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The new airport experience in a post-Covid world

Not too long ago, air travel looks like this: Travellers would take their passport and luggage, head straight to the airport for check in, then to the departure lounge, clear immigration and prepare to fly off to their respective destination for vacation, business, or home.

The new airport experience in a post-Covid world

Visitors to Changi Airport on Sept 8, 2021.

Not too long ago, air travel looks like this: Travellers would take their passport and luggage, head straight to the airport for check in, then to the departure lounge, clear immigration and prepare to fly off to their respective destination for vacation, business, or home.

Then came the Covid-19 pandemic, and travel experience has never been the same.

Even with Singapore launching its first vaccinated travel lanes with Germany and Brunei this month, different levels of movement control measures will exist across countries as governments try to rein in the health scourge.

Some parts of the world are expected to remain in international isolation, and global air travel is not expected to make full recovery till 2023 to 2024.

For sure, travelling in a post-pandemic world will never be the same as countries remain skittish about reopening borders to international travellers despite vaccinations being rolled out.

As travellers take a more cautious approach, prioritising health and wellbeing, the pandemic has shaken the trust people once had in health and safety of airports and flying.

It is essential to rebuild this trust to reassure individuals they can take that step to become passengers again, travelling with peace of mind when air travel normalises.

What will the airport in a post-pandemic world look like?

Technology holds the answer. Airports need to implement new procedures, regulations and social distancing measures, supported by the latest technological solutions.

So much has been talked about smart technology and now, more than ever, it is time for technologies to work smarter for us — this can be done by tapping artificial intelligence and biometrics to help establish new standard operating procedures in this new normal.

CROWD CONTROL, SAFE DISTANCING

Configuration of machine learning-based algorithms can help to regulate the flow of passengers within airports, through integration with the airport system, to balance prediction and monitoring of human traffic.

Airport operators can be alerted through a mobile application to manage over occupancy in defined areas of the airport, such as queues at checkpoints and ensure passengers have reasonable time to engage in airport activities such as shopping and dining, provide for conducive space for social distancing at boarding and alert passengers on the best time to arrive at the airport.  

These can help avoid congestion, increase passenger satisfaction and comfort.

Another invention, a wearable tag sanitised after each use will be given to the passenger at the entrance after the thermal screening and will be given back at boarding, enables the implementation of social distancing procedures and anonymous tracking in the airport.

The tag is like a badge that helps ensure each passenger or staff member is safe and secure in the terminal.

The tag has a chip that interacts with other tags and can be used as part of a system that enables airport officials to implement social distancing and contact tracing, whenever necessary.

Operators can also peruse predictive analytics to track human traffic and anticipate the potential for overcrowding.

Sensors in specific areas feed tracking information into a centralised database, allowing accurate prediction of passengers and better use of infrastructure.

Once airport operators are alerted by the alarms on potential overcrowding, they can decide on next steps, which can take the form of public announcements over digital signages or over audio broadcast systems to manage traffic.

CONTACTLESS OPERATIONS THROUGH BIOMETRICS

In future, travellers could imagine breezing through the airport with little or no contact with airport staff as automated biometric and document verification technologies allow an end-to-end self-service experience.

At the heart of all this is passenger safety and convenience, as this cuts the time passengers spend in queues at each step of the travel process and minimises contact with the personnel operating in the airport.

Passengers can activate a unique, temporary ID token created by entering their biodata and travel information even before they arrive at the airport.The ID token remains in the system, following the passenger at each step of the travel process, but will be deleted — in compliance with government regulations — once the passenger boards.

The technology uses algorithms that match the passenger’s passport details to the airport system’s boarding data, and links up to an automated document authentication process which will have contained the passenger’s biometric data to enable identification, verification and authentication based on an effective facial recognition algorithm.

HEALTH COMES FIRST  

Even though vaccination programmes are ongoing in several countries and airlines are exploring the use of a digital passport for vaccinated individuals, some measures implemented are likely to stay.

These include thermal scanning, symptom screening, use of personal protection equipment and safe distancing protocols.

Temperature checks will remain as the most immediate and long-lasting countermeasures to fight the pandemic.

These checks are often the first filter in the health risk management process and expected to be integrated in airport procedures as a standard for some time.

Surveys by the International Air Transport Association show that passengers feel more comfortable if temperature checks are done in airports at departure and arrival. These scanners can also be used for mask detection and could include a swab management feature.

Health declarations will also be a long-term feature.

Symptom screening can be facilitated by a simple check-list app on the mobile phone to be used by passengers.

The information is transferred to a central system that computes appropriate reports and indicators for airport operators.

This can be configured to provide real-time updates to passengers or staff of potential cases and alert emergency services.

There are also capabilities that can enable airports to receive public health emergencies on board to allow real-time appropriate ground management.This requires collaboration between relevant stakeholders integrating the right information at the right time. The platform can sieve through large amounts of data to predict, monitor and manage multiple issues.

To ensure the safety of travellers during these pandemic times, there is a need to manage passenger occupancy in critical areas, update information which may be affected by additional complexity in boarding procedures, assess indicators in place for temperature and contact tracing, as well as perform risk-based analytics, based on information captured about health management conditions in different countries for real-time resource planning.

The World Health Organisation has labelled the Covid-19 pandemic as the most significant health crisis of the century as it has affected every aspect of life worldwide.

A large part of this impact is due to the disruption to the aviation industry, given that air travel, tourism and its related industries contribute to about 10 per cent of global GDP and support 330 million jobs worldwide.

While scientists are racing to rein in the virus and governments are working hard to implement risk mitigation measures, airport operators – as guardians of the gateways of a country – can also play a part in this global battle, by arming themselves with the latest technology to contain the health crisis.

Though some measures are temporary, others are likely to remain for the longer term. Regardless of their timespan, implementing these measures with the aid of best in-class tech is the most practical step in regaining everyone’s trust to fly again, and make the world a safer and more secure environment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Winston Yeo is senior vice-president of identity and biometric solutions at Thales.

Related topics

airport air travel Covid-19 border restrictions Technology safe distancing

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