How COVID-19 will shape the future of passenger screening

Guest Author by Guest Author | Mar 1, 2021

Written by Paul van Gaalen, Senior Consultant and Aviation Security Specialist, Point FWD and Rene Hopstaken, Senior Consultant – Special Airport Systems team, NACO, Netherlands Airport Consultants.

Passenger screening and security checks are a familiar aspect of air travel – but the ways in which passengers are screened has changed over the years, from simple x-ray systems, to the more complex and sophisticated systems we see today. These changes have often been driven by historical development and events, as well as improvements in technology. The current COVID-19 pandemic is forcing airports, airlines, governments, consultants, and suppliers to reflect on how to react to changing health requirements in aviation and airport operations.

So what will future passenger screening look like? This article examines that question and explores how security checkpoint developments can support the rethinking and redesigning of the passenger security screening process.

Evolving aviation security

Security checkpoints in airports have been around for over 50 years since their introduction in the early 1970s, following a series of new threats to airport security. Over the last 20 years, security screening processes have developed from traditional x-ray systems and walk-through-metal-detectors, to automated security lanesfor cabin baggage handling, and security scanners for passengers. While at peak the throughput is similar to that of 20 years ago, the threat detection algorithms and the number of possible threats handled today are significantly more challenging and complex.

Alongside technological developments, both operational and spatial considerations are key drivers in the evolution of the security checkpoint – and significant efforts have been made to meet the demand for passenger-friendly processes that can maintain the pace of traffic growth. Checkpoints need to strike the right balance of providing a swift interaction while maintaining a growing security level and keeping employees and the travelling public safe.

The impact has been noticeable in the complexity of the security protocols (e.g. requirements to divest), the time required to complete all sub-processes, the cost of the infrastructure, and the number of staff required to operate them. However the biggest increase is in the required floor space needed for these security checkpoints, which are often positioned in the middle of a terminal building with all the challenges that brings.

CT Scanners and how crises create change

The recent deployment of Computed Tomography (CT) scanners for cabin baggage screening brings multiple benefits to the passenger screening process. If implemented correctly, CT scanners increase the security lane throughput, facilitate the lift of the LAG (Liquid, Aerosol, and Gel) restrictions, and remove the need for passengers to unpack large electronics and LAGs. This allows most cabin baggage to be placed directly in a tray without the need to remove items, which requires less trays to scan items, resulting in a faster processing and higher security lane throughput.

A plot in Australia in 2017 led the Australian Government to mandate the use of CT scanners at passenger checkpoints at major airports by 2020 (this process is currently delayed due to the pandemic). Many other countries have followed with the introduction of similar mandates, so could the COVID-19 pandemic be a similar crisis event that requires measures that ultimately will deliver an increased level of service and a seamless journey to passengers?

The COVID-19 opportunity for passenger screening

COVID-19 has shaken up a lot of industries, none more so than aviation and security. The pandemic has accelerated pre-existing trends towards automation, self-service,  and now with the importance of health security means there is an increased need for touchless technology – to reduce the risk of transmission. This is all on top of the desire to make operations less dependent on resources and more flexible to meet both demand and new operating protocols.

These trends, however, are harder to implement in the passenger screening checkpoint, where the process relies on interactions between passengers, their belongings, and security agents; and where unpredictable demand and inadequate staffing often result in long queues.

In the face of this, it is clear to see that operational flexibility, stakeholder collaboration and technological readiness all play an increasingly important role – but what measures, technologies or solutions could an airport consider implementing to create a more sustainable and cost-efficient security checkpoint?

Security lane technology upgrades

To mitigate health risks throughout the security process, conventional x-ray equipment can be replaced with CT technology and enhanced body scanner algorithms can be implemented reducing the need for passengers to part with belongings and creating fewer touchpoints. Integrating these solutions with automated tray return systems equipped with tray disinfection modules will mitigate the health concern and facilitate the required safer environment for passengers and operators.

Self-service and pull instead of push

Self-service is one of the promising initiatives for changing the current labour and space-intensive security lane setup. There are a number of opportunities already available within, but also outside of the aviation industry; for example solutions like video assistance during the self-service process at the entrance of each security lane.

Today, checkpoint security is very much a “push” process. From the queue, a passenger starts divesting their items when space becomes available and advances to the next step in the process regardless of whether the person ahead has completed that step. This results in an accumulation of passengers at the slowest security process, for instance before a body scanner, or at the reclaim point.

A “pull” system is based on monitoring passenger density, where sensors measure the occupancy at each step of the security process and guide passengers towards the next step only when there is enough capacity. By pulling passengers to the next step instead of pushing them, the build-up of passengers is avoided within the security lanes, which facilitates social distancing.

