Navigating the new normal

27 Aug 2020 by BusinessTraveller
Heathrow Airport cleaning robots

Robot cleaners, health screening and contactless technology – here’s how the coronavirus pandemic is reshaping the airport experience.

As border restrictions begin to ease, airports and airlines are looking to restore confidence in travel. To use corporate speak, they are “redesigning the passenger journey”. Before Covid-19, there was already a push for technology to help speed us through the airport – self-service check-in, for instance. Now, with the added incentive of minimising interaction between staff and passengers, that momentum has become even stronger. (Airport and airline executives talk a lot about “frictionless” travel. Unfortunately, Covid-19 has also introduced lots more friction.)

A word, first, about whether travel at such a time is a good idea at all. Some people will not return to travelling until a vaccine has been found, but most are looking for reassurance. In an IATA (International Air Transport Association) survey in July (see below), travellers identified concerns such as queuing at check-in/security/border control and boarding, and said Covid-19 screening at departure airports would make them feel safer.

For those potential passengers, there is a recognition within the travel industry that for confidence to return, there needs to be a consistent approach to the various protocols that have been put in place.

IATA has been lobbying governments to avoid quarantine restrictions, promoting what it calls a “layered approach of measures” at airports and national borders. “There are policy alternatives that can reduce the risk of importing Covid-19 infections while still allowing for the resumption of travel and tourism that are vital to jumpstarting national economies,” says Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s director general and CEO.

One of IATA’s suggestions is to discourage passengers from travelling if they are unwell. It says airlines are helping to make this possible by offering travellers flexibility when booking, allowing them to adjust dates and avoid being penalised if they do not fly at the original time.

It also says health screening should take place “in the form of health declarations” and encourages measures which many airports have introduced including temperature checks, which may, in turn, “act as a deterrent” to those who might otherwise consider travelling despite feeling ill.

For travellers coming from countries perceived to be higher risk, IATA advocates considering Covid-19 testing prior to arrival at the departure airport – a measure adopted by France, Austria and Iceland – with documentation to prove a negative result, so as not to add to airport congestion and avoid the potential for contagion in the travel process. It admits that for this to be viable, “tests would need to be widely available and highly accurate, with results delivered quickly. Test data would need to be independently validated so as to be mutually recognised by governments and securely transmitted to the relevant authorities.”

In addition, IATA is promoting the “Take-Off” guidelines published by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). These include mask wearing throughout the travel process, sanitisation, health declarations and social distancing where possible. Here’s a closer look at how Covid-19 is changing airports around the world, including some of the initiatives being put in place.

United's touchless check-in at Heathrow airport

Low-touch travel

It looks as though the coronavirus crisis could speed up the adoption of technology that offers a low-touch or even touch-free airport experience. Many airlines are introducing contactless kiosks and payment systems so that passengers can check in and make purchases without touching anything.

For those airports hoping that technology will provide the answer, the risk is increased congestion if passengers aren’t used to the technology or it breaks down. One solution may be that a lot of the activities that happen across airports could entirely be pushed out of terminals in the future, according to Sumesh Patel, president of Asia Pacific at SITA, an IT company that provides services to the air transport industry. An early example is the way that physical check-in desks have been partly replaced by online or mobile services.

“Your mobile will become your boarding pass, and you will be more comfortable with trusting your own device at the airport, rather than touching other devices at airports,” Patel says. Although boarding passes have been available on our phones for some time now, the pandemic could make the use of electronic passes more pervasive across airports, he adds.

Biometric technology that relies on facial recognition could also offer a potential solution to airports looking to minimise touch during the passenger journey. This type of technology scans and captures a person’s biometric details to verify their identity. Once checked against the passenger’s travel documents, a secure digital ID is created that can be used all the way from self-service check-in to boarding.

“[As] you walk through the terminal, your face is your passport so you don’t need to touch anything. So when you go to the bag drop, you just stand next to it and it recognises you. You don’t need to produce any documents; your face is good enough,” Patel explains. He says SITA’s product that relies on biometrics, Smart Path, is operating at airports including Beijing Capital International, Hamad International in Qatar and Kuala Lumpur International.

In July, Singapore Changi upgraded its automated clearance immigration lanes to a touch-free option. The airport’s new biometric system uses face and iris recognition technology to match passengers with their travel documents, replacing the need for traditional fingerprint-scanning.

Heathrow Temperature screening 2

Temperature checks

Temperature checking has been in place in some airports, such as Hong Kong, for many years. Now a growing number are screening passengers for potential fever before they board.

Heathrow, for example, has been trialling thermal screening to detect elevated temperatures, using camera systems capable of monitoring the temperatures of multiple people as they move through the airport. If successful, it may be rolled out across the airport “to further stress-test its capabilities”.

Canada now requires temperature screening before boarding across all of its airports, while at Hamad International staff don thermal screening helmets to assess whether travellers have a fever. According to the airport, the helmet uses advanced technologies such as infrared thermal imaging, artificial intelligence and AR (augmented reality) display.

Temperature checking is not without problems, however. According to a report from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), such screenings are not the most effective approach because people can have Covid-19 and show no symptoms. In addition, at the end of July, Brussels airport admitted that even when travellers were flagged as having a high temperature, they were allowed to travel provided they could convince a doctor and airport authorities that they did not have the virus. In other words, if they said they did not have symptoms such as a dry, persistent cough, they could travel.


Covid-19 tests

IATA has recognised that Covid-19 testing could become the new normal as travel resumes. It recently called on governments looking to introduce such testing for travellers to deliver the results quickly and accurately, saying it needed to be cost-effective and not create an economic or logistical barrier to travel.

