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Touchless travel


Airports are leaders in the use of new technology, which will make touchless travel possible and hasten aviation’s recovery from COVID-19, writes Collins Aerospace’s Tony Chapman.

There was a time not long ago when commercial airline passengers arrived early at airports to shop at high-end boutiques, eat at nice restaurants and enjoy a cocktail before their flights.

Indeed, the airport visit was often viewed as the start of an adventure and passengers looked forward to these pre-departure activities as a fun and relaxing way to begin their journeys.

ACI World’s recently released Airport Economics 2020 Report, notes that retail concessions remain the biggest source of non-aeronautical revenue for airports, accounting for 28.9% of all non-aviation related income in 2018. That was then. This is now. COVID-19 has changed our world.

Tough times ahead

ACI Asia-Pacific has announced that it expects the region’s airports to lose two billion passengers and close to $40 billion in revenue in 2020.

While no one has a crystal ball, what is crystal clear is that the global airport industry will continue to struggle until passengers feel safe and confident to travel again. If no solution is implemented, airport revenue may lag the return of the commercial air transport industry, as passengers avoid airport boutiques, restaurants and bars altogether and plan just-in-time arrivals.

Make no mistake about it, because of the number of people who normally cycle through global airports daily – and the close proximity of passengers to each other at numerous airport touchpoints – airports are one of the key battlegrounds in the fight against COVID-19.

Leading-edge technology WILL PROVE TO BE A crucial weapon

To ensure that the global airport industry gets back on its feet as quickly as possible, one area for the industry’s overarching focus is to ensure that airports are no longer defined by interminable, seemingly endless lines of passengers in close contact with each other.

Passengers must feel safe and confident to travel again; long, slow moving lines, accomplish exactly the opposite.

After all the media public service announcements and celebrity reminders to wash our hands, wear face masks, disinfect everything, and use common sense, the answer for the airport industry may be leading-edge technology. And, specifically, technology that enables a touchless travel experience.

The IATA illustration above shows the major touchpoints of a passenger’s journey from the moment they enter the airport to the departure gate. Each touchpoint can be seen as a crucial engagement in the airport’s overall war against the virus.

The outcome of the battle at one touchpoint determines whether a departing passenger moves forward safely and confidently to the next touchpoint.

This illustration clearly shows the challenges that airports face. There are numerous passenger touchpoints and each one is an opportunity for passengers and staff to come in contact with each other and COVID-19.

The good news is that leading-edge technology is available now, and other technology is under development, that will help passengers move safely and confidently through each touchpoint.

It’s all about reducing contact between passengers and airport personnel and eliminating the physical act of touching surfaces where the virus could be viable. One technology stands apart as a great enabler – biometrics.

Biometrics – enabling touchless travel

Biometrics is not a new technology. It’s already in use at airports around the world, primarily for immigration and border control.

But when leading-edge biometric technology overlays each airport touchpoint so that a passenger’s face becomes that passenger’s identification – instead of a driver’s license, passport or boarding pass – all airport touchpoints become part of a single end-to-end biometric journey that is touchless, seamless and faster.

And that is new. It could be a game-changer in the war on COVID-19 and enabling passenger safety and confidence.

The ideal airport encompasses a fully connected journey made possible through a cloud environment with ironclad security and robust identity management. This, in turn, decreases the length of lines and the time passengers spend in lines.

In one recent test of biometric technology used for boarding, the time it took for an international traveller to walk up to an automated boarding gate, allow it to capture their biometrics, send the biometrics to a matching database at the CBP Traveller Verification Service, confirm the match, and send that notification back to the airline departure control system that allowed the gate to open and register the passenger as boarding, was, astonishingly, four seconds.

In other recent tests of people wearing face masks, the 120-point biometric facial scans routinely picked up passenger identity from just the passenger’s face showing above the mask.

Currently, Collins Aerospace has leading-edge biometric technology working at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas and for JetBlue at JFK Airport in New York. Biometric trials are being conducted with easyJet between Bristol, England, and Dublin, Ireland.

Addition of health measurements

With the advent of the COVID-19 global pandemic, airports are also looking for more effective ways to screen for potentially sick travellers.

One way is to add health measurements, such as temperature scanning or thermal imaging, to an airport’s biometrics overlay.

Not every airport touchpoint will require this more robust health measurement technology, but one could see the advantage of having it at Arrivals, before any significant interaction with other passengers, and, again, at security screening, before passengers mix on concourses and before they board their aircraft.

Collins is currently testing thermal imaging and temperature scanning Beta technology in its labs.

Data privacy issues

One point to emphasise clearly and unambiguously is the need for thoughtful consideration of data privacy issues. While the greater good suggests that passengers suspected of being ill should be screened and checked, all passengers have rights and expectations of data privacy. Though, perhaps, not as inarguably as before COVID-19.

How will governments regulate this technology? It’s safe to assume that what is allowed will vary country by country for the foreseeable future.

Still, we note the recent announcement by Dubai-based Emirates that it has begun COVID-19 blood tests on passengers at the airport before their flights. Emirates says the results of the blood test are available in 10 minutes.

passenger expectationS

The global airport industry has done a great job delivering self-service technology. Today, with the latest mobile phone technology integrating with high-tech airports, passengers have a taste of what it’s like to proceed through each of the touchpoints in the IATA illustration with only minimal human interaction until they board their aircraft.

Self-service is a growing passenger expectation. Especially now. At London, Las Vegas, Houston, San Francisco, and other global airports, passengers can automatically check in at remote kiosks, process their own baggage, and pass through self-boarding gates. Lines, and close contact, is a fraction of what it used to be.

Collins is developing self-service technology as a mobile device app. Once passengers are on board an aircraft, they will have significantly less need to interact with flight attendants. They’ll be able to order food and drinks, control inflight entertainment systems and download movies from their own mobile devices.

And there are applications for this technology to be leveraged in airports for wayfinding. Passengers will be warned of airport congestion points as the congestion is building and with enough advanced notice to adjust their schedules. Self-service indeed.

Yes, there was a time not long ago when commercial airline passengers arrived early at airports to shop, eat and be merry before catching their flights. And they will again. Indeed, once travellers feel safe and confident, airports will be busy again. It’s an if-then relationship that leading-edge airport technology and a touchless travel experience can help deliver, today!

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