Travelers try out the new automated passport kiosks at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Come back into the U.S. through Atlanta, and you’ll likely use a Canadian device to move more quickly through the customs line.   

Vancouver International Airport created the BorderXpress kiosk as it saw more arrivals from Asia, but officials soon realized that crowded American airports could also use it to reduce waiting times and mend perceptions of a less than hospitable entry process.  

Now Atlanta has more than 70 of them installed, joining about 25 other airports that have processed 21 million passengers using the self-service technology, the profits from which are plowed back into YVR’s operations.  

“We love to spot problems and come up with innovations that can change the narrative,” YVR CEO Craig Richmond said at the SMART Airports and Regions conference in Atlanta in May. 

The products on display at the show, such as software to monitor parking deck utilization or machines that let passengers tag their own bags, show how airports are turning to technology to improve the experience for their increasingly connected customers, building their reputations and diversifying revenue streams in the process.  

On Thursday, ATL highlighted the Mobile Passport Control app, through which travelers submit their personal passport information before arriving at the counter. They then receive a mobile receipt that allows them to move go through a dedicated line, skirting even those travelers using the automated kiosks.

“About 62 percent of our customers are now using these automations when they come in and we expect that to only grow over time,” said Greg Kennedy, Delta Air Lines Inc.‘s senior vice president for airport customer service in Atlanta.

Technology investment fits squarely into airports’ arguments for competitiveness, which has ripple effects for an entire metro area: The more “non-aeronautical revenues” an airport can generate — that Starbucks cappuccino and magazine you buy between flights, the parking fees and those few bucks you may shell out for faster Wi-Fi — the less they have to charge the airlines, making it easier to attract flights to more destinations.   

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport has been praised for its ability to keep landing fees low, partly thanks to its nearly 1 million takeoffs and landings per year, but also because it generates so much money from other sources like concessions and parking, which alone accounted for more than one-fourth of the airport’s sales last year.  

“Any responsible community has an obligation, if they’re competing, to have the lowest possible price for its airlines so that they can choose here rather than there,” Miguel Southwell, general manager of the Atlanta airport, told Global Atlanta.  

More and more, whether an airport is privately owned and profit-driven like many in Europe or publicly operated like Hartsfield-Jackson, the ability to pass on savings to airlines depends on getting travelers to open their wallets, and technology has a big role to play. 

Studies show that harried travelers spend less, and airport leaders say “gate huggers” — those fearful of missing their boarding calls — drive down their revenue-per-passenger figures. Conversely, travelers find comfort in the predictability that technology can provide, especially when many parts of the process are out of their hands.  

“The passengers want personalized experiences. You want to control what’s controllable,” said Mark Gallagher, vice president of airport solutions for SITA in the Americas, told Global Atlanta.  

Self-service kiosks, sold by companies like SITA and Atlanta-based NCR Corp., have allowed airlines to streamline baggage-check queues, but the real “gateways” to the brave new world of connected travel are mobile devices, Mr. Gallagher said.   

According to SITA’s annual Passenger IT Trends survey, 97 percent of air travelers carried a phone, laptop or tablet while traveling, and 18 percent carried all three. 

Four out of five travelers brought a smartphone, which can already be used to track drive time to the airport on Google Maps, book a taxi through Uber, check in for the flight and receive a mobile boarding pass on the FlyDelta app.  

But the smartphone also provides a portal into the “Internet of Things,” a world in which connected devices talk to each other. While much of the media buzz (and acquisition activity) in the space centers on in-home devices like Nest thermostats, toilets and even frying pans, public settings provide opportunities for consumer interactions never before possible, Mr. Gallagher said.  

Installed throughout airports, nodes known as iBeacons use Bluetooth technology in concert with apps, prompting smartphones to particular actions based on their locations. Taking the PlaneTrain? IBeacons can tell you when the next one arrives. Looking hungry as you walk past the Chick-fil-A in Concourse A? The restaurant can send you a coupon. Relaxing at the Delta SkyLounge? The Wi-Fi password might be sent to you via an iBeacon-enabled notification to your smartphone.  

What I call that is really mass-marketing to a party of one,” Mr. Gallagher said. “This is information that people want. It’s very valuable to the airports. If I can tailor your experience or give you the opportunity to tailor your experience, that becomes something that says, ‘Hey, coming into the airport is not a trauma any longer; it’s actually an enjoyable experience.’”  

Along with a new mobile passport app, Miami International Airport has embraced beacons as part of a broader technology upgrade, installing more than 400 throughout its grounds that will be put into service by this fall, said Emilio Gonzalez, the airport’s director, said at the conference.  

“We have beacons on beacons,” he said. ”For us, that’s a tool: Instead of having the passenger engage us with a question, we want to be proactive instead of reactive.”   

He and other airport leaders acknowledged that privacy and security concerns abound, and that travelers don’t necessarily want to be bombarded by messages during their layovers.  

But like most online activity, consumers could be willing to give up privacy in proportion to the benefit they derive from the process, Mr. Gallagher said.  

In the survey by SITA, a Swiss company with North American operations in Atlanta, seven out of 10 travelers said they would share their location and personal data with travel service providers, but only 29 percent and 40 percent, respectively, would share for commercial purposes or to smooth out the travel process for everyone. 

That could change: By 2020, millennials will represent about half of business travelers, up from 20 percent today. Already with a buying power of $500 billion, they’re more than twice as likely than older generations to be influenced to purchase a product by an app on their phone, Mr. Gallagher said.  

Still, it’s not just about commerce. Airport technology affects travelers in a more roundabout way: improving efficiency through data. IBeacons can use mobile device signatures, for instance, to track how many times a traveler returns to the airport and which terminals he tends to use.  

“This is rich data that they would like to get their hands on,” says Ron Reed, SITA’s director of business intelligence. “Now the airport can become more intelligent, more predictive.” 

Miami’s airport is adding more “smart” gates, allowing for easier mobile check-in, which helps airlines get quicker turnarounds and burn less fuel, money that goes to airlines’ bottom lines and could keep costs down for consumers.  

Singapore’s Changi Airport collects feedback from wall-mounted monitors that ask travelers to rate almost all aspects of their experience: from cleanliness of bathrooms to the friendliness of the customs agents. The airport, consistently ranked among the top in the world in service, collects more than 1 million instances of emoji-laced feedback per month.  

The key in the future, Mr. Gallagher said, will be for airports not to get too bogged down in the details of the data, instead searching for actionable trends.  

According to Mr. Southwell, Hartsfield-Jackson is set to come up with a new information technology strategy this year. It’s also looking to host its first “hackathon,”and Mr. Southwell envisions the airport taking more of a leadership role in driving the development of tech-based transportation solutions.  

In the meantime, the general manager is concerned about a more immediate need: keeping passengers safe through new technologies that help not only scan passengers and employees but also reduce threats to the airfield itself.  

“If you think about it, we’re really looking for a needle in a haystack, so the question is how can we detect that needle without disrupting the other 99.99 percent of the traveling public, and the answer really lies in technology,” Mr. Southwell said.  

With what’s already out there, it’s conceivable for a traveler to go through the entire process, from check-in to boarding, without human contact, a prospect he said could be closer than you might think.  

“Some of us believe that the technology is running ahead of social acceptance,” he said.  

Mr. Gallagher of SITA, for one, said his speech at the SMART airports conference would prove him ready for the future.  

“I’m going to challenge them tomorrow: Why don’t you set an aspiration as an airport to have zero landing fees?”  

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...