Designing a better, faster, secure, vastly cheaper airport with proto-robocars

Like just about everybody, I hate the way travel through airports has become. Airports get slower and bigger and more expensive, and for short-haul flights you can easily spend more time on the ground at airports than you do in the air. Security rules are a large part of the cause, but not all of it.

In this completely rewritten essay, I outline the design on a super-cheap airport with very few buildings, based on a fleet of proto-robocars. I call them proto models because these are cars we know how to build today, which navigate on prepared courses on pavement, in controlled situations and without civilian cars to worry about.

In this robocar airport, which I describe first in a narrative and then in detail, there are no terminal buildings or gates. Each plane just parks on the tarmac and robotic stairs and ramps move up and dock to all its doors. (Catering trucks, fuel trucks and luggage robots also arrive.) The passengers arrive in a perfect boarding order in robocars that dock at the ramps/steps to let them get on the plane through every entrance. Luggage is handled by different robots, and is checked and picked up not in carousels and check-in desks, but at curbs, parking lots, rental car centers and airport hotels.

The change is so dramatic that (even with security issues) people could arrive at airports for flights under 20 minutes before take-off, and get out even faster. Checked luggage would add time, but not much. I also believe you could build a high capacity airport for a tiny fraction of the cost of today's modern multi-billion dollar edifices. I believe the overall experience would also be more pleasant and more productive for all.

This essay is a long one, but I am interested in feedback. What will work here, and what won't? Would you love to fly through this airport or hate it? This is an airport designed not to give you a glorious building in which to wait but to get you through it without waiting most of the time.

The airport gets even better when real robocars, that can drive on the streets to the airport, come on the scene.

Give me your feedback on The Robocar Airport.

Key elements of the design include: * Far fewer buildings, dispersed as needed * No luggage carousels, no check-in lines * Appointments at security * Passengers are brought to planes and security in the order desired, at the time desired * Cars have desks, power, climate control -- a private place to wait and work * Robotic transport to airport hotels, rental car depots, parking lots * 300 million dollars instead of 5 billion for a giant airport * Board and empty planes from all doors for short turnarounds * Short taxi trips for planes, and shorter ones with passengers in them * Luggage delivered to your car around the time you get there * No constant paging * Use all the perimeter of the airport for facilities


I don't see how insecurity works. There's the whole world, and there's the insecure zone (where all the insecure people are -- they must be insecure otherwise why would they feel they need to go through a show of security?). Where's the border between the secure world and the insecure zone?

Doh! I didn't see the full article. Okay, now I see how insecurity works.

But y'know, why the hell do I have to get out of my car? Why can't it just drive right up into the plane? I already have my luggage all loaded on my car, I wouldn't even have to get out of my seat, an airplane could be turned in less time than it takes to refuel it.

Yes, I think that would be ideal. And it's how private air travel works -- I recommend buying a jet for yourself.

Sadly, for now they won't let us bring our unknown cars to the plane, and in fact I judged they would not even let a robot car that has been outside the fence come back inside because something might have been hidden inside it while it was outside.

But it might be possible to make that work, at least for pickup. If it can be arranged that an untrusted car from outside stays only on appointed routes that are enclosed, and that you can walk to the car and get in it but never allow anything to come out, it could work. Though they would probably say, "what if the whole car is a bomb?" Not that I want people blowing up planes on the ground but it seems to me there are lots of places in the world where you can blow stuff up on the ground with lots of people around, including airport security lines. So I am willing to live with that risk. If we can convince the airport authorities of that, the system could work even better.

But I think it can still work, with some inconvenience and cost, with two sets of cars, one outside security and one inside.

i can see trucks with low front the wheels cab with on top white a hight adjustable jedbridge dock. at the back a extensible tunnel a least 60 to 80 feet long with robocar docking port.


This sounds great for travelers if there's uncertainty in neither the length of the trip to the airport nor the actual departure time of the aircraft. But if I'm facing possible traffic on my way to the airport, I will have to leave early and therefore most likely arrive early too. If my trip to the airport is reliable but a thunderstorm cell approaches the airport around the time I arrive, the plane could easily arrive and/or depart an hour or more later than I'd expected when I started my drive. In either case, I would want a reasonably nice place to wait: waiting in a car (my own or a robotic airport vehicle) for more than a few minutes would be maddening. Terminal and concourse buildings of today aren't the loveliest places in the world, but they do have restrooms, food, reasonably comfortable seating, and space to stretch one's legs and walk around. Doing without them sounds fine up to the moment something unexpected happens -- and then they become essential.

If you accept the need for a terminal building, the system you're describing starts to look like a more automated version of Washington Dulles circa 1962-1985, where the "mobile lounges" shuttled passengers from a small terminal building directly to aircraft parked out on the ramp. That system was eventually abandoned, for reasons I don't completely understand -- I used it a few times back then, and it was comfortable and efficient.

