Airports since 9/11 – what has changed?

The 9/11 terrorist attacks changed aviation forever. Two decades on, five senior industry stakeholders come together to discuss what is better, what is worse and what still needs to be done

The panel:

Airport operations: Robert Ramsey, executive vice president/chief operating officer, Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority

Security: Sally Nordeen, senior director of aviation & government solutions – Americas, Smiths Detection

Technology: Mitul Ruparelia, head of sales, UK, EMEA & India, Vision-Box

Architecture: Eric Niemy, senior associate director, Benoy

Retail: David Charles, president, COO, Marshall Retail Group


What has changed for the better?
“With the creation of the Department of Homeland Security [see 9/11: The Attacks, page 16] and its multifaceted security operations, there is an increased awareness of the importance of security. This goes for both airport employees and the travelling public,” said Robert Ramsey, executive vice president/chief operating officer of Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority. “And with the objectives of the Transportation Security Administration, there is an overall sense of confidence in air travel from the travelling public.”

Benoy advocates creating interactions between indoors and outdoors to help travellers move beyond the linear journey Benoy/ Jim Stephenson

Sally Nordeen, senior director of aviation and government solutions – Americas, Smiths Detection, said, “After September 11 there arose the need to protect air travel with best-in-class equipment. Manufacturers and regulators collaborated widely to develop technologies that would make travel safer and more efficient. In the US, the central role of the TSA helped facilitate and implement this collaboration to equip all airports with the latest security technology. For the past 20 years, thanks to R&D efforts, security screening solutions have continued evolving, with two objectives: offering passengers as seamless an experience as possible, while providing the highest possible level of safety.

“Another prominent change is the ongoing digitisation of the security journey. Manufacturers, regulators and airports are increasingly harnessing the power of remote and centralised screening, secure networking, artificial intelligence and machine learning to further improve safety and efficiency for the passenger. Collaboration and technological advancement have facilitated change for the better, and we will continue to witness even more positive changes in the future.”

For Eric Niemy, senior associate director at architects Benoy, cutting-edge technologies have developed and evolved to lessen any sense of inconveniences and help streamline security procedures, allowing them to blend into the background of the journey and not to dominate it. “Rapid technological advances like facial recognition software, self-check-in and baggage kiosks, self-boarding capability, even robotic concierges, will soon become standard-issue design features,” he said.

According to Niemy, such advancements are quickly shaping the airport of the future, and in more profound ways than simply the handling of passengers and their luggage from origin to their destination. He believes that integrated technologies and app-driven convenience have opened the door for more personalised, individual experiences.

Looking at the positive changes from a different perspective, David Charles, president and COO of Marshall Retail Group, told Airports International thatthe improvements include the creationof post-security environments anddwell time – a behavioural change for passengers, who now get to the airport earlier to clear security, giving them more time in the terminal. “Liquid and gel restrictions have opened up new commercial opportunities post-security that did not exist prior to 9/11,” he added.

What has changed for the worse?
In terms of negative impacts, the most obvious is the ramping up of the security process. While making travel safer, it has also rendered the airport experience significantly more stressful and frustrating for travellers.

Smiths Detection
A Smiths Detection computed tomography (CT) unit in situ at Los Angeles International Airport TSA Public Affairs/ Smiths Detection

“Passengers will attest that the most impactful consequence of events 20 years ago has been the introduction of intensive security protocols. These have led to compulsory and intrusive procedures which, in turn, have fundamentally changed how travel time is managed,” said Niemy. “As designers, we have been challenged to layer these demands on older, existing facilities which have limited flexibility to absorb their integration, inevitably downgrading the overall experience.”

Ramsey agrees: “With the detailed screening protocol now in place, anxiety and stress about travelling has increased. Sometimes there is a wait to be screened and the inconveniences that accompany this can become a nuisance to travellers. Additional time is needed to screen and handle bags. These processes also require more staff and equipment, which add to operational costs. That said, the processes have transformed the experience into one that is accepted as necessary for a more secure environment.”

“Airport terminals in the US are definitely ageing and they were not designed with a TSA screening process in mind, so the growth in passenger traffic (pre-COVID) has left many terminals suffering from capacity constraints,” said David Charles, adding that in 2020 the Airport Council International (ACI) reported that $115bn of airport infrastructure improvements was required within the next five years. Charles also noted that the Passenger Facility Charge cap has remained at $4.50 since 2001, “effectively eroding spending power as it is not indexed to inflation.”

Sally Nordeen points out that new threats continue to emerge, no longer predominantly linked to terrorism. “Dangers like COVID-19 and data vulnerabilities bring new challenges to the aviation space,” she explained, adding that Smiths Detection continues to invest in the application of new technologies, such as BioFlash, a pathogen monitoring tool used to detect the presence of airborne viruses, and its use of UV light to kill bacteria on trays at checkpoints. “These are just two examples of how innovative technology application is central to keeping people and assets safe into the future,” she concluded.

What has been the most significant development within your field?
For Sally Nordeen of Smiths Detection, one of the most significant developments, which she expects to continue to grow in popularity as part of an interconnected checkpoint solution, is the use of operational computed tomography (CT) technology at security checkpoints. “I would say that the use of CT technology at the checkpoint has been a revolution,” she told Airports International. “It allows airports and passengers to keep items such as laptops and water bottles in bags, increasing the speed of the checkpoint and improving passenger experience, as well as minimising touch points, something that is here to stay post-pandemic.”

