identified by the report.
Zero net emissions
Aviation contributes about 2 per cent of total emissions and airports account for 2-5 per cent of this share. Aiming for the Net Zero 2050 objective set by the Paris Agreement, airports will become hubs and producers of green energy, capable of delivering available resources externally and adding this revenue stream to their business model. They will have to reduce consumption in their ecosystems, use CO₂ capture (CCUS) technologies, adopt sustainable lighting and air conditioning (they consume 46% of energy).
Facilitating the availability of alternative fuels to flight operators will become crucial, with the start of the commercialisation of SAF by 2030. By then, there will be 5.4 billion gallons of SAF available, but at least 16 billion gallons would be needed to keep emissions at the 2019 level.
Service vehicles at the airport will be electrified, as will flights on short-haul routes. These, together with hydrogen-based technologies expected around 2035, should help reduce noise pollution. As airports develop new solutions, sustainable construction techniques and retrofitting, consideration should be given to the carbon credit system.
Seventy-three per cent of passengers already agree to share their biometric data in favour of greater efficiency. The international biometric digital identity will enable the integration of control processes for security at walking pace already on the means of transport from the city to the gate, transforming airport transit in an automated, mobile and contactless manner. A single digital source will confirm identity, health, passport, travel info and visas, but regulators and industry will have to establish sharing policies while maintaining data security and protection.
The deployment of AI, IoT and machine learning will enable an improved management of operations, as well as baggage tracking without paper and tags or with electronic tags. Large lobbies for sorting will no longer be necessary and the development of digital twins will favour effective, real-time predictive management from a control room.
3D printing can facilitate maintenance, drones will be able to monitor the status of systems and aircraft, while a fleet of robots will be at the service of customers for delivery or to clean environments.
Electrification and automation will require coordination between airports, flight operators and public transport agencies, such as the railways. Integrated investment and connection strategies would favour community hubs, connected to different types of mass transport.
The use of cars to the airport would be discouraged, reducing the importance of parking as a source of revenue in favour of specialised terminals with dedicated access from the city centre to the gate seamlessly and multimodally, to reduce traffic and inefficiencies.
This will also happen with the integration in the infrastructure of vertiports for the development of Urban Air Mobility thanks to the deployment of eVTOLs. Such a system will be able to connect neighbouring cities and ultra-fast rail networks, offering more options at inter-regional level. In the long term, it is also possible to imagine greater integration between cargo and passenger mobility, particularly for tourist destinations that suffer from seasonal variations.
About 54 per cent of the 11.3 million people working in aviation are airport employees, but by 2021 the aviation workforce was 43 per cent below pre-Covid levels and has yet to catch up. The pilot shortage is a long-term trend, as 60,000 additional pilots are required by 2032.
All this threatens to limit the growing demand for travel, although automation may increasingly come to support a smaller, customer service-focused workforce. The skills required will be oriented towards soft skills on the passenger side and on the operational side with a focus on digital (data science, AI), cybersecurity, engineering and IT.
With four different generations of workers, airports will have to collaborate with universities to create interest and facilitate recruitment but at the same time encourage upskilling and reskilling of existing staff.
The passenger experience
The image is that of real airport-cities (‘aerotropolises’) in terms of economy and infrastructure that will increasingly become part of the journey, with urban campuses equipped with offices, hotels, leisure offers, connected in different ways.
The expansion of airport capacity will require investments especially in the Middle East and Asia ($2.4 trillion, ACI World estimates). The interior spaces will be transformed, but due to an infrastructural legacy, some slipways will need time to integrate new functions into the architecture and revise the design.
The disappearance of check barriers will provide new retail, relaxation and experience areas (cinemas, swimming pools, virtual reality gaming areas...) for new commercial and sales revenue opportunities. Lounges will grow in popularity, while long waits in the boarding queue will become a memory, thanks to the virtual queue service.
Personalised, on-demand, contactless and efficient: a tailor-made, enjoyable and environmentally friendly end-to-end journey is the goal that drives innovation and change at airports around the world.