As a city grows – in terms of population as well as the resulting trade volumes – it will lead to more demand for air travel and allied services. In 2015 alone, the world population grew by 86.84 million. The number of registered carrier departures around the world increased by 36% in the 2005-15 decade, which is thrice the rate of population growth as per World Bank estimates. The Centre for Economics and Business Research, a London-based consultancy, estimates the cost of congestion in England, France, Germany and the US to be around $200 billion in 2013 alone. It is predicted that this figure will rise by 50% by the year 2030. This suggests that cities cannot possibly remain the same size forever, but will need to stretch their boundaries to accommodate the growing population. The market is growing, and we need to innovate on a drastic scale to serve this effectively.
Planners may choose to meet this rising demand either by adding airports to the city, or by increasing the capacity of existing airports. However, in their present form, airports are limited in their scalability primarily because of the massive land requirement. Constructing new airports at a significant distance away from town centers may help overcome this problem, but apart from the difficulty of adding/modifying routes, it also gives rise to a new issue of accessibility. A typical air traveler has three distinct steps in his/her journey. This includes two airport transfers and a flight. When the airport transfers are commonly longer than the actual flight, there are two possible conclusions to be drawn:
- 1.Our flight technology is admirably advanced
- 2.Our airports planning model is sadly broken
At the fundamental level, an airport is nothing but a 'hub' for customers to gather and avail of the flight and related services. The 'spokes' in the model are the other airports to which a passenger can catch a flight from this hub. Passengers and cargo may come to the airport from different places in and around the city, based on proximity and availability of flights to their desired destination. How they reach there is where there the problem lies, and thereby offers scope for innovation.
Consider every airport to be a mother-hub of flight operations from a given locations. Rather than passengers from all over the city assembling at this one centralized hub, the conventional concept of "airport" is replaced by a distributed entity - spread across various parts of a city, connected to enable movement of people and cargo. In other words, a distributed network of feeder terminals connect each part of the city to the mother hub. The exact location of these hubs and the number required can be estimated using predictive data analytics, based on the number of flights and the volume of passengers served. The mother-hub is therefore much smaller than the airports of today because it can do away with a lot of 'facilities' such as parking lots, check-in counters and even most lounges. But for reasons which will be detailed below, they will have significantly larger capacities.
Today, when a passenger makes a booking, he/she typically gets information about the flight's departure time as well as the latest acceptable time to arrive at the airport and check in his/her baggage. In the distributed model, the passenger doesn't have to reach the airport; all he has to do is to reach the feeder terminal assigned to him, which would logically be much closer and more convenient to reach than the airport. Once the airline gets adequate data about passenger bookings, an SMS (text message) can be sent to each passenger informing them of the closest feeder terminal and the latest time of arrival – this will logically be a certain number of minutes ahead of the expected departure time. Once the passenger does the check in and other formalities are taken care of at the terminal, then a dedicated point to point transport unit is used to ferry all passengers of a particular flight from each feeder terminal to the mother hub airport. If there are too few passengers in one terminal, then these passengers can be ferried to another terminal close to them (and capable of accommodating them) rather than running an under-capacity transport unit all the way to the airport. The conventional boarding gate is no longer required at the airport; it gets replaced by an entrance where the transport unit (ferry) can approach the aircraft directly and facilitate loading of passengers and cargo.
What are the advantages of such a model? Primarily, the massive land requirement for scaling up an airport is eliminated; we still need land, but it doesn't have to be one huge plot – just smaller parcels of land distributed across the city. Passengers will find it easier to get to a feeder terminal that is close to them, instead of an airport on the other side of town (or even outside it). Since the check-in and other formalities are completed at these terminals, there is much more predictability when it comes to departure of flights. Holding up a flight for one late passenger, versus one ferry with say 20% of the passengers, is operationally very different for an airline! Security is greatly enhanced – any incident involving hazardous materials in the baggage or other passenger safety issues will be restricted to, and resolved at the feeder terminal instead of disrupting operations at the mother airport. Dedicated transport channels from feeder terminals to airports – remotely operated electric vehicles, solar powered coaches, subways, fly-overs, underpasses, etc. – will also minimize disruption to daily city life on account of the airport's functioning.
As and when the city grows further, it is relatively easy to scale up on this model. All that needs to be done is to increase the granularity of the hub and spoke structure. The first step is to add more spokes (feeder terminals). Once that option is exhausted, we can introduce sub-feeder terminals, to feed the feeder terminals, which in turn will feed the mother hubs. It is unrealistic to imagine that the population will stop growing in the near future; nor will there be an appreciable increase in the availability of land. The only option to keep up, is to innovate!