What is the future of the airport?

In her book, The Imaginative Landscape of Christopher Columbus, Valerie Flint observed that Christopher Columbus believed until the end of his life that he had reached the ‘Indies,’ as he had intended. As we know, Columbus was wrong. Yet his assumption was not unreasonable; Columbus based his belief on nearly 2000 years of the accumulated insights of early explorers and geographers.  

Columbus had the challenge of anyone seeking to understand a world distant from their own, whether in time or space. Informed by inherited images and outmoded assumptions about the way the world worked, he could not accurately interpret his geographical position.

Today’s aviation stakeholders have the same challenge: the airport of today is the product of industrial-age assumptions. As a result, the standard definition of any airport is that it is a liminal space, a transitional space, a no-mans’ land. It does not have an identity as a place in itself but as a passageway between other places. This definition relies on inherited assumptions about geography, geopolitics, transportation, distance, even manufacturing and production.

These assumptions are being radically undermined by emerging and converging technologies, as well as transformations in our social and political world. We are now faced with questions as basic as those of Christopher Columbus about the contours of our world; What are its boundaries when suborbital space flight is a reality—which it will be in the next year or two?

Airports without (National) borders

The airport of today is an intrinsic part of the international order that we call Westphalian sovereignty. Airports are international borders. You cannot move around some parts of an airport without a passport. Duty free shopping is a function of international tax regimes. When we enter the airport, we enter the concerns of nation-states.

Yet, what if the international order changed? The concept of a de-territorialized identity is on the rise. In 2016, a Globescan / BBC survey found that 49% of 20,000 respondents around the world answered Yes to the statement “I see myself as more of a global citizen than a national citizen.”

Zach Weinersmith, best known as a webcomic artist, wrote a book a few years back exploring what it might be like if one day we were citizens of voluntary ‘anthro states’ in which individuals self-segmented themselves into non-territorial states.

It sounded ludicrous.

But then, Bitnation came along. Bitnation is a real organization built on blockchain technology that permits people to voluntarily self select into their own nations. And although they are not formally recognized as a state, they are partnered with a real one–Estonia–which provides back-office services for marriages, births and business contracts.

A few years ago Bitnation offered to create secure identities for refugees using blockchain technology as a means to make up for people’s lack of documentation by a territorial state.

It sounded far fetched.

But then, in January 2018 the ID2020 Alliance was formed at the World Economic Forum to begin creating secure, transportable IDs for the world’s 1.1 billion undocumented people. Microsoft and Accenture are founding partners in this public-private alliance.

Will technology, the pressures on the nation-state and the rise of global sensibility and stateless people create a new form of identification in which we are tracked not by the borders we cross, but by way of our unique identifiers?

How will the role of the airport change?

Airports without airplanes

The airport of today is a place for airplanes to land and take off.

But what if it was something else? We have already seen that the future of air travel is local; passenger drones already exist, and NASA recently issued an industry ‘grand challenge’ to find ways to make unpiloted aircraft palatable to urban passengers. The airport of the future might be more like stations in cities, or “skyports” like those shared by design firms Corgan and Boka Powell at a 2018 Uber Elevate Summit.

Once this happens, the question arises: how will the integration of air travel into our urban fabric begin to shape consumer expectations about ‘traditional’ airports?

What if airplanes were trains? The French venture Akka Technologies has proposed building an aircraft body that boards people near where they live, before driving them–in the body of the plane–to the airport, where it attaches to its wings. Security checks take place en route to the airport. This, then, is a world with no airport at all.

Russian engineer Dahir Semenov is seeking funding for a high speed passenger train that flies between stations instead of riding on rails. It would be electrically tethered to ground rails and reach speeds faster than most trains (but slower than most planes).

There has so far been no great enthusiasm for Semenov’s idea among investors, but the larger point to be made is that the idea of transportation hybridity is real. The vehicles that we have grown accustomed to will not remain as they are, and the infrastructures that support them will change with in tandem.

future of aviation
Clockwise from top left: (1) a conceptual illustration of the Uber Elevate Skyport idea from BokaPowell. (2) a conceptual illustration of the Uber Mega Skyport idea from Corgan. (3) Semenov’s tethered flying train concept. (4) A depiction of the “Link & Fly” idea from Akka Technologies.

The final permutation of the airport might come with the addition of space tourism as well as space flight for research, manufacturing, commerce or conflict. The United States has issued 10 licenses for spaceports in the United States, more than are currently needed. Virgin Galactic has partnered with two Italian companies to develop a spaceport at an existing airport, Taranto-Grottaglie Airport in southern Italy.

The interior of the airport – reimagined

What if the interior space of the airport were radically reimagined? Abandon the assumption that the airport is merely a place of passage, and imagine a world in which the airport is an experience, or even the final destination.

The profitability of airport retail today depends on security protocols that lengthen passenger waiting times in the airport by hours. Efficiencies in security practices, such as facial recognition, may reduce that time, shifting the demand for airport services.

Alternatively, consider a world with less freight passage. For evangelists of 3D Printing, the end of shipping is nearly upon us. Just-in-time manufacturing, hyper-local production, and digital manufacturing or alternatively, recycling of goods at scale, could become the basis of manufacturing and procuring physical goods in the future.

Could this unfold at such a scale that it affects the global movement of goods? Today, this thought is speculative. Nevertheless, it is possible to imagine scenarios in which the need for large scale air cargo could shrink. What then, would we  do with the airport space available?

The airport of the future requires new paradigms

If the future of the airport isn’t a liminal space nor a boundary, what is it? Could it be part of the flow of a future with variegated forms of transport? Or part of a global civilization with different security practices? Or even part of a technological moment in which manufacturing is no longer the business of mass producers and shippers?

No one knows, exactly. But the paradigms around transport are changing, and will only continue to change. Those who begin to look into the world from the point of view of the emerging future will be in the best position to understand it, and take advantage of the opportunities it brings.

When it was finally understood that Christopher Columbus had discovered a continent that was previously unimagined by Europeans, the paradigm of the Earth changed. New maps could be drawn, and geographers could better understand the true dimensions of the continents.

Those who imagine the future based on emerging changes in geopolitics, culture and the technology of transport will open up new worlds for themselves. The route to this potential begins with a sensitivity to change as it unfolds today.

This article is adapted from a keynote delivered by global futurist Amy Zalman at the Airports Council International World Annual General Assembly. If you are considering a futurist keynote for your next event, please contact us to discuss.