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Digitizing travel: Say goodbye to long queues at UAE airports

UAE airports are implementing new technological innovations to streamline the passenger's journey, cutting queues and getting you on your way in minutes, if not seconds.

According to the CEO of Dubai Airports, operator of DXB and DWC, the company wants to eliminate physical check-ins Through the adoption of new tech like AI and biometrics, the digital transformation of UAE airports is being made possible Soon, passengers might not need their passports to travel anymore

From hours to 15 seconds: time’s up for long queues at the airport. Soon, you might not even need your passport to travel. 

This will be possible because the UAE is implementing new technology that will allow travelers to enjoy a seamless airport experience. Some of this tech has already been put in place. 

What kind of tech is going into these new digitized airports?

Physical check-in desks will be a thing of the past

As we approach the deadline for Smart Dubai 2021, Dubai continues to undergo digital transformation on all levels of business and infrastructure. 

Naturally, the operator of Dubai International Airport (DXB) and Dubai World Central (DWC), Dubai Airports, will want to follow suite with a similar transition at their airports. 

The company’s CEO, Paul Griffiths, told Aviation Business that Dubai Airports wants to phase out physical check-in desks.  

“What we want is to eliminate them altogether,” Griffiths said. “Soon, I don’t think you’ll need to check-in using any physical token of booking. Most of it will be done at the time of booking in the office or home. We just need to find a way of dealing with baggage and I think technology is moving towards that area too.” 

He explained that the airports they manage “don’t have the space to build a huge amount of new aviation infrastructure, to create additional capacity.” As such, they’ve decided to invest in processes and technology, to streamline the passenger journey. 

“That’s a combination of consolidation and elimination — putting processes together that are currently operated in discrete silos, such as check-in, immigration, security, and boarding,” he added. “All of those at the moment are discrete processes.”

What tech are we talking about here? 

While Griffiths did not go into details regarding the technologies that they seek to implement, we have a general idea of what to expect. 

Across the world, we are already seeing the large-scale digitization of airports. Last year in Uruguay, Carrasco International Airport introduced self-service biometric boarding for LATAM Airlines, allowing passengers to board the plane without having to show their passport or boarding pass at the gate.

In Turkey, the world’s largest, fully-digitized airport is being built – the Istanbul Grand Airport, which began limited operations in late 2018. 

Locally, UAE airports are already making the transition, investing in new tech. In March, Etihad announced that it has partnered with automation tech firm Elenium to bring Abu Dhabi International Airport a slew of new innovations. The partnership will implement voice-recognition technology at self-service kiosks, bag drop and the boarding gate facility.

This will be made possible by utilizing cloud technology, artificial intelligence (AI), computer vision and natural human interfacing. 

“Passengers check-in to their flight and register their biometric data on their mobile device before arriving at the airport,” a press release by Etihad said. This mirrors what Griffiths is aiming for in terms of DXB and DWC.

As for Dubai Airports, they have begun implementing similar new-generation technology, such as smart gates, which were rolled out in 2017. According to the Dubai Media Office (DMO), the number of passengers passing through smart gates at Dubai Airports in 2018 reached 10.7 million – 22.3% of the total number of passengers who travelled through the airports that year. These smart gates can only be used by UAE residents, however. 

Image: Dubai Airports 

In October of last year, DXB trialed a “smart tunnel” pilot project which will allow travelers to go through passport control procedures in under 15 seconds. It is unclear who this service will be available to, but it is most likely to be restricted to residents of the UAE only. 

According to Dubai’s General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs (GDRFA), the tunnel uses a biometric recognition system to recognize passengers as they walk through. 


Major savings – and profit – to be made

Digitization will not only help streamline passengers’ journeys, but it will also help airports run more efficiently. 

In his interview, Griffiths said that it costs an estimated $150m annually to run DXB. This has led to Dubai Airports adopting more sustainable initiatives that will help save energy and reduce its carbon print. 

At the same time, by eventually eliminating physical check-in desks, the gained real-estate will allow for new cash-making opportunities. The empty space could be rented out to retailers, for example, which continue to see growing demand. 2018 saw Dubai Duty Free earn total sales of $2.01 billion, a 4.3% increase year-on-year.

The UAE is banking on its airports

Overall, the UAE is investing $23.16 billion in airport development and expansion that will see its airports develop combined capacity to handle more than 300 million passengers per year, the Emirates News Agency (WAM) said last year. 

“These include $8 billion in developing Al Maktoum International Airport, $7.6 billion expansion of the Phase IV of Dubai International Airport, $6.8 billion re-development and expansion of Abu Dhabi International Airport – many of which are supported by the banks and financial institutions,” WAM noted. “In addition, Sharjah International Airport is also undergoing a $408 million investment in expansion of its terminal.”