Even smarter solutions will be demanded for Changi Airport to cope with ever-growing numbers of travellers and rising regional competition. Such concepts are to be tested at its planned Terminal 4. A parallel aim is to harness design and technology for productivity improvements in a labour-tight market. Importantly, people should lie at the heart of all new systems.
Take the self-service facilities for checking in and tagging bags that Terminal 4 is to offer. Travellers would, of course, appreciate any effort to trim queues. But if machines replace humans, would this represent a big improvement? Those from North America, Europe and Australia might be more au fait with airport self-service options. But for the sake of travellers from the region, these services should be a breeze to use if implemented widely here. About two years ago, Singapore Airlines withdrew its self-service kiosks - to pick seats and print boarding passes - as these proved unpopular. The airline had then said passengers preferred check-in options via the Internet and mobile phones instead.
Travellers will not be charmed if the so-called graphic user interface of machines proves ambiguous, unforgiving and hard to navigate. Observing the operation of such machines at major airports like Amsterdam's Schiphol and London's Heathrow can help in adapting technology for wider acceptance here - the airport's self-service target is 30 to 50 per cent of passengers at Terminal 4. However, certain travellers will need special assistance and there should be sufficient staff to cater to them and to deal swiftly with any glitches in automated systems.
Pre-boarding security screening, which is now being done at different points, will be centralised at the new terminal to eliminate double queueing. Here too, technology can be both a boon and bane. A rigorous regime might be comforting for those nervous about possible threats but it has to be balanced with a convenient and acceptable airport experience for passengers. The International Air Transport Association's "checkpoint of the future" envisions people being led through neon-lit tunnels embedded with eye-scanners, X-ray machines, and metal and liquid detectors. If screening proves less intrusive and saves time, people might accept a "sheep dip" approach in the name of efficiency. And if biometrics takes hold at airports, it would be possible to track individuals throughout all terminals and shopping-cum-entertainment zones. Real-time operational decisions might benefit from spotting bottlenecks in the making, or stray passengers holding up departures. But an all-seeing eye also raises data protection and privacy issues that might matter to people.
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