Redesigning air travel beyond COVID-19

Nina Brooks by Nina Brooks | Dec 8, 2020

Airports have been forced to reconsider their normal business and operational processes and are looking at different solutions including the deployment of innovative technologies and adjustments to space and infrastructure to support the global effort in overcoming COVID-19. As air travel starts to recover, the challenge will be how to build back better, with limited resources and new requirements for health and safety.

A safe, secure, and hygienic travel experience will be the top priority.

Passengers will choose airports that prioritize their well-being as well as destinations where they feel confident that they will be safe and able to complete their trip. Whether they are travelling for business or leisure, passengers will want to be reassured that their health and safety are the number one priority.

The prospective recovery will depend on factors both external to aviation and a restored confidence in air travel. In the short term, the industry restart will be directly related to the lifting of travel restrictions and indirectly to the depth and duration of the projected global recession.

A new passenger journey

We can expect to see more touchless processing, and more processes completed remotely. The current crisis has highlighted the need for greater use of mobile and automated solutions, including touchless self-service and biometrics. We also expect to see a greater use of data, including health information to enable travel to continue to be seamless and safe.

Check-in and bag drop may move largely off airport, from home to hotels and conference centers, and services will more commonly include bag pick up and delivery. Off-airport processing is expected to accelerate, with opportunities to process many travellers through formalities either virtually or at a remote location, perhaps coupled with rapid testing facilities.

We also see greater integration with other transit systems, enabling a more seamless and touchless journey. Some thoughts are even emerging around how, in the longer term, aircraft seating might be reconfigured to provide more physical separation, and the same will need to apply to seating areas, busses and ground transportation and highly trafficked areas of airports. Autonomous electric vehicles will enable smaller, more frequent vehicles to be provided – this may be a trend that we see in daily life, and not just in aviation.

E-gates will replace touchpoints and face to face contact throughout the journey, providing greater efficiency and a reduction in person-to-person contact and crowding.

At security, automated lanes are already providing greater throughput, and less queuing. In the longer term, we expect stand-off technologies to further reduce touchpoints, and enable a whole-of-airport approach to security.  Intelligent algorithms will be able to detect both suspicious items and behaviours, which will enable security staff to focus on risks, rather then performing routine tasks.

ACI’s Smart Security Vision for 2040

In the departures area, we may see more of a “call to gate” approach, where passengers are not informed of their boarding gate until the last minute to prevent crowds, or are given a specific time to arrive at the gate via a mobile app. We expect to see a much more personalized experience emerging over the coming few years.

In addition, the boarding process itself will be adapted to prevent queueing, both at the gate and in the jet-bridge. Many airports and airlines are experimenting with different methods of calling passengers for boarding, but a culture change is also needed in travellers themselves. This will also require a resolution to the issue of adequate space for carry-on bags, using solutions such as pre-allocated space or more efficient delivery processes for those bags checked-in at the gate.

Solutions such as cashless mobile payment at retail stores, mobile remote ordering for food and beverages, in-terminal food and retail delivery and mobile wayfinding will provide customers with new choices for service delivery; we are already seeing these type of solutions being implemented. 

Accelerating change

The entire aviation ecosystem is adjusting to the complexities of the ‘new normal’ and the ability to adapt quickly and demonstrate that they are providing passengers with a safe, secure, and hygienic experience will be key for airports in restoring public confidence in air travel.

The current situation presents airports with an important opportunity to think strategically and take a systematic approach to understand, evaluate, and adapt to meet changing expectations in a way that encourages people to travel again. This will need coordination across the industry, and not least with local authorities, Civil Aviation bodies, health, aviation and homeland security.

There are number of areas where significant opportunities exist within the control of national authorities to encourage innovation, such as enabling faster clearance of the majority of passengers, promoting adoption of automated and electronic processing for customs and border control processes and simplifying inspection points throughout the passenger journey. 

Leveraging technology

The COVID-19 crisis may actually offer a catalyst for change, to foster greater innovation and the regulatory change needed to support it.  We have already seen examples where regulation has been rapidly adapted to enable automated processes and mobile technologies, such as e-gates and self-printed bag tags.

Technology and automation will, of course, play a key role. The industry is already taking a lead in many areas that can assist in addressing public health-related issues, managing queues and crowds and optimizing use of resources by adopting automation and advanced technologies, facilitating data exchange and embracing digital solutions.