Virtual queue

Another opportunity for safer and more efficient checkpoints is to significantly reduce queues by introducing virtual queuing at security. The concept is not new, many theme parks, for example, have adopted systems where visitors can reserve a place in a virtual queue and claim access to attractions at their designated arrival time.

A similar concept has been implemented at security checkpoints at several airports long before this pandemic, but the trend is now accelerating. Besides avoiding crowds, advanced data on passengers’ checkpoint processing preferences, obtained through the virtual queue reservation system, could result in better checkpoint staffing and resource allocation.

On top of all this, virtual queuing allows airport operators to gain much-needed commercial, and dwell space by converting queuing areas that are no longer needed.  

De-Peaking and commercial opportunities

The number of security screening lanes, like any other passenger processing point in a terminal, is driven by peak-hour demand. Therefore, theoretically, it should be possible to flatten the peaks by controlling the time when passengers present for screening. The “flattening of the peaks” result in a lower number of screening lanes required and in more efficient utilization of screening personnel, as peaks are lower in magnitude, but longer in duration.

This can be achieved by taking the concept of virtual queuing and extending it to include differential pricing that allows a passenger to pay a premium to obtain a virtual spot in the queue closer to their time of departure. For example, those travelling for business often want to arrive at the airport at the last possible moment, check-in virtually without hold luggage and move swiftly through security screening. They are likely to be willing to pay more for this faster process, with online booking and payment in advance before arriving at the airport.

For those passengers who are not in a rush and are less willing to pay for a desired place in the virtual queue, an algorithm will assign a time that would minimize the peak-demand while still guaranteeing adequate time to be airside before flight departure. With Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, it is now possible to have smart optimization algorithms that achieve just that.


Many airports have already embarked on the so-called biometrically-enabled seamless passenger journey, by introducing cameras at most processing points and using facial recognition technology to verify identity. This technology, when fully embraced, will eventually eliminate the need for passengers to frequently present the same documents (passport, boarding pass, and the latest addition, a health certificate) at various processing points.

This technology could enable risk-based screening where most low risk passengers would be processed faster reducing the number of required interactions between passenger and staff. As passengers initiate the divestment process, their faces are captured by cameras, their identity verified, and the security risk established through government databases. Risk-based algorithms are then automatically applied to the screening of their belongings and to determine whether secondary screening is required.

This technology could allow passengers with different statuses (e.g., international, domestic) to co-exist in the same space. Consolidating security checkpoints would bring significant savings both in terms of staff and infrastructure.

Flexibility and personalization

Self-service innovations may be embraced more by frequent travellers than occasional leisure passengers. Tech-savvy travellers will want to use an app to reserve a timeslot to proceed through security at the time that suits them best – and not everybody will be comfortable with sharing biometric data.

Therefore, each solution should be implemented in a way that it can be flexibly operated and incrementally expanded. Also, terminal processes should not depend on these technologies but benefit from them. A virtual queue will probably not replace the queuing area with commercial space altogether, but if half the passengers make use of it, a far smaller queuing area will be required. By doing this, passengers are given a choice and can select their preferred level of service in the terminal.

The future of airports looks seamless

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought new challenges to security checkpoints. Historically, security checkpoints have always evolved with emerging threats and risks, which typically each time lead to a slower and more costly process that consumes more and more airport space.

As a result, checkpoints today are focusing on processing as many passengers as possible and require large areas for passengers to queue. Checkpoints are not designed to comply with physical distancing requirements, minimum staff interaction and touchless technology – leaving airports with a serious and complex challenge.

Fortunately there are promising developments on the horizon, which focus on driving down the cost, staff numbers, and floor space required. New devices and software innovations (i.e., AI, machine/deep learning), the introduction of self-service and biometrics are the road to a new era of aviation security that is gearing up to provide an answer to the current and evolving threats while answering the demand of airports and passengers for a robust, swift and smooth process – without the queues.

This is the time to test and trial new technologies and operating frameworks that will help you achieve a safer and seamless passenger journey and better prepare you for the post-pandemic recovery.

Paul van Gaalen is a Senior Consultant and Aviation Security Specialist at Point FWD. Paul focuses on the latest developments in the passenger security checkpoint, enabling them through a data driven approach. Paul has a deep and rich understanding of implementation and successful operation of the latest technologies in the passenger screening checkpoint, providing consultancy across many airports worldwide.

Rene Hopstaken is a Senior Consultant in the special airport systems team at NACO, Netherlands Airport Consultants. Rene has over 20 years of experience, of which 10 years in the aviation industry. He has worked on high profile projects for world class airports across the globe such as Schiphol Airport, Abu Dhabi International Airport and Kuwait International Airport. For these projects he delivered innovative engineering solutions and operational concepts for special airport systems in the fields of passenger facilitation, security, baggage handling and terminal operation.

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.

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