Mo Gawdat and Daniel Coleman at FTE Global. Image: Ari Magnusson

This year’s FTE Global theme is transformation. “The lifespan for large corporations is shrinking,” proclaimed Daniel Coleman, founder of Future Travel Experience. “Companies need to constantly be in beta mode, but this is very hard for the aviation industry.” Is air travel adapting fast enough in a rapidly changing world?

Wednesday morning’s opening keynote was delivered by Mo Gawdat, Google X’s former chief business officer. He estimates that he has spent roughly 14% of his life in airports and wanted to talk about the industry from the “perspective of someone who knows not very much about it.”

“Everything we have seen in sci-fi will happen.” – Mo Gawdat

Gawdat’s observation is that air travel hasn’t changed much in the past 50 years: “The way I traveled yesterday, was exactly the same way I traveled when I was eight years old – just more complicated. Innovation is doing things differently, not engineering them so they are incrementally better. Is it really innovation to put a show in an Emirates Airbus A380?” Companies should assume that everything is possible, he advised. “If I make it, it will happen. We are living in a science fiction world. Everything we have seen in sci-fi will happen.”

Dr. Joe Leader. Image: Ari Magnusson

On an afternoon panel, APEX CEO Dr. Joe Leader offered a different view. He believes that we are currently in a golden age of air transportation. “There is more entertainment and connectivity on board flights and soon the industry will offer more personalization than ever before because of our smartphones and smart watches.”

Airlines need to “think at where technology is today, and then plan a few steps ahead,” he said. For example, Leader defends airlines that have built-in cameras in seatback IFE, despite the public outcry, because passengers may come to expect to be able to use gesture-based controls to operate IFE systems in the near future.

Biometric verification technology, he added, will help airline passengers travel more securely because they will own their data. He suggested that the technology is a very fair way to get stakeholders to work together.

An earlier morning briefing and workshop by the US Customers and Border Protection Agency (CBP) and Transportation Security Agency (TSA) about how biometric facial recognition technology is being rolled out at major US airports added weight to Leader’s claim about biometrics.

Mike Hardin. Image: Ari Magnusson

“The problem with our current system is that we split people into US and foreign nationals, it wastes a lot of time. At the moment, you might get stuck behind a family of six,” said Mike Hardin, director of Policy, Entry/Exit Transformation at the US Customs and Border Protection Agency.

“We can make it faster and more secure. We are not used to thinking this way.” – Mike Hardin, CBP

Hardin said the CBP is moving toward a system where travelers will have an experience where they “don’t have to worry” about their documents and have “peace of mind” by just using their face to board flights. “We can make it faster and more secure. We are not used to thinking this way. We have thought of it in a zero-sum game way where more security meant a slower process.”

Austin Gould, the TSA’s assistant administrator for Requirements and Capabilities Analysis, and a self-confessed “analog guy,” shared similar enthusiasm. “It is very rare that you can find a technology that can do so much for aviation. It will improve security because threats are real and it will get people through the gates more quickly,” he said.

Automatic boarding gates provided by SITA are already in place at Orlando International Airport and are being used by 14 airlines, with another seven planning to use them in the near future. Sherry Stein, SITA’s head of Technology Strategy, Americas, said the automatic gates have already reduced boarding times by 30% for the airlines using them at the airport.

Can airports and airlines adopt the beta mode mentality that Coleman mentioned in his opening remarks? And how can the industry think about the future and plan ahead when the pace of change is so quick?

“I think the biggest thing to keep in mind is to remain flexible about how we plan.” – Lynette DuJohn, Vancouver International Airport

Lynette DuJohn, vice-president of Information Technology and Chief Digital Officer at Vancouver International Airport, offered a pragmatic answer to this question: “When you look at the change that is hitting our industry, we need to be more cost-effective. Who knows which tech will take off and how we will use it in the future? I think the biggest thing to keep in mind is to remain flexible about how we plan. For example, what if passenger drones become real? We’ll then need to have the infrastructure to support this at YVR.”