In Japan today, it is completely normal to check in for a domestic flight 20 minutes before departure, even at the largest airport in the country (Tokyo Haneda). Somehow they have figured out a way to design and build a modern airport terminal in a way that respects the value of passengers' time, even with security theater and long jetbridge concourses. What are we doing wrong?

We can't remove all the uncertainty from a trip, but it's better not to have to add the uncertainty of the trip there and the trip through the airport. You have to allocate for close to the maximum -- a highway tie-up and a busy security line, for example.

I agree that waiting in your own car would not be super pleasant. Waiting in the robot car should not be that bad, because I imagine it (eventually) as something you can stand up in, but when you are sitting you have a nice chair or set of chairs, with a power plug and a small desk, and a screen showing what's going on. At first though, the vehicles will need to be built along existing mass production vehicle designs to save cost. Once you are selling 10,000 you can have any design you want at a decent price. Actually, a cheaper price since low-speed cars for a controlled area don't need to be rated for highway crashes or be aerodynamic enough to go on the highway.

It's been a long time since the shuttles came to the plane at Dulles, and I don't know all the reasons why they stopped, but I know they are frustrating today as you sit in them waiting for the transit, so they built a giant underground railway at huge cost. I presume you could not get everybody on a shuttle so just missing it and waiting for the next was no doubt troublesome as planes got larger. Perhaps they were expensive to run? Perhaps mixing them with airliner traffic didn't work?

I don't know how the Japanese do it. Today they start boarding 30 minutes before the flight, and if you want a good space in the overhead bins, you want to get on then. They often close the doors 10 minutes or more before the departure. This in part was caused by the requirements that airlines publish their on-time records. The airlines "improved" their on-time records by boarding earlier, and by making the scheduled flight times longer assuring they could be on-time. Classic unintended consequence.

Back to waiting in your car -- I agree that's not too great. So there will be waiting space, and the question is how much is needed, and can other backup plans -- waiting at local airport businesses like hotels and restaurants that are on the system -- take up some of the load, and if the load gets really high, is the car good enough?

The big problem is that most people want to wait somewhere post-security. In the old days there used to be nice restaurants outside security but they are all but gone as nobody wants to wait there. You do need a decent sized waiting area inside security, and there will be one, but I believe it can be much less expensive. If you get a real crisis -- airport almost closed, huge numbers of delays etc. you can either build capacity for it, or figure ways to handle the peak with external resources. With the robocars, any building on the tarmac can be emergency waiting. If you can heat a hangar, you can fill it with chairs and cots and put the plane outside.

But if delays are long, many people would be happy with just going home if they are getting good info. I am predicating this plan on having better info for everybody, including the passengers on their screens. If a plane is sitting waiting and could go any time, there are few alternatives besides waiting in the cars or having space to put people.

The old Dulles system was radically different from the more recent use of mobile lounges as buses to the midfield concourse (which was just annoying). The terminal building was quite compact, and the "gates" were narrow spaces where the mobile lounge for your specific plane docked; from the outside they looked like dozens of piglets suckling at a concrete-and-glass sow. The posted "departure time" for your flight was the time when the mobile lounge for that plane left the gate, so there wasn't any frustration associated with missing a bus and waiting for the next one. A wide-body plane would require two or three lounges; I don't remember whether they left the gate sequentially or used several neighboring gates in parallel. The system was planned from the start with large aircraft in mind, so that's likely not the reason they abandoned it.

It was much more space-efficient than a typical concourse for several reasons. The width of a gate was determined by the width of the mobile lounge, not the wingspan of an airplane. And fewer gates were needed: a gate could be used for many flights in rapid sequence, as it doesn't take nearly as long for passengers to board and exit from a mobile lounge as it does to board an airplane and go through the aircraft gate parking/departure/luggage/cargo handling procedures.

Certainly the amount of traffic at Dulles grew rapidly in the 1980s, but it would have been fairly straightforward to expand the original system (as was planned from the start). One problem might have been the desire to have baggage and other services centralized in buildings where the aircraft parked; I think baggage and catering trucks had to drive a fairly long distance for each flight. With robotic vehicles for those tasks as well as the terminal-to-gate passenger transfer, a system like that may look more financially and operationally attractive -- especially if the alternative is continuing to build and maintain gigantic structures as is done now.

Anyway, Dulles 30-50 years ago really was a major step toward your idea of a less structure-intensive airport.

As for "if delays are long, many people would be happy with just going home," I think that's not realistic for most people who have either a long trip between home and airport, or have already checked out of their hotel and therefore no place to go "home" to. That, and the cost to build and operate enough vehicles to accommodate delayed people just waiting instead of moving, means I doubt we'll ever really want to go to a model of airports without significant indoor waiting areas.

