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How automation could make airports more efficient

Passengers queue up outside a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint at Ronald Reagan National Airport
A security checkpoint at Reagan National Airport. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Implementing automation at airport bottlenecks could expedite drop-off, check-in, security, and boarding for flyers and employees.

Why it matters: Between 2016 and 2019, the number of passengers using U.S. airlines has increased by 10.9%. Last year, 1 in 7 travelers in the U.S. missed a flight due to long security lines.

Transportation authorities, airlines, tech companies, and others are experimenting with ways to automate and streamline airport pain points.

Curbside pick-up and drop-off: Ride-hailing services account for 62% of airport transportation for business travel, leading to increased congestion.

Check in: Many airports have self-serve “bag-drop” systems, where passengers interact with airport staff to confirm passenger identity. Delta Airlines is experimenting with automated biometric check-in screens that use facial recognition.

Security: The TSA allocated $71.5 million for adding more than 145 machine learning–based CT scanners into security checkpoints to expedite carry-on baggage inspections.

  • The further expansion of this technology could automate the detection of firearms, knives, explosives, lithium ion batteries and other prohibited items.
  • Metro21: Smart Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University and the Pittsburgh International Airport developed a model for estimating security wait times and distributing passengers across checkpoints.

Boarding: Since the 1970s, boarding times have more than doubled.

The impact: Automation of these processes could lead to job losses, but could also reduce TSA employee turnover.

The bottom line: Most major airports are projected to experience “Thanksgiving-peak traffic volume” at least once each week this year, and these technologies could potentially help alleviate the worst bottlenecks.

Karen Lightman is executive director of Metro21: Smart Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.