Imagine arriving at the airport with no bags and boarding a plane without a single human interaction.
That’s where Edmonton International Airport is headed after the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the move toward digitization and touchless technology. “Even security — you could go scan in, it does your facial recognition to tie you to your passport, you walk through a scanner… That technology exists to be able to do that,” says Steve Maybee, vice president of Operations and Infrastructure with EIA. “The whole process for a passenger can be digitized so you don’t talk to a single person till you get on a plane.”
“That goes along with hygiene, that goes along with passengers feeling comfortable and safe flowing through the airport,” Maybee says.
EIA is eyeing self-boarding at the gates, eliminating the final face-to-face checking of passports and boarding passes. The biggest barrier right now is federal regulations, though Maybee is optimistic that Transport Canada is on board.
The airport is also looking into some cutting edge moves that feel more in the science fiction realm. EIA has done trials with autonomous delivery robots that bring food orders to gates, like the Ottobots fleet unveiled last winter at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, and is also talking with companies about experiential retail experiences like virtual reality (VR) fitting rooms that overlay 3D models of items over the customers through their smartphone cameras.
Early baggage pickup is also in the works, which could allow passengers to drop off their luggage at an outlet mall or even have it picked up from their own homes and brought to an Amazon-style fulfilment centre, so they can arrive empty handed on the days of their flights.
With fully touchless technology, a passenger should be able to schedule a precise time to go through security and avoid arriving two hours in advance.
“We want the software to be futuristic in nature,” Maybee says. “Check-in counters and that type of process is archaic… When we’re doing this planning, we’re thinking five, 10 years out.”
Canadian Airports Council interim president Monette Pasher says airport technology “leap-frogged” during the pandemic out of necessity.
Pasher acknowledges privacy concerns need to be at the forefront of these rapid changes. She says people will have to opt in to the touchless technology, which some will no doubt find invasive or creepy. Those who don’t trust the robots will have an option to use the “old paper ways.”
“That full digitization process for our boarder, biometric verified so your face would be used for check-in and credit card and lounge access and boarder clearance and NEXUS, all of these steps — that’s the ultimate vision,” Pasher says.
The timeline for investing in these technologies will depend on how quickly business returns after the pandemic knocked the aviation industry to its knees in 2020. Pasher projects that airports across Canada will get roughly half the traffic in 2022 that they did in 2019, year over year.
Maybee says EIA was up to roughly 50 per cent of regular traffic levels by mid-March this year, and hopes to hit 80 per cent by the end of 2022. Some vendors that closed during the pandemic are returning as domestic flights fill up, though people remain hesitant about international travel as COVID-19 regulations remain uneven around the globe.
A return to business as usual will bring with it a need for workers, which presents another challenge for the aviation industry. EIA laid off 30 per cent of its staff during the pandemic — about 100 people — which is actually lower than the 50 per cent across Canada.
Maybee says EIA is having a hard time bringing people back because many potential workers don’t see the industry as being secure yet. The skill sets required are also changing, with digitization creating a need for more IT-type workers who are already in a highly competitive market.
“The challenge now is, aviation used to be a very secure, safe environment for employees to work in. You get a job in aviation and it was a long-term career. The airlines, the ground handlers, de-icing, all those different entities that are on site, during the downturn with the pandemic people were either laid off, put on long-term leave, or they just chose to leave the industry. A lot also took retirement.”
Maybee says the costs of the technological advances will be offset by lower staffing needs and the ability to move more passengers through the airport, so ticket prices shouldn’t spike as things progress.
Travellers passing through Edmonton in the near future can ultimately expect a faster, cleaner, but less human experience.
EIA Launched its Innovation Expansion strategy before the pandemic hit.
It laid out plans to up its capacity by using new technology rather than adding physical space. The strategy will allow as many as 15 million travellers to pass through per year, compared to the current nine million. In addition to obvious changes like sanitization stations, social-distancing measures have forced airports to move faster on developing digital technologies like the touchless kiosks Edmonton is rolling out over the next three years along with Toronto, Montreal and Calgary.
This article appears in the June 2022 issue of Edify