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Terminal technology: a look back, a look ahead

Terminal technology: a look back, a look ahead

By Rob Lovitt, msnbc.com contributor

Reporting from the Future Travel Experience 2011 in Vancouver, B.C.

The future – it’s not what it used to be.

In travel, as in so many areas of modern life, things are now changing so quickly that it’s almost impossible to predict what getting from Point A to Point B will look like in 10 or 20 years.

Which keeps Rohit Talwar, CEO of Fastfuture.com, a very busy man. As the keynote speaker at this year’s Future Travel Experience (FTE) conference, he pointed to changes in demographics, geo-politics and technology that will present opportunities and challenges to travelers and travel providers alike.

Amid that volatile environment, however, one thing is certain. When it comes to travel, Talwar told msnbc.com, “People will expect seamless processes, instant updates of key information and the ability to maximize their time while minimizing disruption.”

Given FTE’s focus – the event’s theme is “Innovation to enhance the passenger experience on the ground” – most of the sessions and working groups dealt with the airport experience. From check-in to security to boarding, technology providers showcased the latest developments in bag-tagging, biometrics and identity verification.

But even as industry suppliers continue to roll out new scanners, kiosks and other capital-intensive systems, they’re dealing with a customer base that’s increasingly carrying its own cutting-edge technology. Smartphones, especially next-generation ones equipped with Near Field Communications (NFC) chips that will combine location-based services, payment options and other as-yet-undetermined capabilities, promise to remake the airport experience all over again.

“Technology will be central to our lives and we’ll expect travel providers to make use of our technology and provide information, services, rewards and purchasing opportunities through our devices,” said Talwar. “We won’t want to have multiple checkpoints in the airport – once we’ve signed in with our NFC-enabled devices, we’ll expect that to be enough to navigate us through the airport.”

Whether the industry is up to the task comes down to companies’ commitment, their capital budgets and the always-challenging interplay between airlines, airports and government authorities.

Ultimately, the air-travel industry is on the cusp of major change and it’s too early to tell how it will play out for individual airlines and airports. But technology – both in the industry and in travelers’ pockets – will only play a larger role as time goes on.

A lot of the current focus is on self-service boarding, bag-tagging, etc., said Talwar, but he believes that’s only the beginning: “I think the process will accelerate and the industry will feel real customer pressure to accelerate the pace of innovation.”

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.

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