Aviation futurists envision a time when air travel won’t be such a slog — where driverless cars deliver us to the airport, and mind-numbing lines to check luggage and clear security are a distant memory — thanks to technology that scans your face and fingerprints and even tracks your wayward suitcase.
The number of people departing from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is expected to grow from 18.5 million passengers to about 27 million over the next two decades. As more people opt to fly, airport planners and an enormous 29-member advisory panel, packed with tenant, business, tourism, government, passenger and community representatives, will try to suss out what trends will stick and how the airport will need to evolve.
“We’re getting a lot of input, looking at the types of passengers flying, the technology, how people go through security — those are some of the things that were identified at the beginning that we’ll keep in mind,” said Dana Nelson, director of stakeholder engagement for the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC). The plan, which will likely be adopted by the MAC and the Metropolitan Council sometime next year, will serve as a guide for future projects at the airport.
A few broad themes have emerged early, including how people will get to the airport, how it can accommodate more international airlines, the future of aviation security, and amenities for aging baby boomers and tech-savvy millennials.
In short, “People want to get into the airport, park, check in, get through security and get to the gate in the most efficient way possible,” said MAC spokeswoman Melissa Scovronski.
Dramatic changes ahead
Aviation experts say the way passengers get to the airport will change dramatically, especially if driverless cars become a reality in coming years. But “based on the information so far, there’s no consensus on how that’s going to look in 20 years, so we’ll likely be developing some alternatives,” said Neil Ralston, MAC airport planner.
In addition, “with more travelers beginning and ending their travel at MSP Airport than in the past, the curbside, roadways and public transit areas are becoming more and more congested,” an early report from the panel states. As ride-sharing becomes the norm, alternative pickup locations for travelers may need to be identified.
Although the airport spans more than 3,000 acres, it’s relatively constrained in terms of space for expansion. Still, “we have room, not a lot of room, but we have some areas that can handle expanded facilities,” Ralston said.
Inside the airport’s two terminals, planners will have to figure out how to make existing space more accessible for aging baby boomers.
“As airports get bigger to accommodate more people, the distances between point A and point B are getting farther and farther away, especially at a hub airport like Minneapolis,” where passengers need to make connecting flights, said Janet Bednarek, an aviation historian at the University of Dayton. “As you get older you can’t move that fast traveling great distances on foot.”
One service that will likely need to expand is U.S. Customs and Border Protection operations at both terminals — especially if the airport wants to attract more international airlines to the fold. Consolidating both operations into one terminal “would have numerous major impacts to airline tenants in both terminals,” the report notes.
Even though Terminal 1 has been in the news lately for long waits at security checkpoints due to a renovation project in the ticketing lobby, the plan won’t address how the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) does its job. Ralston said the group will look at how checkpoints perform and then provide recommendations if an infrastructure fix is needed.
Most aviation experts say technology, such as face, eye and finger scans, will alleviate some of the inefficiencies of air travel, including standing in line for security, baggage, check-in and boarding. A recent report from the San Francisco-based architectural firm Gensler noted, “The present day airport is about waiting. The near-future airport will be about moving.”
Younger generations will also be interested “in making airports green,” Bednarek said. “Airports and aviation are major contributors to the carbon footprint of the world, and moving them toward sustainability will appeal to them.”
It’s unclear how these concerns will play out in MSP’s long-term plan. Jim Spensley, president of South Metro Airport Action Council, is critical of the process because he says the panel does not include anyone from the community concerned about noise and environmental issues.
At a public event held earlier this month at the Mall of America, MAC officials discussed how airlines will increasingly fly bigger airplanes over the next two decades. An airfield capacity study is underway to determine how close-in airspace will fare under different aircraft activity levels.
Anti-noise activists aren’t impressed.
“The MAC’s long-term comprehensive plan is to continue to ‘oversee’ or ‘mitigate’ the impact of aircraft noise on the Twin Cities, not to look for ways to actually reduce aircraft noise,” said Kevin Terrell of the MSP FairSkies Coalition, which represents more than 4,000 metro residents concerned about aviation growth at the airport. “Meanwhile, the MAC and the Federal Aviation Administration continue to hide behind outdated notions of how to measure noise and how to engage with the community.”
Terrell said recent controversy about aircraft noise in Eagan “is just another example of this dysfunctional, reactive approach, and we are weary of it.”