Once again, today’s airports are proving that ‘science sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic’
By Dan Booth
As air travel descends from flying through the dark clouds of a two-plus-year pandemic, the industry is finding itself landing on some very different ground. While topics like sustainability and operational glitches have dominated headlines, a less chaotic but equally far-reaching aviation evolution has been changing the groundside experience for travelers.
In June, Delta Air Lines officially opened its new Terminal C at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. The 1.3-million-square-foot facility replaces the airline’s old C and D terminals, giving passengers access to a total of 37 gates spread across four concourses through a centralized departures and arrivals hall, officially known as the Delta Sky Way at LGA. Likewise, April saw the carrier debut a new Terminal 3 at Los Angeles International, part of a $2.3 billion investment at the Southern California airport. And in December 2021, the airline together with New York officials broke ground on a $1.5 billion expansion of its Terminal 4 to consolidate operations at John F. Kennedy International. It’s all part of a $12 billion investment the carrier is making on the ground and in the air.
However, the ambitious plans are revealing more about the future of air travel than just increased square footage and stylish design (although certainly these are also evident in abundance in most newer airports across the globe). The real game-changer is in the technology that’s coming online to enable the passenger’s experience.
For example, Delta’s Sky Ways at both LGA and LAX feature a digital backwall in the check-in lobby that’s longer than the wingspan of a 777-300. The display features TSA wait times, wayfinding in both English and Spanish as well as Sky Club volume and gate information. In airports across its system, Delta is continuing to roll out features that let customers make use of their ‘digital identity’ – which consists of their SkyMiles Member number, passport number and Known Traveler Number – for checking luggage, passing through security and boarding their flights, all without having to show a government ID or paper boarding pass.
The system is currently in use at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International, at JFK, in the new terminals at LaGuardia and LAX, and at Detroit Metropolitan, where Delta began testing the biometrics technology in 2018.
Parallel Reality Now DTW is the site of yet another Delta gee-whiz launch, with a trial of something call Parallel Reality. The technology allows up to 100 customers looking at the same single digital screen to simultaneously see personalized content tailored to each individual. No special headsets or glasses are required – as Delta says “Each viewer will get a unique and personalized experience, even as they stand next to dozens of other viewers enjoying their own uniquely personalized experiences.”
The feat is accomplished through an amazing labyrinth of proprietary technologies from a company called Misapplied Sciences. Each pixel in the display can simultaneously emit a multitude of controllable light rays of different colors, thus allowing different messages to appear on the same screen – including personalized wayfinding, flight information or updates to boarding times – all in the viewer’s selected language preference. The position from where the light rays are visible is computed based on each viewer’s relative position, using sensors and tracking.
Furthermore, the information follows the customer, so from the time the passenger opts in, the personalized message moves from screen to screen as the traveler progresses through the terminal. But surprisingly, all this magic does not use biometrics, according to a statement from Misapplied Sciences reported on the tech website Gizmodo. Instead, “an overhead sensor detects the presence and location of viewers, using anonymous non-biometric object detection – the sensor sees people as objects without recognizable features.” The system works this way: • After moving through security, customers will see the Parallel Reality display near the Delta Sky Club (Concourse A, McNamara Terminal). • Passengers scan their boarding pass. • Customers enrolled in digital identity through the Fly Delta App can activate the feature at the exhibit kiosk. “When a viewer opts into the experience at the registration counter by scanning a boarding pass, or their digital identity, a private viewing zone is created at the viewer’s location, and the display directs relevant flight information to that zone,” the Misapplied Sciences statement reads. “As the viewer moves around, the non-biometric overhead sensor continually shifts their private zone to their new location. This allows the viewer to see their own personalized content even as they move.”
Delta first unveiled the technology in partnership with Misapplied Sciences back in January 2020 at the 53rd Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The carrier had planned to launch a trial of the service later that year, but the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the trial back to 2022.
That year at CES, Delta CEO Ed Bastian laid out his vision of a future end-to-end solution to ease the pain of travel. In an app-centric world, passengers can request luggage delivery from home to hotel, and start watching flight entertainment on their smartphone along the way and pick up where they left off on their seatback screen inflight.
Once at the airport, Bastian predicted, the app connects their personal itinerary to Delta flight monitors so that passengers will see only the information that pertains to them, as they are tracked through the airport en route to the gate and be alerted when it is their time to board. And, WiFi will be free for everyone.
“The future is multi-modal,” Bastian proclaimed to the assembled CES multitude. “We see technology as a tool to further our mission of connecting people and creating opportunities. We’re not chasing shiny objects or tech for the sake of being cool. We are dedicated to solving your travel problems and making your voyages – and your lives – easier.”
Pandemics notwithstanding, it looks like the future may be now.