Heathrow has also called for it to be introduced, saying it could have it up and running within two weeks. It has already run a trial with Swissport and Collinson (see businesstraveller.com/tag/london-heathrow).

Etihad Airways has been trialling contactless health screening kiosks that can monitor one’s temperature, heart rate and respiratory rate to help identify those that might have early Covid-19 symptoms. According to the UAE carrier, the self-service check-in or bag-drop process would automatically be suspended if the tests showed potential symptoms. It would then divert to a teleconference or alert airport staff, who would make “further assessments” and “manage travellers as appropriate”.

Etihad’s neighbour, Emirates, has been offering Covid-19 tests at Dubai International, but both of these initiatives were, in some sense, superseded by UAE authorities insisting that from August all passengers travelling to and from, or transiting, the UAE would be required to carry a negative Covid-19 test result. This applies to all airlines operating in the UAE. The test must be taken a maximum of 96 hours before departure. It excludes children under 12 and passengers who have a moderate or severe disability.

Robot cleaners

Passengers will also notice more cleaning measures in place. Airports such as Hong Kong have introduced robots to clean public areas. These Intelligent Sterilisation Robots (ISRs) are tall, self-moving and equipped with a UV light steriliser, air filters and a disinfection spray to kill bacteria. Each ISR has a head that can spin 360 degrees to spray disinfectant and a body that is lined with bulbs that emit ultraviolet lights to zap germs.

Heathrow is introducing UV cleaning robots that it says “quickly and efficiently kill viruses and bacteria”. It is installing UV handrail technology on escalators to “ensure continuous disinfection” as well as fitting lift buttons and trolley and door handles with self-cleaning antiviral wraps. These work by coating high-touch surfaces in a material with “long-lasting” antiviral protection. Heathrow is retraining 100 colleagues as “hygiene technicians” who disinfect the airport and answer passenger queries on the methods being used.

Singapore Changi says it has “at least doubled” the frequency of all of its cleaning efforts in its terminals and Jewel complex.

Blocked off seats at Frankfurt airport

Social distancing

Passengers will see more physical barriers such as plastic shields at service counters and will be expected to socially distance when queueing.

Contact tracing

IATA says there are also measures governments can take to mitigate risk, including contact tracing. “Rapid identification and isolation of contacts contains the risk without large-scale economic or social disruption,” it says. “New mobile technology has the potential to automate part of the contact-tracing process, provided privacy concerns can be addressed.”

So is it all worth it? The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that travel and tourism accounts for 10.3 per cent of global GDP and 330 million jobs (direct and indirect). The economic effects of the pandemic are only now becoming clear, and may worsen as the year ends and there is a threat of further “waves”. There’s no doubt travel has been changed profoundly, perhaps forever, but it will have to restart, and if it is to do so, such measures will be crucial, vaccine or not.

“Safely restarting the economy is a priority” says IATA’s de Juniac. “That includes travel and tourism. Quarantine measures may play a role in keeping people safe, but they will also keep many unemployed. The alternative is to reduce risks through a series of measures. Airlines are already offering flexibility so there is no incentive for sick or at-risk people to travel. Health declarations, screening and testing by governments will add extra layers of protection. And if someone travels while infected, we can reduce the risk of transmission with protocols to prevent the spread during travel or when at the destination. Effective contact tracing can isolate those most at risk without major disruptions.”

It’s a sentiment that those who want travel to restart will be hoping governments respond to.


In July, the Airports Council International Europe, Airlines for Europe and IATA wrote to prime ministers and transport, health and home affairs ministers in the EU, Schengen area and the UK about their “deep concerns over the failure to implement coherent and science-based approaches to travel restrictions”. The letter criticised the introduction of new restrictions inconsistent with the principles laid out by the World Health Organisation and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), and said renewed efforts must urgently be put into:

  • Co-ordinating and aligning responses to the evolving epidemiological situation at EU level and in close co-operation with the UK, to be addressed jointly by home affairs, transport and health ministries and the European Commission;
  • Re-enforcing the principle of risk-based and proportionate measures – localising restrictions and not imposing blanket country bans, with quarantine used as a last resort;
  • Ensuring the interoperability of contact tracing apps, as none of the existing apps were interoperable;
  • A harmonised implementation of the EU Aviation Safety Agency/ECDC and International Civil Aviation Organisation Take-Off aviation health safety protocols;
  • Informing the public accordingly, and in close co-operation with the travel and tourism industries.


According to an IATA survey:

  • 57 per cent of respondents planned to return to travel to see family and friends
  • 56 per cent to take a holiday
  • 55 per cent to do business as soon as possible after the pandemic subsided
  • 66 per cent said they would travel less for leisure and business in the post-pandemic world
  • 64 per cent indicated they would postpone travel until economic factors improved (personal and broader)

Travellers said their top three concerns at airports were:

  • 59 per cent – Being in a crowded bus/train on the way to the aircraft
  • 42 per cent – Queuing at check-in/security/border control or boarding
  • 38 per cent – Using washrooms

In addition:

  • 85 per cent of travellers were concerned about being quarantined while travelling, a similar level of concern to those reporting general concern for catching the virus when travelling (84 per cent)

The top three measures that would make them feel safer were:

  • 37 per cent – Covid-19 screening at departure airports
  • 34 per cent – Mandatory wearing  of face masks
  • 33 per cent – Social distancing measures on aircraft

Tom Otley and Seher Asaf

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