Last summer’s images of colossal lineups, seas of lost luggage, and airport announcement boards flagged with countless delayed flights will forever be etched in the minds of many in the travel industry - and hapless travellers caught in the melee, too.
Despite assurances, we saw a re-run over the winter holidays, and now, with Spring Break just around the corner and another summer high season looming, the question at the top of many travel advisors’ and travellers’ minds is: how bad will it be this time around?
Ronan Murphy, director at Alton Aviation Consultancy, a global aviation advisory firm, told Phocuswire that there are “no more excuses” for airports or airlines being unprepared for a spike in travel.
“There is no magic bullet outside of having appropriate staffing levels and improving efficiency of check-in and security with the resources they have in place.”
There are indications that at least some have learned the lessons of Summer 2022, with planning and preparations that go beyond what will hopefully be sufficient staffing.
Some airlines have already thrown in the proverbial towel on ambitious summer schedules. As Open Jaw has reported, two of the world’s biggest airlines have cut their summer schedules drastically to ensure they can deliver.
American Airlines announced late FEB it is cutting over 50,000 flights from its summer schedule, following news that Lufthansa is dropping over 30,000 flights from its summer schedule.
Capping Flights and Pax at Airports
As Open Jaw reported 27FEB, Canada’s largest airport is limiting the number of passenger flights that will be allowed to take off and land during this year’s busiest spring break and summer travel times.
The GTAA told Reuters that, in addition to limiting flights, it’s also capping the number of international arrivals - and pax departing to the U.S. - on an hourly basis at YYZ, explaining, "The GTAA has taken decisive measures designed to flatten peak-hour schedules for the March break and the upcoming summer season."
Other international airports - including two airport titans LHR and AMS that had notorious operations meltdowns during summer of 2022 - instituted caps in response. AMS recently announced it would be lifting caps in time for the debut of the high summer season, but was forced to backtrack and say limits would still be in force until at least MAY.
CHANGING THE TRAVEL EXPERIENCE
In airports in Canada and around the world, technologies are being implemented and processes being changed to keep pax moving smoothly from front door to gate.
Here are some ways the travel experience is changing to meet the challenges of a booming travel recovery:
Get A Reservation to Skip the Security Lineup
As Open Jaw has reported, a number of Canada’s busiest airports have implemented an ‘Express’ system of free online reservations, where pax can book a 15-minute window to arrive and be whisked past lineups into their pre-departure security screening.
YYZ, YYC, YVR, YEG and YUL have all instituted the program, with Toronto Pearson announcing 17FEB it has expanded the hours of availability of YYZ Express in T1 and T3.
Each airport has different hours and an Express program that is available for different destinations. For example, YVR Express is available only to YVR pax travelling to the United States with flights scheduled between 6:30 a.m. and 8:30 p.m.
Updated Scanners That Let You Leave Everything Inside Your Carry-ons
AMS made headlines in the summer of 2022 with its almost catastrophic meltdown of airport operations due in large part to massive labour shortages. While it says it has hired 850 new security agents, according to Phocuswire, it also has another trick up its sleeve to keep pax moving quickly through security.
The airport has replaced its carry-on bag X-ray machines with 3D CT scanners which mean “everyone can leave everything inside of their bag.”
As this reporter has personally experienced with delight, the new scanners provide astonishing ease, speed, and convenience of passage through security checkpoints - as long as there is enough staff to oversee the process.
Biometrics / Facial Recognition Technology
The resurgence of travel post-pandemic coincides with a boom in the use of biometrics and digital identity in other realms of life, like unlocking mobile phones, and during financial transactions.
As Open Jaw reported 21FEB, Air Canada has become the first airline in Canada to introduce a pilot program that would allow pax the option to use facial recognition technology.
It may be the first in Canada, but according to Phocuswire, the technology began appearing at airports globally at least five years ago. The challenges of travel recovery may accelerate the adoption of biometric technology throughout global airports.
Proponents tout the ease of a system “where your face is your boarding pass” at the gate, without having to fish around for your passport or paper or digital boarding pass.
Sherry Stein, chief technology officer in the Americas for aviation technology company SITA, says of facial recognition technology: “We have proven metrics where we’re able to reduce boarding times by 30%,” and adds, “You get the efficiency gains. You get the improved passenger experience.”
And while some Canadian privacy experts express concerns about the use of biometrics in airports, Global News reports Canada is actually “playing catch up” compared with other countries:
- It quotes a McGill University aviation expert John Gradek, who explains that the technology has already been in place in a dozen U.S. airports since last fall;
- He also notes that travellers who join the Nexus frequent traveller program between Canada and the U.S. already provide biometric data to facilitate crossing the border.
European airlines and airports have also been early adopters of biometric/ facial recognition opportunities, with Phocuswire citing:
- KLM is piloting a program at AMS so that Canadians “do not have to show their passports and they can walk through with the biometrics;”
- FRA allows a full “biometric passenger journey” where pax can scan their faces at biometric touchpoints in the airport, allowing them to “seamlessly” move the entire journey from counter to security to self-boarding via a ‘Smart Path’ open to all airlines; and
- British Airways began a trial of biometrics from LHR T5 for some international flights late in 2022, where pax can choose to scan their face, passport and boarding pass on their smartphone at home, then in LHR, “smart bio-pod cameras” verify the traveller’s identity in “less than three seconds.” This new initiative actually follows a BA program of automated biometric technology that dates back to 2017 that scanned pax’ faces at security and matched them at the boarding gate.
It’s reassuring to learn that a return to peak travel chaos isn’t being left to chance. But as some observers point out, a number of the new initiatives, particularly involving technology, take time to implement and adopt, so they will not provide an immediate ‘magic bullet’ for smooth airline and airport operations - yet.