The Future of Air Travel: How AI Will Reimagine Airports


As global air travel continues to rebound and passenger volumes increase, airports and airlines are turning to artificial intelligence (AI) to transform the passenger experience. 

At this year’s SXSW conference in Austin, Bernadette Berger, Director of Innovation at Alaska Airlines, moderated a discussion with her colleague Celley Buchanan, VP of Airport Operations, as well as Ian Law, Chief Digital Transformation Officer at Los Angeles World Airports, and Matt Gilkeson, CTO of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The panellists shared insights into how AI is already reshaping the air travel journey from curb to gate.

Enhancing wayfinding and navigation

One of the most promising applications of AI is in enhancing wayfinding and navigation within airports. Ian Law emphasised the importance of real-time information for passengers: “You want to know what’s going on right now. Are the roads busy or the security checkpoints busy? Which checkpoints are much easier than others?”

Law painted a future where your smartphone will guide you step-by-step to your gate, with personalized recommendations based on your preferences. 

Running late? The app might suggest the quickest security checkpoint. Have time to spare? It could point you to your favourite coffee shop or a quiet place to work. AI-powered wayfinding has the potential to both reduce stress and elevate the overall travel experience.

Transforming security screening

AI is also poised to transform the security screening process. Matt Gilkeson discussed the potential of AI, particularly generative AI, to revolutionize airport security. 

He drew a comparison between the impact of generative AI on the AI field and the potential impact of self-driving cars on the automotive industry. Just as self-driving cars can be a game-changer for transportation, generative AI has the potential to transform the way we interact with and utilize AI technology.

Gilkeson highlighted that generative AI democratises access to AI capabilities through common language, making it easier for non-technical individuals to harness its power. 

In the context of airport security, this could mean using AI to automate and streamline various aspects of the screening process. The TSA is already exploring the use of biometrics and mobile driver’s licenses to verify passengers’ identities, reducing the need for physical documents and speeding up the process. 

According to Gilkeson, one glimpse of how security screening may look in the future comes from Las Vegas, which trialled a new self-scan security system earlier this month. Gilkeson  called it “an opportunity for us to explore how the different pieces of passenger interaction could be automated, or (to look at) those touch points that drive greater efficiency.”

Streamlining baggage handling

Another area where AI promises to make a significant impact is baggage handling. Airlines and airports are testing AI-powered robotics to streamline the movement of luggage from check-in to the plane, with the goal of minimizing lost and mishandled bags, a major source of passenger frustration.

Celley Buchanan stressed the importance of this development:

“I think the biggest opportunity for airlines is keeping people with their bags. Imagine a world where we do not have lost bags. It is one of the biggest pain points. You want to get somewhere on time, and you want your bag with you.”

Buchanan emphasized that along with AI providing predictive passenger movement, predictive baggage movement would be a “game changer.”

While AI has the potential to automate many aspects of the travel experience, the panel stressed that it is not meant to replace human interaction entirely.;

“AI isn’t meant to replace that human interaction instead. It’s meant to enhance it and really give tools to our folks so that they can better anticipate needs to solve for problems before they even become problems,” said Buchanan.

By freeing up staff from mundane tasks, AI can allow them to focus on delivering high-touch, personalized service where it matters most.

Finally, the panel discussed several airports around the world that they considered innovative in their approach to enhancing the passenger experience and adopting new technologies. 

Singapore Changi Airport, Doha, Dubai,  London Heathrow, Amsterdam Schiphol and the two Tokyo Airports – Narita and Haneda – were mentioned.

In the US, Gillekson said that airports like LaGuardia Terminal B in New York and Denver International Airport have rethought their business models and are working on transforming the passenger experience. 

However, at the same time, he pointed out that, internationally, airports often have more flexibility in implementing innovative solutions because they operate under different regulatory mandates. The airport transit environment is also very different, with the US having significant domestic transit traffic and 70 international gateways, not just one or two.