COVID-19 and aviation security: Creating the ‘contactless’ checkpoint

Guest Author by Guest Author | Aug 7, 2020

Written by Kevin Riordan, Head of the Checkpoint Solutions, Smiths Detection

A need to adapt is an opportunity to innovate

As COVID-19 travel restrictions ease across the world, airports are in the process of adapting airport procedures to protect passengers and airport staff from potential virus transmission. As highlighted by IATA in their Biosecurity for Air Transport report,“there is no silver bullet solution”, and so “a layered approach for the initial restart, as is already done with safety and security” is required.

The priority is to minimize the risk of contagion during the passenger journey through implementing measures that limit contact at all passenger touchpoints, maintain physical distance between individuals and reduce face-to-face interaction as much as possible. Indeed, the ICAO’s guidelines for airports in their Take-Off: Guidance for Air Travel through the COVID-19 Public Health Crisis report include a range of public health mitigation measures, from wearing face coverings to routine sanitization of contact points and the implementation of health screening.

In this new environment, the security checkpoint presents unique challenges due to the typically high contact nature of the screening process and the tendency for bottlenecks at this point in the passenger journey. Addressing these challenges is complex by having to provide a safe environment for passengers and staff without compromising the security outcome.

As identified by IATA, one answer to these challenges lies in the adoption of self-service options at passenger touchpoints, and a “general move towards greater use of touchless technology and biometrics.” Although a fully contactless self-service checkpoint is still to be realized, checkpoint technologies have been developed and are in development to bring this ideal closer to reality, supporting new health and hygiene standards, enhancing security and enabling a reduction of operational expenditure. These automated and contactless solutions can play a critical role for airports in terms of both recovery from COVID-19 and creating competitive advantage in the longer term.

Cleanliness is key

In the immediate term, ensuring maximum levels of hygiene at the checkpoint is vital. One of the ICAO’s recommended actions for airports is to enhance cleaning and disinfecting of frequently touched and exposed surfaces, including trays at the security checkpoint. While this can be done manually to varying degrees of success, a more effective method is to deploy UV-C light, commonly used in the food and health sectors for disinfection.

UV-C light kits can kill up to 99.9 percent of disease-causing micro-organisms found on trays as they are transported from the reclaim area back to the divest station, helping to reduce the transmission of illness as passengers pass through security checks. In addition to routine disinfection, airports should create a low-touch and low-interaction environment to ultimately reduce the risk of virus transmission.

UV-C tray disinfection

Security screening at a distance

One of the readily available solutions to effectively support a low contact operation is remote screening. Enabled by centralized image processing, remote screening allows operators to work in separate rooms away from the checkpoint, reducing passenger and operator interaction as well as queue times through increased operator efficiency. Remote screening allows for more space to be freed up by physically involving fewer people in the security screening process. Depending on what is found on the scanned images, each tray is either sent straight through to the passenger or automatically diverted to a recheck point. Any suspicious areas are marked and classified on the images so operators back at the checkpoint know exactly where to target secondary examinations – making rechecks quicker, less intrusive and reducing contact with unnecessary items.

Multiplexing is also a useful technique in improving contactless productivity, as it networks images collected from all security lanes across the airport and delivers the images to a group of analysts in a centralised location. The throughput can be improved by sending an image to the next available analyst, while the previous image is still being viewed by another operator and the corresponding tray is travelling along the decision conveyor. A steady flow of trays can be maintained with no need to stop the belt to wait for the analysts to have finished the image evaluation. With multiplexing, the ratio of operators to lanes can be adjusted to cater for varying passenger demands and different operational objectives. This flexibility in staff allocation as well as the increased productivity per operator can play a vital role in recovery strategies.

Next-generation people screening

Millimetre-wave people screening portals reduce the need for full physical pat-downs by identifying specific areas of the body that need to be investigated.

In future, these portals could also facilitate a reduction in intrusive rechecks by enabling self-clearance, with passengers who have set off the alarms removing any potential trigger items without there being any interference from the security operator and no physical contact between two people.

CT systems: Low-touch and low false alarm rates

Cabin baggage scanners using computer tomography (CT) allow for liquids and laptops to be left inside passenger bags for screening. This means fewer trays need to be touched, reducing contact points and cross-contamination, as well as improving the overall efficiency of the checkpoint. also delivers very low false alarm rates, because of the data richness provided by the hundreds of different views converted into volumetric 3D images, demonstrating the potential for reduction in re-checks which require extensive direct contact between security officers, the bag and its contents.

Algorithms that are readily available to be used at the checkpoint support security operators with their decision making by using AI to automatically detect hazards of illicit goods. Such algorithms, coupled with the automatic explosive detection capability of CT systems could enable alarm only viewing of X-ray images to significantly improve passenger flow, reduce unnecessary interaction between operators and passengers and enhance security levels.

One size does not fit all

Although nearly all airports have been impacted the COVID-19 crisis, each airport’s response to adapting their operations will be different, because their requirements will be different. Security systems and processes will need to be adapted depending on an airport’s profile. For example, the threats particular to its location, local health and safety regulations, size, typical passenger volumes and profiles, budget constraints and existing security systems.

For airport operators to effectively control transmission risks at their security checkpoints, the risks specific to their operations have to be identified. In line with this, the UK Government’s Department for Transport recommends that airports undertake a health and safety risk assessment of security checkpoints which considers “screens, processes, working practices and use of technology to control the risk of transmission through being near to others and handling common items such as screening trays”.

Bespoke checkpoint solutions which cater to an airport’s specific requirements can be developed through modelling and simulation tools, which enable checkpoints to be configured by choosing the different technology building blocks (baggage and people scanner, lane layout, ETD etc.) as well as variables such as IPP (images or trays per person), divest time, reclaim time, reject rate, and image analysis time. These variables differ between airports and, amongst other factors, depend on the passenger profile. Business travellers for example, will be quicker in divesting and reclaiming their belongings. By creating a simulation and recreating certain scenarios that may affect throughput, insights and actionable recommendations can be produced to inform the best choice of security systems and practices to create optimum operational efficiency in line with enhanced health and hygiene measures. 

Restoring confidence by reducing contact

The most immediate need is to rebuild both passenger and employee trust in airport processes, by ensuring the airport environment is as sanitary as possible. The key to turning this into a competitive advantage is adopting techniques and technology that ensure health and hygiene measures are supported in a way that does not hinder productivity, efficiency, and passenger experience. For airport screening, there are technologies available and in development which will create a more ‘contactless’ security checkpoint, delivering significant efficiency and security outcome benefits. In this way, COVID-19 may prove to put automation on the fast track, acting as a catalyst for innovation.


Kevin Riordan currently holds the position of Head of the Checkpoint Solutions with Smiths Detection. The role is part of the global aviation marketing function working closely with Sales, Products & Technology and overall business management, interfacing  with the customer community and key industry stakeholders in order to develop the sector; providing guidance for product strategy and subject matter expertise to all functions of the business.

He has previously worked for a number of UK government departments including the Home Office, the Intelligence & Security Secretariat of the Cabinet Office and the Aviation Security Division of the DfT, responsible for research and development programmes and technical policy development.


The article was provided by a third party and, as such, the views expressed therein and/or presented are their own and may not represent or reflect the views of ACI, its management, Board, or members. Readers should not act on the basis of any information contained in the blog without referring to applicable laws and regulations and/or without appropriate professional advice.

Guest Author
141 articles
Share This