The passenger journey must accommodate new biosafety measures without losing sight of its seamless goal

Air traffic demand has failed to pick up as a second wave of COVID-19 infections flood the world. Pre-pandemic traffic levels won’t be seen until 2024. Airports once congested now stand all but empty. Shops are closed, amenities unused.

But aviation will return to power the world economy once again. The challenge for the industry is maintaining a positive passenger experience in the light of new realities. Biosafety must be balanced against the still-appropriate aim of making the journey as seamless as possible.

The harmonized implementation of ICAO Take-Off guidance and close cooperation with the public and travel and tourism industries is essential.

George Casey, Chair and CEO, Vantage Airport Group—which has 10 airports worldwide in its portfolio—agrees that all partners in the aviation value chain must work together.

“Partnership and collaboration amongst all entities that touch the passenger journey—from airlines and airports to concession managers and regulatory agencies—is more important than ever,” he says. “Strong partnerships and smart use of new technologies can promote transparency, communication, and a better understanding of our shared customer. We need to remove barriers between traditionally siloed partners by sharing information and data.”

Already we have measures in place to ensure safe journeys through ICAO’s CART recommendations. And trials around the world are helping us to demonstrate that we have effective testing technology that can be efficiently integrated into the travel process.”

Familiar technologies

Some of the contactless measures being worked on by the industry will be familiar. From kiosks to bots to baggage drop-off, passengers have begun to use many of these technologies.

Already commonplace, for example, is biometric identification. The face recognition algorithm will need to be fine-tuned to accurately verify passengers wearing face masks, but suppliers are working on this. Facial recognition is applicable to many travel processes and can accelerate throughput rates at critical touchpoints.

Mobile technologies are also coming to the fore. Smartphones will take on even greater importance as they can carry all the necessary documentation, including a boarding pass, health declaration, and other ancillary services. This idea also forms part of IATA’s One ID program, an integrated identity management solution.

Baggage drop-off is another element of the journey already heading in the right direction. Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags enable constant monitoring and will ensure bags reach their destination with minimal human involvement.

Face coverings and sanitization

Mask wearing for air travel is now common and mandatory in many countries. In some airports, South Korea’s Incheon International Airport among them, bots are a high-tech alternative to signage that reminds passengers about the requirement.

Sanitization, meanwhile, will be stepped up across all airports and airlines and in many cases will employ new tools and systems.

Future design decisions—from furniture and flooring selections to restroom and hold room layout—are being based on ease and efficacy of cleanliness. 

Unfamiliar measures

Other elements of the passenger journey may not be as readily incorporated, however, having previously been off the radar of most industry initiatives.

Social distancing is a prime example. In this regard, the current low travel numbers might be seen as a boon as they make social distancing possible. But it will become increasingly difficult as demand returns and restrictions likely to remain in place.

Stuttgart Airport and technology supplier Xovis are planning to use 3D sensors to manage social distancing. 3D stereovision sensors manage passenger flow across the airport and work is ongoing to determine how these sensors can be leveraged to manage physical distancing.

One idea is to create heat maps from the data so that queuing can be adjusted as necessary. Riccarda Mark, Senior Expert Airport Quality Monitoring, Stuttgart Airport, explains: “This new technology allows us to better understand how passengers move around the terminal. Among other things, this helps us adjust social distancing floor markers to ensure an even safer process.”

Social distancing will also be tackled through virtual queuing, allocating passengers a particular time or queue number to avoid crowds.

Opening skies… Testing to reopen borders

Quarantine laws and travel restrictions continue to curtail aviation’s recovery and ability to repower the global economy.

“Quarantine of any length will continue the economic destruction of COVID-19,” says Rafael Schvartzman, IATA’s Regional Vice President for Europe. “Testing must replace, not shorten, quarantine. And testing costs should be borne by governments, in line with the World Health Organization’s International Health Regulations.”

An IATA survey shows that 88% of air travelers are willing to take a COVID-19 test as part of the travel process, and 84% agree it should be required for all travelers.

There are a number of testing methodologies, each of which has its pros and cons. The Rapid Antigen Test (RAT) is perhaps best placed to rebuild confidence and trust in the biosafety of air travel. It meets the goals of being accurate, easy-to-use, fast, and low-cost.

The RAT looks for specific antigens, such as the surface proteins of a virus, instead of a genetic sequence in the sample. It has good sensitivity and excellent specificity, which reduces the risk of false positives.

