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Planes, trains, and automobiles: The cutting edge of technology on the go

Brian Proffitt | Sept. 25, 2012
The urge to climb the next hill and see what's over the horizon is as old as human existence. To seek out strange new resorts and new souvenirs: that is the voyage that we all seek to undertake, with hopefully a nice, sandy beach at the destination.

TSA lines in major US airports are already accepting this technology, as are airline gate check-ins. But there are trials in the works to have smartphones act as tickets, passes, and information delivery systems for the entire airport experience using near-field communications and GPS. Everything can be managed through the phone, from finding the best parking spot out in long-term parking to check-in to boarding. Even buying food and sundries in the terminal and baggage claim will eventually be handled by phone.

"The intention is to provide useful services to passengers at all stages from the planning until the end of their return trip. It will be like having your own personal concierge, travel agent and tourist guide available to you anywhere and at anytime during your trip," explained Jim Peters, CTO of SITA in a 2010 whitepaper.

Airlines are also working to alleviate the stress that greets you right inside the front door of the airport. Instead of queuing up to face a line of ticket counter agents, you'll instead encounter airline agents equipped with tablets that will enable them to walk around and greet departing passengers to get them checked in and on their way.

Baggage, another aviation bugaboo, can in this scenario be checked in via self-serve kiosks; the bags will be fitted with RFID-equipped permanent tags that will not only carry information about their final destination, but also the contact information for the passenger. Automated checks should reduce the chances of luggage getting lost, but when those fail, the airline would know immediately whom to call to coordinate delivery of the bag. Depending on the level of information shared, they may already know where you're staying and deliver it with little to no input from you.

Not so unstoppable

Trains, at least here in the US, are not a widely used method of travel beyond intra-urban subways, light rail, and commuter lines out to the suburbs. With all national train travel consolidated under Amtrak, which is beset by problems of its own, traveling by train is often not the first choice in the US.

Slowly, Amtrak is working to change this, catching up with its European and Asian counterparts. Tracks are being updated to accommodate faster service when possible, and on-board systems like Wi-Fi have been added to East Coast lines that service the densely populated Northeast Corridor.

Entertainment systems, like those found on airlines, are also being added to trains, particularly outside of the US, where rail travel is used much more.

Sadly, as long as fuel costs remain low and Amtrak is hampered by the constraints of having to share tracks with freight operators, US rail travel will not be growing any time soon. The application of better train technology, such as dedicated high-speed lines and faster signal and switching systems, may help rescue trains from their current doldrums, but for now, passenger train technology seems stuck in the station.


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