Nashville International
Nashville International’s ‘BNA Vision’ expansion plan will accommodate Tennessee’s booming population, as well as the airport’s record-breaking passenger increases Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority

While Benoy’s Niemy accepts that the last 20 years have been bookended by “two seismic events”, namely 9/11 and COVID-19, for him there has been another, less visible, transformation: “An evolution in passenger expectations led by advancing technologies.” This, he said, has had a much more far-reaching impact on airport architects: “A key challenge for aviation hubs has been maintaining their relevance as focal points for communities and regions, including offering opportunities to attract more commercial revenue than a transport hub might traditionally support. Airports are moving frombeing function-dependent to multi-experiential destinations sitting at the heart of their communities.”

According to Mitul Ruparelia, head of sales, UK, EMEA & India at multinational technology specialist Vision-Box, the pandemic has accelerated the transition to contactless digital identification systems, with airports and airlines increasingly using the technology to boost customer confidence.

“The introduction of seamless automation at border controls and passenger screening has been a gamechanger for airports and airlines. The technology development has been a result of the challenges faced by both passengers and airports in navigating long queues and time-consuming processes,” he said, adding that 94% of respondents to a Vision-Box industry survey consider contactless/touchless technologies as a crucial immediate investment and that airports have to recognise the need to invest in such technologies if they want to grow.

What other changes would you like to see implemented?

Marshall Retail Group’s David Charles would like to see investment in airport infrastructure to create greater space for retail facilities. “From the ACI Economic Survey in 2018, we know that retail in North American airports accounts for just 8% of non-aeronautical revenues, well underperforming the global average of 30%,” he explained. “This is partly due to the lack of available space to develop in current terminals. We also see a direct correlation between the amount of retail space and the spend per passenger, as those terminals with more retail real estate yield a higher spend, telling us that many US airports are underperforming their commercial potential.”

In 2020, Marshall Retail Group opened the first-ever airport LEGO store in the US at Salt Lake City International Airport in Utah Marshall Retail Group

For Eric Niemy, it is a case of creating an environment where travellers can evolve from being ‘passengers’ to becoming ‘guests’: “Our goal is to place people at the core of our design philosophy, not just who they are but how they think, shop, entertain themselves, eat and spend money. Put another way, this means learning to design around them, from the inside-out.

“Airports must consider the opportunities they have to create meaningful branded spaces to make the travel experience more personal, more human. They need to consider elements that help the traveller move beyond the linear travel journey. These could include working more with nature and light; building interactions between indoor and outdoor, alongside introducing diverse lifestyle offerings such as retail and F&B destinations, culture and art. All of these will help a traveller connect more on an emotional level to an airport’s locale.”

For Sally Nordeen, it is a case of continuing to push technological developments, assisted by the infrastructure provided by the TSA’s Innovation Task Force. “Moreover,” she added, “we need to maximise the use of data and information-sharing between regulators and the relevant stakeholders to enable faster security outcomes. We want to enable customers to make data-backed business decisions that will improve the state of things.”

Ruparelia admits that the change he would most like to see – seamless automation – is already taking place, although he believes it needs to come about faster. He explained: “The adoption of seamless automation in border controls and passenger check-ins is already underway, but there is significant scope to scale up these technologies around the world.

“Contactless technologies are now making the case for themselves, without us having to market their benefits. The market understanding is there and airports are acting quickly to upgrade before the travel boom predicted for next year as countries open up.”

What are the greatest challenges that airports will be facing over the next decade and how can they address them?

“Here in Nashville, by far our biggest challenge is the growth of passenger volume and the demands that go hand-in-hand with that trend,” said Robert Ramsey. “We’re continuously challenged to find resources to fund necessary improvements and expansion, from additional security lanes and ticket counters to enhanced baggage systems and customer amenities.”

Vision-Box automated border control eGates for Nexus travellers at Winnipeg Richardson International Airport Vision-Box

For Marshall Retail Group’s David Charles, ageing infrastructure and the constraints it places on space are the greatest challenges from a concessions perspective: “There’s significant value from providing better concession services to travellers that remains locked, as a direct result of available space post-security.”

Architect Eric Niemy believes that the pace of advances overtaking the aviation industry only reinforces the need for airports to future-proof for inevitable growth and expansion in demand – both in passenger volume and expectations fed by personalised technologies. He added: “Conversely, diversifying the mix of non-transport revenue streams will mitigate the risks of an uncertain pattern such as demonstrated by the painful redundancies imposed during the ongoing COVID cycle.”

Niemy considers that a core challenge for airports will be remaining relevant to their community and users as a relatable brand and destination. “Strategic, well-planned and executed upgrades, renovation and expansion, aligned to strong commercial strategy, will be key to their success,” he told Airports International. “By recognising and planning for the constantly evolving demands of their users, airports can ensure their hubs remain vital and relevant destinations within their communities well into the future.”

For Smiths Detection’s Nordeen, the greatest challenge will be to stay ahead of evolving dangers and security threats. “We need to continue to work together as an industry to advance and protect,” she said. “Beyond this, the whole industry needs to work towards reducing its carbon footprint, cutting energy needs and maximising the space available. To achieve this, we need to continue to partner with airports to help them improve their passengers’ experience, while concurrently reducing operational costs and improving operational efficiency.”

Like Robert Ramsey, Vision-Box’s Mitul Ruparelia sees space – or the lack thereof – as an enormous challenge, noting that many of his customers are expecting a massive post-COVID travel boom: “The actual challenge here is that airport real estate is finite and can only be expanded to an extent. In most cases, there is no place to expand the land area further to accommodate passenger numbers. This is where smart seamless passenger management can deliver – using automation and biometric technologies, we can minimise face-to-face interactions to utilise a smaller footprint at airports and avoid holding up people and creating bottlenecks.”