Cameron Mann considers the impact COVID-19 is likely to have on passenger facilitation at airports as the industry strives to provide a safe and secure aviation ecosystem.
Aviation continues to advocate for a risk-based approach to security, which effectively involves concentrating on and understanding individuals, and spending the most time dealing with those you know least about or those that represent the greatest perceived risk.
This approach ensures that low risk travellers get the most expedited experience and the security system can then spend the time and resources where the risk is greatest.
I believe the same risk-based approach can be adopted for dealing with the health threat, especially if it is layered, as recommended by ACI and IATA who have released guidance on the range of actions available to airports and airlines.
ACI notes: “Increasing flight operations will require a multi-layered collaborative approach, a focus on a health culture, preventative measures, and risk-assessment approach, with the option for seamless health screening that can avoid potential direct impact on airport operations.”
The approaches will vary by airport and jurisdiction, so in this article I will endeavour to outline some of the possible new measures that we can expect to be introduced at airports going forward.
The focus on social distancing, where achievable, remains. However, when this is not possible, what options are available to manage the risk?
Making the journey contactless is a clear focus. Airports are looking at ways to remove the requirement to touch surfaces and, if this is required, then increasing the cleaning regimes to manage the risk of surface transmission during the journey.
At an individual level, the wearing of a protective mask can help mitigate close/direct contact, reducing the opportunity for transmission of respiratory droplets, provided it is part of a series of measures, as masks alone are not the solution.
For now anyway, both the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention & Control (ECDC) recommend that passenger and people within the airport and aircraft wear medical face masks.
If we remain focused on the passenger journey, we can discuss how this is impacted.
Booking: Airlines can incorporate health risk assessments into the booking process. This could include warnings and track and trace app requirements.
Airports Authority of India (AAI), which manages over 100 airports across the nation, has mandated the use of the tracking app, Aarogya Setu.
At least 40 countries have deployed or are developing government sponsored track and trace apps, and in some, such as China, it is a mandatory requirement. New Zealand also requires its visitors to use the app, while most have opted for voluntary use of the tool.
A traveller’s digital identity can become the focal point for the management of health information. Digital identity in a decentralised form allows users to retain biometric information on their own device and shared at the owners’ discretion.
Health status can be linked to the digital identity to facilitate a smoother passenger experience. It is already recognised that most travellers are prepared to share their biometric information for an improved frictionless travel experience.
The Passenger Name Record (PNR) created through the booking process provides the first opportunity to incorporate health information as part of the traveller’s booking information.
Check-in: The check-in process is being pushed off airport using web and app interfaces. At this point in the passenger journey, confirmation of a track and trace capability could be part of the check-in process.
Questions can be asked on health history relating to symptoms of COVID-19 and known contact history. All this informs the risk picture of the traveller to assess the individual that will then drive processes during the on-airport experience.
Biometrics (particularly facial recognition) and the digital identity support the contactless journey.
Travel to the airport: Once leaving home there are some enduring requirements throughout the passenger journey. Social distancing and in situations where you can’t maintain social distancing then the use of PPE, particularly protective masks, is highly recommended.
On Airport (Landside)
Airport Enrolment: Much of the airport infrastructure and processes will become challenged to maintain physical distancing especially when passenger numbers start to recover.
Many airports and airlines are already mandating or strongly recommending the use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) as part of staff and passenger health and safety measures.
Some examples, Emirates are providing passengers with a personal hygiene pack, as is Qantas, while United, Delta and American are providing masks.
Enrolment ensures that the airport knows when you are physically present, meaning that it can provide adequate resources at each passenger touchpoint across the terminal and airport campus.
Enrolment could occur as part of the self-service kiosks or bag drop facilities. Or with a digital identity, and connected to the right platform, this could occur from the traveller’s device, sharing credentials to complete the enrolment process.
Bag drop: Bag drop benefits from the use of upstream check-in to make the process of printing bag tags and dropping the bag a seamless one.
On Airport (Airside)
Security checkpoint: The use of integrated checkpoints can offer airports the opportunity to streamline this activity and provide the highest security screening while managing touchpoints to reduce the health risk.
Computed tomography (CT) offers benefits over conventional X-rays as everything stays in the bag, this makes the process simpler, reducing the number of trays passengers need to handle.
With the use of remote screening, this reduces security staff in the checkpoint, improves checkpoint efficiency and reduces transmission risks.
With an automated tray return system this also reduces staff contact. There are solutions being developed to use UV-C light, which can sanitise trays during the return process. The UV-C light in the wavelength and intensity required needs to be enclosed to avoid contact with eyes and skin as sustained exposure causes damage.
High energy sources are not new in the checkpoint as X-rays have similar restrictions. UV-C light is an effective way to sanitise trays, particularly as a study of contact surfaces in airports proved trays to be a significant touchpoint where transfer could occur. Therefore, taking a risk mitigation action here as part of an already existing process makes good operational sense.
The divest process is a point where social distancing becomes challenged. Potential options going forward are to use every second divest bay and/or use Perspex barriers between divest points, thereby limiting passenger transfer opportunities.
The incorporation of biometrics in the checkpoint provides opportunities around understanding and managing risk, the same holds true for the health risk management.
Temperature check: The commentary on temperature checks is divided in its utility. Asymptomatic carriers are somewhere between 15-50% of the infected community, so a temperature check does nothing to provide an indication for this section of the population. However, this also means between 50-85% of the infected population is symptomatic and may have an elevated temperature.
When you have a layered screening system, temperature checks can be one measure that helps identify higher risk travellers.
Other layers such as health questionnaires, travel history and the track and trace apps then provide a more comprehensive understanding of risk and allow the more effective management and reduction in the transfer of the virus.
Point of care testing: The final layer can be Point-Of-Care testing, which involves conducting a test and receiving a result prior to boarding the aircraft.
As with the security system, these More Stringent Measures (MSM) are only applied where the risk is seen as high. IATA in its outline for the industry re-start advocates for a suitable point of care test.
Testing and screening for the general population has been focused on large scale laboratory based tests. However, there are molecular based tests, such as the Abbott Laboratories ID NOW platform, which can have results within between 5-15 minutes, making the tool suitable for on airport use for higher risk passengers.
Border control: Using the digital identity, border control can be touchless and may present a suitable contact point where passengers receive any final health review and advice.
Boarding: The use of the digital identity is again used this time to facilitate touchless boarding through e-gates.
Different airport types
For transit airports, mutual recognition of standards for security and health screening provides the best opportunity to deliver the outcome as efficiently as possible. This relies on having a standard and then the consistent use of the standard.
ICAO have been tasked with developing the global standard for the safe re-start of aviation.
The sharing of information allows transit passengers to forgo transit security screening, prior to the shutdown there were already instances of this occurring through the use of the OneID program on the Singapore-Amsterdam route for passengers transiting through Schiphol to other European destinations.
At primarily Origin and Destination (O&D) airports, for passenger arrivals the sharing of information again underpins the opportunity to have a significantly smoother inbound clearance experience.
Advance Passenger Information (API) and PNR are already established systems for the format and transfer of passenger data allowing Border Agencies to make access decisions.
In the short-term using these existing systems and agreeing additional fields relating to health risk is likely the fastest way to support change.
What is clear is that the aviation ecosystem needs to identify and implement ways of maintaining the health and safety of both passengers and staff.
As mentioned above, this will involve overlaying a series of measures which understand and address the risk. Doing this will instil confidence in aviation’s recovery efforts and, in time, ensure that passenger numbers continue to grow.