Touchless tech: Airports and airlines take steady steps to restore confidence in flying

By Linda Fox | August 4, 2020

Every week an airline announces its take on safety and hygiene measures in a bid to get consumers flying again – government restrictions allowing.

For example, Lufthansa says it is linking tickets to COVID-19 tests, while Emirates will provide free insurance for virus-related medical and quarantine expenses incurred by passengers.

It’s hard to blame these badly hit businesses for introducing measures to try to instill confidence in consumers that flying is safe against the backdrop of $84 billion in losses, predicted by IATA this year, and ongoing conflicting advice from governments.

While many governments maintain they are following science, a recent cry from European airports and airlines to governments says the lack of consistency in implementing science-based approaches is “crippling Europe’s economies.”

They are calling for “harmonized implementation” of the Take-Off Aviation Health Protocols devised by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency and the International Civil Aviation Organization.

In the meantime, IATA now expects full recovery to 2019 levels to be delayed until 2023 – a revision by one year from a previous estimate.

The reality is that it will take more than virus tests and the lifting of restrictions to entice customers back – meaning that technology has a huge role to play.

Last week, JetBlue announced an ultraviolet cleaning robot was being piloted on aircraft at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and Florida’s Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, as part of its health and hygiene measures.

This is just one in a series of new technologies and measures that consumers will have to become accustomed to as travel takes steps toward recovery.

Touchless (eventually seamless)

A recent report from Simpliflying, published in partnership with Elenium, highlights how touchless technology will come into play throughout the passenger journey.

It charts how technologies such as biometrics, screening and scanners for temperature and other vital signs, as well for touchless bag drop, will become the so-called new normal for air travel.

Many initiatives are already underway, with CLEAR offering fast-track screening through airport security lines using a combination of biometric data, temperature readings and COVID-19 testing from passengers, according to reports.

At Denver International Airport, biometric and identity management specialist Daon is piloting biometric solutions to passengers and employees, following a partnership between the two companies.

Other solutions are emerging that look to make the most of resources already available to cash-strapped airlines and airports.

A recent announcement between Amadeus and Norwegian airport operator Avinor paves the way for a touchless travel journey for passengers.

Avinor, which operates 44 airports, is trialling touchless technology that allows passengers to check in, drop bags, proceed through security and board their flight.

The journey starts with remote flight check-in and a boarding pass in barcode form sent to mobile devices.

The code also acts as a coupon to print bag tags via self-service kiosk at airports, enabling passengers to drop their luggage at self-service units.

Avinor already offered touchless boarding at airports, and these latest upgrades make more elements of the journey contact-free.

Brede Nielsen, chief information officer of Avinor, says the company has often held back from expensive IT investment, but this time wanted to do something “more edgy” and in a short space of time.

From discussions with Amadeus in mid-March to the trials starting with two airports in mid-July, Yannick Beunardeau, vice president of airport IT, EMEA, for Amadeus, describes the implementation as the quickest it has done for this sort of safety solution. 

He adds: “Lot of airports are talking to us about some other solutions, some even more complex, but from time to time the simplest is the most efficient.”

Nielsen says 17 of Avinor’s airports have the potential to implement the technology relatively quickly and adds that passenger acceptance is the only thing that might hold things back.

“We’ve launched something that we think is a good solution, but everything is about the customer experience. We’re a little bit tense about whether they will understand the new way to do things.”

One major positive for Avinor with deploying the technology is that it hasn’t meant huge investment.

Nielsen says: “We didn’t discuss big solutions such as face recognition. We talked about the equipment we have, what we can do with that and how we can change the process with what we have.”

This is sentiment being echoed across much of the industry.

Andrew O’Connor, vice president of airports and borders for SITA, says that while technology to improve the customer experience have been coming at a “certain pace,” there is renewed interest when it comes to low-touch technology.

He adds that it’s about layering new features and functionality on top of the common-use platform already employed at hundreds of airports.

O’Connor says a new features set called SITA Flex enables previous touch points to be driven by mobile devices relatively easily.

SITA, he says, has realized people are not going to invest new money in infrastructure and systems, whether biometric innovation or mobile-enabled solutions.

“We’re building on a foundation, the common-use footprint, that is already out there, and it’s relatively easy to add on these other enabling features.

Both O’Connor and Beunardeau see an acceleration of technologies that were already being trialled.

Beunardeau says: “We know that the new reality will be different, so we’re looking at what the near future will be, anticipating what the touchless travel solutions will be and developing a family of solutions concerning social distancing, hygiene, self-service, biometric technology.

“[The virus] has helped us to accelerate all that so now we’re ready for this new reality. It’s quite astonishing how a trauma like COVID-19 could accelerate things in this area.”

Stakeholders also agree that collaboration is critical.

O’Connor says: “Reaching a kind of nirvana state in the way these things work has relied upon more and more collaboration between airline, airport and government.

“This situation has probably driven a very good and deeper understanding of the whole ecosystem and how it works and how even individual government policies and decisions link together.” 

Certainly in the case of Avinor’s developments, there was a greater understanding from airport management, airlines and even national security organizations of what needed to be achieved, according to Nielsen.

And any new spirit of collaboration could be a catalyst to drive digital technology in aviation beyond what it has been able to do so far.

O’Connor sees the collaboration as an accelerator to that “ultimate vision” proposed by organizations including IATA with its OneID concept of using biometrics to move through airports seamlessly “without breaking stride.”

He concludes: “There’s the more tactical measures to get things moving, but I think there will be a standing back to think about how we set ourselves up for the future.”

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