Spending big bucks on infrastructure won’t end our travel misery, but a new passport may: friction-free travel from check-in to airplane.
You wouldn’t guess it if you are suffering long security lines and indifferent service at America’s airports this holiday season, but all this could soon be a thing of the past. New smart technology in which your face becomes your passport could transform the airport experience.
And everybody agrees that this needs to happen. If there is one song both political parties are singing from the same sheet it is that we need to renew our transport infrastructure before it finally collapses from neglect.
And airports appear to be high on the list.
Listen to President-elect Donald Trump and Vice President Joe Biden. They have both called New York’s LaGuardia airport “Third World” in its wretched standards. That’s probably an insult to a lot of the Third World. As LaGuardia undergoes a $4 billion makeover it’s even more of a nightmare for passengers than it was before.
Billionaires and politicians can, of course, make invidious comparisons like this because they get to see how these things are done in other parts of the world. Bear in mind, too, that Trump and Biden are both accustomed to VIP fast-tracking. But passengers who only fly domestically in the U.S. don’t have any means of knowing if the miseries they now accept as routine—long lines, overcrowded lounges, chaos when boarding—are the same around the world.
Mostly, they are not.
And other countries are leaping way ahead by investing billions of dollars in a new generation of airports of a quality that Americans can only dream of:
In Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to be completed in 2020, a new airport with five runways and four terminals, capable of handling 160 million passengers a year. (Right now the world’s busiest airport is Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, serving 101 million passengers a year.)
In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the world’s largest terminal dedicated solely to budget airlines, able to handle 45 million passengers a year.
In Incheon, South Korea, a new terminal opening for the 2018 Winter Olympics that by 2025 will be handling 46 million passengers through 222 check-in counters.
But let’s get real: Utopian projects on this scale will never be possible at any major U.S. airport because of constraints imposed by the availability of land and the environmental impact on urban areas.
Most of the airline terminals in the U.S. predate the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Their architecture didn’t anticipate the new lines of defense that would be needed for passenger and baggage screening. Passenger numbers have grown simultaneously with the need to stuff terminals with the equipment to carry out much tighter security checks, as well as being exacerbated by recent cutbacks in the number of screeners. This squeeze has created the choke points that caused such huge lines and suffering this summer.
For America, improving the airports we already have is more realistic—and more urgent—than pursuing fantasies of new mega-airports or just expanding a system that is broken. Instead, infrastructure investment should be directed at embracing a step change in technology that could transform the way our airports handle passengers and baggage, easing much of the problem…