Amsterdam's Schiphol showcases automated, self-service airport at Check-in 2007 convention

At a time when airline passengers are facing record flight delays and baggage mishandling worldwide, hope is on the horizon. Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport is promoting a new vision of travellers lining up at self-service kiosks where they can check in, tag their bags, drop them into luggage chutes, select their seats and print out their boarding passes, all by themselves.

Imagine an airport where there are no visible employees; the only people are passengers. The technology was showcased at Check-in 2007, a convention of airport and airline officials at Las Vegas, which offered tantalising glimpses of the automated future of air travel, with fast-moving check-in lines and luggage tracked by radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags.

In just five years, say the proponents of this new vision, there will be few if any counters handled by humans at airports. Instead, machines will help keep lines shorter and process passengers faster. "It will be highly efficient," Marcel van Beek, Schipol airport's programme manager for passenger processes said, shortly after unveiling the plan. His presentation got a standing ovation from a packed conference room at the convention.

In the Amsterdam model, a machine would scan a passenger's passport and then show the flight information on a display screen. The passenger would then be able to select a seat, print out luggage tags, and attach them to the bags before placing them in a chute next to the self-service kiosk.

Each bag tag will contain a tiny radio transponder resembling a postage stamp, which can be read several feet away by a special reader, enabling the luggage to be tracked more accurately. The airline would know immediately, for instance, whether a bag was placed a particular flight or not.

Schiphol airport officials expect that by 2015, about 90 per cent of its passengers would be using such self-service machines, which would enable the airport to handle a projected 50 per cent increase in travellers, while reducing waiting time in queues by 10 per cent. It would also solve the Dutch problem of a workforce shortage. Schiphol officials expect many airport workers to retire over the next five years.