While our ever-more-connected world means that there is an increasing amount of information available, boarding an airline flight still sometimes proves to be a major hassle. Heathrow Airport in London has now begun to roll out its ‘Positive Boarding’ system, a process which uses automated entry gates linked to an information and communication system designed to guide passengers and keep airlines informed.

Airports: ‘Smart’ Entry Gates Designed to Streamline Passenger Flows

Although baggage traceability systems are now in widespread use at airports, the only way to chivvy passengers towards their departure gates in good time is still the system of – frequently inaudible – calls over the loudspeakers. Late check-ins are easily spotted and can be dealt with. However, it is far more disruptive when a checked-in passenger fails to turn up at the correct boarding gate. Once the passenger’s baggage has been loaded on to the aircraft, the airline has little option but to wait for him/her to show up. The flight may have to be delayed, miss its take-off slot, sometimes causing a knock-on effect that results in delays to more and more flights in turn. In order to overcome this problem, Heathrow Airport has installed automated entry gates  just ahead of the security area, where passengers scan their standard boarding passes on their way to security, before then continuing to the shopping area and the departure gates. When passengers’ boarding cards are scanned, a screen will provide them with all the information they need for boarding.

Route to departure gate, timing and (perhaps) baggage offloading

So far the system has been installed in Terminals 1 and 3 at Heathrow. It is intended to guide passengers through all stages of their journey through the airport. The screens give them instructions according to the amount of time remaining before boarding. For instance, if passengers are standing at a screen far away from their departure zone, it will tell them the best way to get there fast. As boarding time approaches, gates will help to fast-track passengers with ‘urgent’ boarding cards straight through to the security check. However, given that international airports often consist of a veritable maze of passageways it will still not always be possible to get to the gate in time. In such cases, the airline personnel will be alerted, the passengers’ baggage will be offloaded and the airline will contact the passengers so that they can book on to another flight.

Positive trial results encourage general rollout

Airlines Virgin Atlantic and Little Red helped to pioneer the new service. During the first week trials, 35,000 passengers successfully used the Positive Boarding technology. The data shows that fully 44% of the flights had passengers who might potentially have delayed the departure. Of these travellers, 700 were advised by the automatic information display to make their way promptly to the departure gate to ensure they did not miss, or delay, the flight. Ten late-running passengers were instructed to go back to the check-in desk as they no longer had sufficient time to clear security and make their flight. This meant the airline was able to offload their baggage and depart on time. The trials indicated that the system works well and it is due to be rolled out at Heathrow’s Terminal 4 shortly. The system joins a range of other connected services, as Terminal 3 Director Kathryn Leahy explains: “Positive Boarding is the latest innovation that is being used by passengers throughout the entire departure process, from checking in via mobile phones to self-service bag-drops where passengers can generate and attach their own bag-tags before placing their luggage on to the automated facility.”

By Pierre-Marie Mateo