George Clooney in 2009’s Up in the Air plays Ryan Bingham, a consummate frequent flyer who uncovers the secrets of minimizing airport lineups while travelling for a job that involves firing people. Jam your life in a carry-on, he confides, avoid following slow “old people” at security screening checkpoints and tail Asians instead because “they pack light, travel efficiently and got a thing for slip-on shoes.”
After more than 30 years of progressively tighter screening and expanding lineups — brought to you by the 1985 Air India bombing, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and government underfunding — Clooney and the legions of execs who spend a lot of time up in the air might be impressed by the automation at the new international terminal at Calgary International Airport, or YYC.
The $2-billion, spacious expansion that opened October 31 to house international and U.S. flights introduces some of the most advanced technologies to speed up the processing of outbound and inbound passengers. Other Canadian airports will get the new tech, too, subject to funding and space availability, so Calgary offers a glimpse of the future of air travel.
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The new YYC wing features the first full deployment of the CATSA Plus system, which, assuming proper staffing, can more than double the current number of screened check-in bags, says Garth Atkinson, CEO and president of Calgary International. The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority process has multiple points where passengers place their bags, coats and anything else that needs to be X-rayed in fast-moving bins.
Agents watch the X-rayed belongings from a remote location, rather than at the checkpoints. Suspicious bags are sidelined into a default lane where their owners are summoned for further inspection. The good bags keep moving. “The biggest reason for slowdowns today is when bags stop at the bag X-rays,” Atkinson says. “The new system doesn’t stop running.”
Other Canadian airports will get the new tech, too, so Calgary offers a glimpse of the future of air travel
The technology was developed by U.K.-based MacDonald Humfrey (Automation) Ltd. and is already available in Europe, is beginning to be deployed in the U.S., and was successfully tested at Montreal’s Trudeau International Airport earlier this year. CATSA spokesperson Mathieu Larocque says wait times are often dependent on flight schedules, passenger arrival times and weather, but initial testing in Montreal has shown passengers are being processed faster, and Calgary’s full deployment should confirm it. “There is a lot of enthusiasm for CATSA Plus amongst airport authorities,” he says. “The goal is to have the equipment at all major airports in Canada, but we are moving prudently.”
U.S. pre-clearance and Canada custom inspections are also changing so that the majority of passengers interact with kiosks. At Canada customs, Canadian citizens and permanent residents as well as U.S. citizens scan their passport and customs declaration form at a cool-looking ABC (automated border clearance) kiosk. All other passengers still go through a traditional primary inspection and speak to an officer. The kiosk spits out a receipt that passengers present with their passport to an officer who confirms their identity and then makes the call on whether to do a secondary examination.
With 44 available kiosks, rather than 12 to 16 officers, the majority of passengers will be able to clear customs in seconds, thinning the dreaded lineups. “There are many more opportunities for travellers to make their declarations at one time rather than waiting to see a limited number of officers,” says Candace Lyle, chief of operations for Canada Border Services Agency at YYC. “We are very excited. It’s been a long time coming.”
Other new features at YYC include a process for connecting flights that doesn’t require international passengers to collect their bags or be subject to additional screening, as well as a super-fast baggage handling system that can process 4,000 bags an hour.
The improvements won’t mean a return to the good old days, when passengers could get on airplanes without any security screening at all. Atkinson, a 40-year veteran of the airport industry who’s retiring in December, remembers passengers could even buy a ticket on the Edmonton/Calgary shuttle after takeoff. But technology still needs proper staffing, he says, and airport screening has been slower than it should be since the federal government keeps a significant portion of the money it collects from passengers for airport screening, instead of funding improvements.
Before other Canadian airports are brought up to speed, Calgary YYC plans to use its enhancement as a competitive advantage. Despite the oil-price crash depressing the city, the airport welcomed a record 15.5 million passengers in 2015, up 2% from 2014, in part due to its efficient connecting processes. The new wing will make the process even better. “We think we will be the most efficient connecting hub in Canada, because of the timing of this new infrastructure and the process for people and baggage,” Atkinson says. Even Clooney couldn’t have predicted that beating airport line-ups would turn into such an institution.
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