Travel-industry experts expect smoother air travel this holiday season as better technology streamlines security checks.
A record 45.7 million passengers are expected to fly on domestic airlines from Thursday to Jan. 6. But unlike holiday seasons past, they are unlikely to be standing in nightmarishly long lines.
“My hope is this Christmas will be a better, less stressful, more hassle-free airport-screening experience than last year,” said Henry Harteveldt, founder of Atmosphere Research Group, a travel-industry analysis firm in San Francisco.
Why? Better technology is one reason. The Transportation Security Administration has installed more effective equipment, like improved conveyor belts and 3D scanning machines, which give screeners a better view of the contents of travelers’ carry-on bags. The airlines and airports are testing biometric screening of passengers’ passports or other photo IDs.
And then, there are the dogs.
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The TSA is using more dogs trained to detect explosives. The dogs speed the security process because passengers have already been vetted for explosives by the time they reach the scanners. “They’re a very important layer of security,” an agency spokeswoman, Lisa Farbstein, said.
Of course, bad weather could throw a wrench into all the plans. But airlines also have an answer for that — apps that they say will allow travelers to reschedule their flights more quickly than standing in line at the ticket counter.
The result should be smoother travel.
“The industry is not ignoring the challenge of this,” Harteveldt said. “What I’m encouraged by is that steps are being taken, these new initiatives are being implemented and anything that can help move people through the screening faster is going to benefit everybody.”
Airlines are adding more flights on some of their busiest routes or switching to bigger planes to meet demand during the holiday period. Multiple factors are responsible for the surge in passenger traffic, a 5.2 percent rise over the comparable period last season, industry analysts say. A robust economy with low unemployment and rising wages has given Americans more money and more confidence about spending that money.
“We’re basically experiencing the impact of a strong economy,” said Dan McKone, senior partner and head of the travel and transportation practice at LEK Consulting. “While there’s a lot of mixed indicators impacting the markets, the overall economy remains strong and air-passenger growth tends to be most highly correlated with GDP,” he said.
While investors’ concern about economic growth has led to volatility in the stock market in recent weeks, it has also contributed to the slide in global oil prices that has translated to lower gas prices for drivers and cheaper jet fuel.
“Jet fuel has decreased, although it was up as much as 30 to 40 percent earlier this year,” Harteveldt said.
This is helping to keep ticket prices low, which also drives demand, especially among leisure travelers. According to data from the travel-booking platform Hopper, round-trip domestic ticket prices for holiday flights are averaging $304, a drop of nearly 10 percent from last year. (Prices for international flights ticked up a bit, rising $66 on average.)
“If you actually look at the average price of tickets in real terms adjusted for inflation, air traffic continues to be more and more affordable,” McKone said.
With ticket prices lower, more Americans will be flying, and Hopper estimates that overall spending will be 6 percent higher this holiday season than last. “Having lower prices definitely does drive demand,” McKone said.
Airlines for America, the industry trade organization, estimates that domestic airlines will add, collectively, 143,000 seats daily to accommodate holiday travelers, and according to Patrick Surry, chief data scientist at Hopper, much of that capacity is being added by the major carriers at large hub airports.
Southwest Airlines, for instance, announced new routes last month in Northern California and the Washington, D.C., area, as well as to popular warm-weather vacation destinations. United Airlines, which expects to transport roughly half a million passengers — a 4 percent increase over 2017 — on its peak holiday travel days, is increasing the frequency of flights to locations like the Caribbean and ski-resort areas, and plans to add nearly 20 domestic widebody aircraft to help manage full flights over the holidays, an airline spokesman, Charlie Hobart, said.
The airline industry is looking to technology to help prevent bottlenecks and move travelers from check-in to gate to boarding more quickly — not just for this holiday season, but into 2019 and beyond.
Last month, JetBlue installed its first biometric self-boarding gate at its Kennedy International Airport headquarters in New York. Instead of having passengers’ IDs checked by gate agents, a camera takes a picture. The photo is sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection server to compare with that person’s passport photo on file.
“They built the algorithm to compare those photos,” said Caryl Spoden, JetBlue’s head of customer experience. “Everything happens in two to three seconds,” she said, adding that the photo taken at the gate is not saved or stored.
“It does remove the manual passport verification. That is a good time saver,” she said. “It allows our crew members to interact with the customer in a more meaningful way.”
Spoden said the inaugural machine will process around 500 passengers a day over the holidays. “Our intent is to expand this to every gate at JFK and beyond,” she said.
Delta Air Lines has been testing facial-recognition boarding for the past two years, and this fall introduced its first biometric terminal at its Atlanta headquarters for travelers taking direct international flights on Delta or its code-share partners Aeromexico, Air France-KLM and Virgin Atlantic. Delta says the technology shaves nine minutes off boarding time per flight. American Airlines also started a biometric boarding program earlier this month at Los Angeles International Airport, which will be tested and evaluated for a 90-day period.
In the interim, though, there are the dog noses.
The TSA currently has roughly 1,000 dogs trained to detect explosives, and it trains about 350 new dogs a year. It also works with teams of K-9 handlers employed by state and local law-enforcement agencies. Last month the agency announced an initiative to allow private companies that train and handle explosives-detecting dogs to provide security for cargo air traffic, freeing up more of the TSA’s dogs to screen travelers.
Even though these early inroads into biometric and 3D scanning technology will help speed the journeys of a relatively tiny subset of the nearly 46 million people expected to fly during the holidays, industry analysts say they will help airlines cope with the long-term growth in passenger traffic.
“You’re still seeing this trend where the price of flying is increasing at a lower rate than general income, so you have, every year, a huge number of people around the world who take their first plane trip,” Surry, of Hopper, said.