Don't bother running, you've already missed the flight

Airports are always talking about the passenger experience, but do they really care?

If you're one of those people who cut it a bit fine at the airport, you might want to think about changing your modus operandi.

Imagine getting to a checkpoint and being sent back because a computer says you don't have enough time to get through airport processes and make your flight.

Your airline gets a message to offload your bag so the plane can take off without delay and you're back to the check-in desks to sort out another flight.

They call it “positive boarding” technology and it's being rolled out in London's Heathrow Airport in a bid to “improve passenger experience” and flight punctuality.

The airport says the centralised system helps passengers avoid traps such as being in the wrong terminal or not leaving themselves much time to get through security, but saying it's about passenger experience is probably a bit of a stretch.

What it's really about is getting more planes to take off on time, because planes taking off on time are good for business.

Passengers who have checked in bags but not arrived at the boarding gate are a regular cause of flight delays, with planes left sitting at the gate while a search ensues.

Luggage is not allowed to travel without the accompanying passenger, so if the person cannot be found then ground crew have to go diving in the hold to locate and offload their bag.

Heathrow says the technology has been designed to work with all airlines' computer systems and is now live in two of its five terminals, with a third to adopt it next month.

In the first week the technology was trialled, 35,000 passengers used it and almost half were identified as having the potential to delay departure.

Of these, 700 received an automated message to go promptly to their gate to ensure they didn't miss their flight, and 10 were deemed to be too late and were turned back.

The technology, which Heathrow claims will “help our passengers have a stress-free flight”, comes as more airlines roll out mobile check-in, mobile boarding and self-service bag drop in an attempt to speed up the processing of fast-growing numbers of airline passengers.

The SITA Airline IT Trends Survey 2013 says mobile services are being expanded across the entire passenger journey, with more than half of airlines now offering services such as mobile check-in and boarding.

Sixty per cent of airlines are planning to introduce new options, such as mobile bag tracking and flight re-booking, over the next three years.

Many airports are also testing self-boarding, with technology replacing staff at boarding gates, but if my experiences with mobile boarding passes are anything to go by there is still a lot of work to be done.

I have had many occasions where my mobile boarding pass will not scan and a staff member has had to look me up in the computer so I can get on the plane – something of a problem if there are no staff on hand.

The Airport IT Trends survey predicts slow growth in this area, with only 8 per cent of passengers expected to be using automated check-in by 2016.

London's Gatwick Airport is putting its money on iris scanning, which is a hard-to-beat method of checking the identity of the person boarding the plane.

The airport is trialling the technology on selected flights in the belief that it could significantly speed up passengers' movement through the airport.

We could certainly do with some speeding up in Australian airports, which are getting more and frustrating every year.

I used to pride myself being able to land at Sydney International Airport, whiz through the formalities and be in a taxi about half an hour later; at home in the eastern suburbs well within an hour of landing.

Today you queue for immigration, wait ages for your luggage and then get in another queue for quarantine.

I am yet to find another country with immigration and quarantine staff as friendly as ours, but the process takes too long.

If airports and airlines were really concerned about the “passenger experience”, they would be investing in taking the hassles out of the entire journey, not just the bits that affect airline costs and punctuality records.

They would be trying to speed up the endless shoe-removing, laptop-unpacking, aerosol-hunting security queues – does anyone else get the "random" checks every single flight? – and making sure that low-risk, nothing-to-declare passengers can move quickly through the airport at the other end.

We do live in an era of heightened security and we do want to be safe, but even domestic flights have become a major headache.

What do you think airports could do to make passengers' lives easier? Post your comments below.