Yes, I flew on a couple of flights where one of the lounges came up to the door of the plane, and generally thought it was pretty good. Some reasons suggested the following spelled the end of the mobile lounge:

  • Security and waiting times increased. With people waiting around, having the docking ports be close together was a problem, not a benefit.
  • Dulles just got too big and they didn't want to expand this way. The lounges are labour intensive.
  • Biggest of all, it doesn't do connections well at all. In today's hub and spoke world, a connection means one lounge trip to the terminal and another back.

The robocars however deal well with these problems. They would do connections brilliantly, especially short ones, even making what would have been "trans-terminal" connections painless. The system should expand to meet demand easily, especially in good weather locations where a covered piece of ground is all you need for a "station."

Security as always is the issue. For example in the graphic I included above, you see how it would be most efficient. Just open tarmac, and the cars come and let people off to go in then zoom away. No matter how many passengers you have to bring, you just use more tarmac. The reality is that airports would not want passengers walking on tarmac without supervision or control. That's both for security and safety. One option is to have a human being supervising each group, directly or remotely via camera -- but there has to be somebody there to stop those who stray.

Another option is a laser fence which detects anybody who strays. I think you could make cheap robots that quickly form a perimeter.

The final option is a docking building on wheels. That's doable, and it can be robot driven. It has to be very low to the ground but it's only going on airport tarmac, so it can be any size, though standard shipping container size is easiest to transport in. (The containers themselves are plentiful but too heavy.)

The other advantage of that is climate control. But we're only talking about walking from the car and up the steps or ramp, and a canopy can keep you out of the rain, so I personally think climate control is overdoing it, but there are locations where they would want that.

When I read this yesterday I was reminded of our BC Ferry terminals. You drive in, park, and wait for anywhere from 30 minutes (pretty much the minimum..) to many hours (8-10). There is a small terminal facility with washrooms and restaurants (typical fast food style like you would see in a mall). The parking lots hold about two ferries worth of traffic or about 4000 people. With overflow on neighbourhood streets.

While this is obviously not using robo cars in anyway, the point is that people are reasonably accommodating to waiting for quite a lengthy period. It helps if they can get out and stretch their legs and if some entertainment (street style) is available to keep kids happy.

In nice weather of course it can not be much of a burden, but we have to do it in a snowstorm too, which makes it hard to wait in the car. I think airports will need to build some areas for people to wait, but they don't need to be anywhere near the size of the buildings we have today. That's because when you get to the peak times (big storm, many flights cancelled) you do have other options for overflow -- people waiting in their own cars, or taking robocars to airport hotels or other places. Of course, you could just build a huge waiting space, perhaps even renting it out for other functions in the good weather times where it won't be needed. It doesn't have to be fancy. As emergency space it can just be any large space and a large supply of folding chairs and cots.

If an airport is built as I describe, it will start as an extra "terminal" to an existing big airport, and so this will not be a problem. The problem will come the day somebody builds a brand new airport that uses all robots to shuttle the people and bags. Then when it faces air delays, it will need a plan for dealing with the people who pile up. I'm pretty sure it can be cheaper than building the huge buildings we build now, which are notoriously hated for long waits anyway, with few places to lie down and expensive food.

I think that this is an enormously complex solution to a problem that doesn't exist.

The part of the actual boarding process that takes longest is waiting for everyone ahead of me to finish dicking around with the overhead compartment.

Double-aisle seat plans (or just wider aisles) would speed the process, as would rear-door boarding. Of course, the first would cut into revenues, and passengers are just too goddamn stupid to handle the second. I remember one time at SJC, watching a couple stare at the split boarding way for three minutes before giving up and going to the front door (they were seated in row 23 of 737!)

The overhead bag issue (and a lot of the time, in fact) could be helped by actually enforcing regulations regarding what can and cannot go in the overhead. I've seen people put paper lunch sacks up there, purses, coats (spread out and laid flat!), laptop cases, shoes, all kinds of things that should go under the seat. Apparently the cabin floor is haraam, and things which touch it cannot be taken up again.

You missed something. The future of aviation is not larger hub-type airports and larger airliners, but rather, a sky full of dirt-cheap, highly-economical 4-8 seat Robojets. It will come down to just you and a few chosen friends driving a few miles to your local airport (there's 20,000 in the US), walking a few feet from the parking area to your on-demand jet, and then zipping at 500 mph at 40,000' to a destination that's just a few miles from where you want to go. It's already here.
Just as the future of ground transportation points to RoboCar (and dual-mode using guideway), the future of air transportation points to Robojet.

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