Airports are deploying new technology in response to COVID-19.
Airports are deploying new technology in response to COVID-19.
( Source: gemeinfrei / Unsplash)

AVIATION AND COVID-19 Will technology get us back in the air despite COVID-19?

Author / Editor: Cate Lawrence / Isabell Page

COVID-19 has had a mammoth impact on the travel industry, with many businesses bankrupt and employees left without work. Border closures have hit the aviation industry hard. Fortunately, image recognition, machine learning, IoT, and location intelligence are creating new travel solutions changing the end-to-end passenger experience.

2020 will be known as the year where tourist flights died a thousand deaths. Airlines filed for bankruptcy, pilots and travel agents looked for new careers, borders closed, and many tourists were left stranded due to canceled flights. COVID-19 created the need for greater hygiene and people monitoring to reduce the spread of the virus. But it's not completely doom and gloom. Many startups are still hanging in there, and airports and airlines are exploring new technology and partnerships that change how we travel in preparation for a future where passenger numbers return.

For most of us, air travel's pain points are everything before we climb aboard the plane and after we disembark. Fortunately, when we're flying again, technology is here to ease the pain.

No more queuing at embassies

Need a visa? Applying for a visa can be time-consuming, especially if it involves embassy visits. Queuing in close quarters is less than desirable during a pandemic. Fortunately, UK startup The Visa Machine does the heavy lifting or acquiring visas for you, supplying and submitting paperwork to the embassies, facilitating payments, and returning your passport to you.

Concierge-style services no longer just for the rich

In Dubai, startup Dubz has created a home and hotel baggage collection and delivery service bookable online 24 hours a day. A DUBZ van and agent will come to you to weigh your bags, check you into your flight, and hand over your boarding passes at home. Your baggage is collected, disinfected with a long-lasting protective coating (against COVID-19), and delivered to the airport's baggage drop. Upon your return, your bags are collected at the carousel and delivered to your home. Passengers also can access boarding fast track services, and a certified nurse is available to conduct at home COVID-19 testing. Prices start at 50 EUR.

Travel hands-free through the airport

These days we log into an app the night before a flight to 'check-in' for your flight. In France, VINCI Airports have enabled passengers' to undertake a biometric journey from their home to the plane. By setting up an account with a specialist app, passengers can go through the airport's various checkpoints – from luggage drop off to boarding (except border control) – without making any physical contact, simply by showing their face.

Get your health checked before you fly

In Melbourne, Australia, a technology initially designed for people with disabilities has found another purpose due to COVID-19. Avalon airport has partnered with startup Elenium in conjunction with Etihad and Amazon Web Services to facilitate a seamless airport experience that eliminates the need to scan boarding passes or submit manual data. Touchless kiosks called Elenium Vitals use biometrics, sensors, and voice recognition technology, eliminating the need to touch surfaces. Kiosks can be operating using verbal commands, and users can control the self-service device using their head movement as an alternative to physically touching a screen. Passport and identity cards can be read without touching a scanning pad or screen. The kiosk also evaluates vital signs, including temperature, heart, and heart respiration rate, and can ask questions as part of a health check process.

No more rummaging through carry-on baggage

At Hamad International Airport in Qatar, Computed Tomography X-ray has revolutionized the screening of carry-on baggage at security checkpoints. This cabin baggage screening equipment uses a 'CT gantry' that continuously rotates as baggage travels on its conveyor belt. Hundreds of images are taken of each bag to create 3D imagery in real-time, allowing for more accurate assessments of the bag's contents. Passengers can use electronic devices and liquids in their hand baggage, making the screening process easier and faster.

Airport mapping will help you reduce the risk of COVID-19

Mapping is an integral part of travel, especially when visiting an unfamiliar airport. Locus labs has pivoted from the typical airport mapping solutions to create maps of 119 hand sanitizing stations and personal protective equipment (PPE) vending machines at airports. They've also introduced maps at LaGuardia airport, which show contactless dining options, shops with plexiglass dividers, and "Contactless Order/Pay" options via the airport app. Travelers can also order ahead with the LocusMaps integration with the airport mobile ordering app to minimize time spent in crowded food service areas.

Airports use mapping technology to improve checkpoint efficiency, reducing queue length and wait times, and understand how passengers move around retail and food/beverage areas. Crowdvision is a UK startup that provides an automated real-time computer vision technology that analyzes crowds at the airport using live video input from LiDAR sensors and optical cameras. The system performs passenger counting, queue analysis, and analyzes passenger flow using AI technology. The tech is currently deployed at numerous airports, including London Heathrow, Tokyo's Narita, and Chicago O'Hare, particularly important when social distancing is crucial.

A future without passports?

Losing your passport or leaving it at home is every traveler's worst nightmare. Fortunately, The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has been championing the idea of One ID - a document-free process based on identity management and biometric recognition. It means passengers can fly around the world safely and securely using only their individual biometric data. This will be achieved using a trusted digital identity, biometric recognition technology, and a collaborative identity management platform accessible to various authorized stakeholders. Passengers will be able to identify themselves at each airport touchpoint through a simple biometric recognition (face, fingerprint, or iris scan), and the end goal is interoperability between airports, airlines, and governments.

Elements of the concept are being tested at Sydney, Heathrow and Changi airports and across the US. The idea will be proven when the process exists seamlessly across countries. It's been promised to provide passengers real-time visibility, reduce queues, and even combat human trafficking.