Terminal angst virtually solved

If we could fly without using airports, travel would be a breeze. Sadly, you can't avoid them — but you can lessen the hassle if you embrace technology.

You check-in for your flight on your mobile phone, then fire up an app to guide you through the airport and let you know when you should start the long walk to the gate. You're wondering where to buy a duty-free watch and up pops a "virtual agent" to show the way.

This is the future of airports - and it's not a distant future.

Some have already started deploying virtual agents, or "avatars", to improve customer service and reduce queues, while mobile offerings are exploding on to the scene.

The travel technology provider SITA predicts 90 per cent of airlines will offer mobile check-in by 2015, allowing those who embrace the technology to (almost) say goodbye forever to airport check-in.

SITA says 70 per cent of passengers already carry a smartphone, and there has been a 40 per cent jump in the use of mobile check-in services since 2010.

Social media will also grow in importance, with 70 per cent of airlines and 58 per cent of airports planning to introduce flight status updates via social media channels.

Meanwhile, avatars are finding their way into our airports to help answer common traveller questions or provide additional information on airport procedures.

A report by global travel giant Carlson Wagonlit Travel says numerous airports in the US, Britain and other countries have been testing "life-size holographic virtual assistants" that provide information to travellers on anything from security procedures to where to find the taxi stand.


"Some of these avatars repeat information in a loop, while others are activated if a person steps into range," the 2013 Travel Management Priorities report says.

"The most advanced [avatars], such as those at Dubai International, go beyond pre-recorded messages to engage dynamically with travellers asking specific questions." The US has been testing out a virtual border guard who asks travellers questions while two cameras and a microphone check for signs of lying.

If any anomalies are detected, a real border guard takes over.

Carlson Wagonlit says while travellers can already interact with many avatars through text messaging, instant web-messaging or speech, the future is in improved voice-recognition technology, allowing the avatars to better understand natural speech.

One of the reasons avatars can be effective in airports is their novelty factor and their ability to grab people's attention.

"With new developments constantly popping up, perhaps even the weariest road warriors will be pleasantly surprised," the report says.

The value of basic information should not be underestimated, especially when you are jet-lagged or sleep-deprived.

A study by a US technology provider, Concur, found confusing signage and poor service from airport staff among the biggest stress factors for airport users.

Dallas-Fort Worth was found to be the least stressful airport in the US, which is good news for the large numbers of Australian travellers flying in and out of the gateway airport on Qantas services.

A survey by the British travel industry association ABTA found the speed of the check-in process is the biggest factor that would improve travellers' journeys through most airports.

The quality of communication of flight changes or delays was also high on the list for the 2000 passengers who took part in the survey, opening the door for better use of mobile apps and social media.

There are already many mobile apps that can help guide you through airports and keep you updated on flight status.

Some airport apps are specifically targeted, but most provide arrival and departure information, terminal maps and information on shops and catering outlets.

It is often quicker to check the app than to go looking for a departures board to see the latest flight updates.

Most major airports also have their own app, but be wary of accepting "push notifications" on these, as they can drive you crazy.

In the case of a major delay, such as bad weather or a computer melt-down, Twitter can be another source of information, although the updates often just tell you to check with your airline.

Nervous flyer?

Logic might not be a big factor when it comes to phobias, but statistics show flying is getting safer.

Last year there were four major accidents involving large, Western-built commercial jets resulting in 304fatalities. The Association of Asia Pacific Airlines says this represents one major accident for every 7million flights.

The Aviation Safety Network says there has been a ‘‘steady and persistent’’ decline in airline accidents since 1997 thanks to the ongoing safety efforts of aviation bodies around the world.

Last year was the safest since 1945 interms of  number of accidents.

Trend watch

If you need to ask the price, this trip is not for you. But hey, it's free to dream.

With luxury travel getting more and more decadent and competitive, tour operator Abercrombie & Kent has announced it will offer "exclusive private jet journeys" from early next year.

The journeys will kick off with a 19-day tour of Africa for a mere $77,000 a person.

For their $4000 a day, guests on the tour will be flown around on a chartered Boeing 737 jet with just 40 travellers on board.

They will travel the full length of Africa, from Ethiopia to the Cape, and highlights will include gorillas in Uganda, the Serengeti in Tanzania, the Chobe River, the Skeleton Coast of Namibia and gourmet dining in South Africa's Cape Winelands.

The jet features business-class seats and a well-stocked bar, while accommodation will be in exclusive lodges and safari camps — "always the best available".

The chairman and founder of Abercrombie & Kent, Geoffrey Kent, will personally host the group during a three-night safari experience in Tanzania.

For those who can't quite stretch to $77,000, other private air touring options include Australia's Bill Peach Journeys, which has prices ranging from $10,000 to $30,000, and The Captain's Choice Tour, with prices from $5000 to $30,000.