Artificial intelligence offers an opportunity to automate tasks and increase efficiency. For example, intelligent CCTV can identify hotspots where people are gathering, and alert the airport’s control centre to deploy additional resources or disperse crowds. Crowd monitoring software can intelligently assign passengers to resources, such as load balancing security lanes, and a total airport management approach can ensure operations run smoothly, and efficiently.

The use of facility management systems will also enable much greater responsiveness to environmental needs, such as air conditioning and heating, ensuring that the environment is not only clean, but use of power and resources are optimized towards greater sustainability.

Digital identity has long been held up as the poster-child for automation, but progress has been slower than expected, with systems usually deployed for only one part of the passenger’s journey. The interoperability challenge between airports and airlines, between agencies, and between countries is one of the reasons that a truly end-to-end system does not yet exist, but progress has been made at the global level on standardization of a digital travel credential that will become one of the essential ingredients.

Privacy and data security continue to be a challenge, especially with personal data, and especially in the light of contact tracing and possible health passport type requirements. However, cybersecurity posture is improving, and requirements are better understood, with platforms now designed to build-in security and put the passenger in control of their own data. This will also help to smooth the path to mobile and interoperable identity management.

For airport systems such as common-use check-in, document check, bag drop, baggage tracking and information display, there is a rapid move to cloud-based systems that enable a faster turnaround time for upgrade, better maintenance, more flexibility in location and much lower hardware costs. This, in turn, will enable airports and airlines to provide facilities away from the airport, so that passengers arrive ready to fly, with their bags already ingested into the airport’s baggage system for delivery to the aircraft.

Requirements for greater cleaning frequency have led to innovation, seeing the deployment of UV cleaning robots, automated cleaning of checkpoint trays, disinfection of high-touch surfaces such as kiosks, and real-time monitoring and reporting, with automated deployment of cleaning teams to areas needing attention.

Automated UV Cleaning Robots at Hamad International Airport, Qatar

Integrating all of these elements, and taking the use of information to the next level, the creation of an airport’s complete digital twin, using IoT (Internet of Things) sensors, data integration and computer vision will enable a total management approach, providing a holistic view of real-time conditions, an understanding of past performance and enabling prediction of future states though machine learning.

The investment conundrum

With a rapid reduction in revenues, and corresponding drops in staffing levels, it may be intuitive to think that investment in technology is lower on the agenda. It will be important for aviation stakeholders to thoroughly evaluate potential savings from investment now, in terms of efficiency and manpower as passenger numbers start to pickup.

If the business case is solid, automation may offer a rapid return on investment, especially in areas such as use of cloud-based solutions, and those that offer greater efficiency.

Airlines and airports will be faced with some tough choices to make over the coming years on where and how to invest to reassure passengers and bring back business.

However, innovation does not necessarily mean high-tech expensive solutions – using a third party for off-airport processing, or adapting kiosks for touchless interaction, for example, are low-hanging fruit that do not require major investment.

In the longer term, building back better will mean ensuring that solutions selected are flexible and adaptable as well as capitalizing on the opportunities that interactive data and connectivity bring.

Customer experience and addressing new drivers of satisfaction

Airports have quickly adapted their operations to respond to the health and safety requirements of dealing with COVID-19, and all have introduced operational measures to deal with the crisis.

As the industry begins to restart and plan for recovery, it will be even more important for airports to listen, understand, and respond to the changing needs and expectations of their customers.

Customers will also expect to be able to clear formalities such as security, customs and immigration more quickly, avoiding crowds and long queues, and to have more choice about how they interact with airline, airport and government staff. This was already changing, with the current and new generation of travellers, but it is likely that this change will be accelerated.

Addressing and tracking the new drivers of satisfaction in the redesign of the passenger journey will be the key to reassuring passengers about the safety of air travel.

Nina Brooks

Nina Brooks

Vice President, Security, Facilitation and Innovation, ACI World
Nina provides guidance and support to the airport community, represents airports interests with regulators, and encourages industry collaboration to identify improvements in passenger processes and the overall travel experience while promoting security at all touchpoints of the journey. She has a background in IT as well as extensive experience in facilitation and security for both airlines and airports, having worked at Virgin Atlantic, IATA and at Intervistas Consulting. Nina is the official observer to the AVSEC and Facilitation Panels at ICAO, is on the editorial board for Aviation Security International and teaches Aviation Security at McGill University in Montreal.
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