Importantly, it is easy to administer and generally takes the form of a strip test, somewhat similar to a pregnancy test, with results that are easily readable with minimal instructions. More invasive procedures require staff with medical training, which obviously constrains capacity and increases costs.

Minimal consumables are required for the RAT—just protective equipment for staff and some medium to transfer the swab from the test subject to the test strip. In fact, combined with a non-invasive swab, such as saliva, the test could even be self-administered.

The RAT is the fastest of all testing methodologies, typically providing results within 15 minutes, as no specimen treatment is required before it is applied to the testing surface.

Moreover, the RAT is arguably the cheapest of all tests, with a reported range of $5 to $20 across vendors. Economies of scale can be expected once mass production is achieved among the leading manufacturers.


But it is testing that could be the game-changer for international travel. Airports Council International and IATA have teamed up to call for a globally consistent approach to provide governments with the confidence to re-open borders without quarantine. A fast, practical, accurate, low-cost, easy-to-use test supported and paid for by public health authorities is vital.

IATA’s Director General and CEO Alexandre de Juniac believes millions of travelers want and need to reconnect with family, take a hard-earned vacation or support their international business needs.

“We must learn to live with this disease and that includes safely restoring the freedom to travel,” he says. “Already we have measures in place to ensure safe journeys through ICAO’s CART recommendations. And trials around 
the world are helping us to demonstrate that we have effective testing technology that can be efficiently integrated into the travel process. We count on ICAO’s leadership to bring governments into agreement on an implementation plan so that aviation can reconnect people and economies. We need to do this with speed. Each day of delay puts more jobs at risk.”

$5-20- RAT is arguably the cheapest of all tests, with a reported range of $5 to $20 across vendors. Economies 
of scale can be expected once mass production is achieved among the leading manufacturers.

Knock-on effects

Whatever biosafety measures are implemented, there will be knock-on effects across the whole passenger journey.

At the security checkpoint, social distancing and minimal human and baggage contact will be essential. Scanners with target recognition algorithms could provide part of the solution.

Shopping and restaurants will also be transformed. At Dubai Duty Free, a concierge service delivers products to passengers for payment. Goods can also be ordered prior to arrival at the airport.

Something similar may well be the future of food and beverage to prevent crowding and provide a superior service. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport restaurants have adopted a virtual kiosk platform that allows customers to use their smartphone to order and have food delivered to their location. The idea is also in operation at New York’s LaGuardia Terminal B.

“Airports that effectively cater to the passenger journey of the future will look beyond bricks and mortar solutions,” explains Casey. “They’ll reconfigure terminal space and use innovative queue management to make better use of the existing footprint, and rely on digital tools, such as apps that facilitate distanced virtual queuing for security screening and boarding.”

The Vantage Airport Group has been in discussion with architecture and design partners to explore post-virus airport design. “Our latest thinking is on adjusting facility interiors to address human behavior in areas 
of congregation such as queues, elevators, food courts, and jet bridges, and improving air quality, air flow, and filtration to quickly remove pathogens,” Casey adds. “Terminals of the future will also be upgraded to include use of new credential authentication and biometric technologies to facilitate seamless security screening and access to secure areas without the need for person to person interaction.”

There is little doubt that the post-COVID air journey will be different. Some measures may be temporary, such as face coverings, but others, including modified security checkpoints and food delivery, may find favor for the longer term. Lower traffic levels will give industry time to test technologies and processes, but collaboration remains key to a seamless passenger experience.

Airlines reimagine the journey

“COVID-19 has touched all of us in some way and it prompted us to fundamentally change the entire travel experience,” says Alaska Airlines CEO Brad Tilden.

The airline is promoting its mobile app for the best journey experience. And all passengers must complete a health agreement during check-in, verifying they haven’t exhibited COVID-19 symptoms in the past 72 hours, come into contact with someone who is symptomatic, and agree to wear a face mask or covering.

Passengers are boarded by row numbers in smaller groups, from the back to the front, to enable appropriate spacing and personal hand sanitizing wipes are available onboard. In all, the airline has enacted nearly 100 policies, procedures, and actions to ensure the biosafety of passengers and staff.

United Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, and Air Canada are among the many other carriers that have instigated fully touchless procedures at key airports.

 84%- An IATA survey shows that 88% of air travelers are willing to take a COVID-19 test as part of the travel process, and 84% agree it should be required for all travelers.

Image credit | Getty