The end of long airport lines is approaching the runway

Details are everything.

And time really is money.

It's hard to imagine where these old saws could be more apt than in aviation - especially since global air travel is expected to double, roughly, between the beginning of this new decade and its end.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a standards-setting body of the United Nations, with headquarters in Montreal, is abuzz over new technologies being counted on to unclog air-travel congestion. At the "macro" end these developments include satellite-based air-traffic control systems; at the "micro" end they include "smart cards" that will let you breeze through passport controls with the nonchalance of an urban commuter swiping a transit pass at a subway turnstile.

Indeed, ICAO sees passport lines as one of the unexpected bottlenecks in the transportation system. The ICAO standard time for a departing passenger to be "processed" - from airline check-in to aircraft pushing back from the gate - is 60 minutes. The standard for arriving passengers - from stepping off the plane to emerging from the arrival hall - is 45 minutes.

It's a standard often honored in the breach, and immigration checks are part of the problem. That's why Rod Heitmeyer, ICAO's expert on "machine-readable travel documents," is eager to see that change. In fact, it's already changing.

For several years now, many countries' passports, including those of Canada and the United States, have included a line of coding, like the hieroglyphics across the bottom of canceled checks from the bank, that lets them be read using optical character-recognition technology. This saves immigration officials from having to manually key a passport number into a computer to check against the "lookout list."

The next step, to be taken "soon" by Canada and being considered by Britain, says Mr. Heitmeyer, is the introduction of passport cards authenticated by some form of biometric identification: The card would be encoded with electronic data representing the owner's face, or perhaps hand geometry, fingerprints, or voice. Passengers could use passport cards to "clear" themselves, in effect.

Global standardizations are still being worked out, but the "biometric of choice," Heitmeyer says, is the face." Nobody objects to having a photograph on a passport."

A smart-card passport system would work something like this: Travelers present themselves at kiosks and pop their cards into the slot. The machine checks the face of the person before it to ensure that the card is in the hands of the right person. The machine also checks the passport against the "lookout list." Approved travelers proceed to baggage claim. If officials, monitoring the whole proceedings remotely, want to intercept a traveler, they can simply pluck him out of the crowd at the baggage carrousel.

In the near term, smart-card passports would be used for trips requiring no visas. But Heitmeyer foresees cards that could contain an electronic visa, and electronic coding for "preclearance" programs, such as the INSPASS system run by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service to speed entry into the US by frequent business travelers.

A group of airlines, airport authorities, and technology firms has been meeting as the SPT (Simplifying Passenger Travel) Interest Group over the past year. The goal is to use new technologies to simplify what Bernie Ashe, president of AiT Corporation of Ottawa, a member of the group, calls "the travel experience."

The group has had four meetings in search of "commonalities" to pursue, says Mr. Ashe, whose firm produces passport-issuance software, machine-readable travel documents, and scanning devices. What they've discovered is that all have an interest in "authentication of the traveler" - ensuring that it's the same person who presents himself at the airline check-in desk, at passport control, at security, and then ultimately at the gate.

The group is looking for a single identifier - but it's not clear what that would be. "We're unlikely to do away with the passport," says Ashe.

At the macro end of smoothing air travel are new technologies for air-traffic control (ATC). Real-time information about what planes are where is fundamental to ATC. In the early days, this was a matter of someone peering through binoculars out across an airfield; nowadays it's done by radar stations. But the next generation will depend on satellites to relay information about aircraft positions.

CNS/ATM systems - communications, navigation, and surveillance air-traffic management systems - are a technological reality, but only now being introduced. The holdup: cost. An ICAO document estimates the cost of switching all ATC worldwide to satellite-based systems at $30 billion, and the annual savings at $6 billion a year - a five-year payback in an industry used to time frames of 18 months to two years.

The original plan to make the switch all at once was "impractical," Denis Chagnon, an ICAO spokesman, concedes. "Now the thinking is that we should start with a single homogeneous high-traffic area."

The satellites needed for the system, such as the US GPS system, are basically already in place, up in the sky. The CNS/ATM systems themselves include components that must be installed in aircraft - the responsibility of the airlines - and others that must be installed at air-traffic control centers - the responsibility of governments and ATC authorities. This has led to a certain "Alphonse et Gaston" situation, each side waiting for the other to go first to justify such a huge expense.

What CNS/ATM promises is "more efficient" use of the airspace - planes squeezed more tightly together, but safely, and better navigational data.

Already, over the North Atlantic, CNS/ATM has been able to cut the minimum "vertical separation" for planes above 29,000 feet (en route, that is, not coming in for a landing) from 2,000 feet to 1,000 - in effect doubling the capacity.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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