Nasa does it all the time with its fleets. It closes its eyes and imagines what the leading technological requirements and capabilities for craft will be in 30 years. At present that 30-year prediction is for craft with super speed and super efficiency, and in many cases, a combination of both. So why can't airports do the same?
An expected three-fold growth in worldwide airline traffic is the impetus to Nasa's studies and you would think airports would already be taking this into account. According to Nasa, our next-generation aircraft will have the capabilities to fly a passenger from New York to Tokyo in just a few hours by achieving hypersonic speeds – but how will the airports at either end accommodate more passengers passing through at such speed?
The real question for passenger is: What does it matter if you can cross the planet in two hours if it takes you six hours to get to the terminal, pass through security and wait out weather and maintenance delays?
Delay upon delay
Our post 9/11 airline world is still one of delay, check and cross-check, followed by more delay. The aircraft may be green, they may be able to go supersonic without producing a noisy boom, but if the methods of passenger and cargo handling aren't radically changed, all the new airborne technology in the world won't mean very much once the passenger hits the ground.
It is obvious that we can't go back to the extremely user-friendly airline terminals of old. Places like Dallas Fort Worth and Kansas City, which in the olden days before weapons checkpoints would allow a passenger to get out of a car or cab and take only 20 steps to their waiting airliner, would not work with today's security requirements.
But some movement towards improvement is still needed. Most airline terminals are designed around the idea of a train station. You find news vendors, restaurants and shops, along with hard, bench-like seating, loud public announcements and restrooms that are set up more for a stadium crowd than a pampered passenger.
A great many airline terminals have used their space to build huge shopping areas. Large stores usually found in shopping malls have taken up residence and sell everything from clothing to electronic equipment, totally ignoring the carry-on restrictions that passengers will face as they approach their airline gate. And assuming that a passenger can even find a parking spot within the confines of the airport, he or she must hike a great distance only to enter the first of many waiting lines before access to an airline flight would be granted.
Airports of the future
What if the designers and builders of airports could close their eyes and look into the future so today's design can help meet the needs of the future? Parking could be miles away in a convenient and free lot, with a frequent rail service to the terminals. Security check-points could also be at these outlying parking lots freeing up pedestrian traffic at the terminal.
Baggage could also be handled in this manner. Imagine leaving your bag just outside your car when you depart and finding it adjacent to your car when you get back home. No more lugging heavy baggage through terminals and waiting in one line after another.
Delays, both airborne and on the ground could be mitigated by a better use of ATC flow techniques coupled with a real-time information system available to all passengers.
Airlines could emphasise giving the delayed passenger all pertinent information immediately and perhaps look on them as valued customers instead of an angry mob in need of control.
Hypersonic flight will be nice but wouldn't hypersonically seamless passenger handling be even more wonderful?