The future of travel: How the pandemic is changing airports

20 Jul 2020 by Seher Asaf

Cleaning robots, sanitising booths, blood tests, and contactless-kiosks – the coronavirus pandemic is reshaping the airport experience worldwide.

As border restrictions begin to ease, airports and airlines are looking to restore confidence in travel by redesigning the passenger journey. Airports have adopted a slew of new measures to deal with a new set of expectations, according to Stefano Baronci, director general, Airports Council International (ACI), Asia Pacific. 

“There are a number of measures airports are considering or have already implemented to create what we call the ‘healthy passenger experience’. The healthy passenger experience focuses on preventing the risk of transmission to protect the passenger,” said Baronci. 

“Passengers now will expect sanitation measures, contactless journeys, physical distance with other travellers or clear instructions on how to stay safe,” he added. 

Here’s a closer look at how the Covid-19 crisis is changing airports around the world:

Low-touch or touch-less travel

The coronavirus crisis could speed up the adoption of technology that offers a low-touch or even touch-less travel experience at airports. 

In May, Malaysian low-cost airline Air Asia introduced contactless kiosks and contactless payment options at airports in Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia and Japan where it operates. Passengers can check-in and make payments using airport systems without having to actually touch them, according to the carrier. 

Air Asia's contactless kiosks

Etihad Airways is testing contactless health screening kiosks which can monitor a passenger’s temperature, heart rate and respiratory rate to help identify those that might have early Covid-19 symptoms. 

According to the UAE national carrier, the system will automatically suspend the self-service check-in or bag drop process if a passenger’s vital signs show potential symptoms of illness. It will then divert to a teleconference or alert staff at the airport, who will make “further assessments” and “manage travellers as appropriate”. 

Etihad Airways and Elenium Automation are partnering on new airport technology to help identify medically at-risk passengers

A lot of the activities that happen across airports today could entirely be pushed out of airport terminals in the future, according to Sumesh Patel, president of Asia Pacific at SITA, an IT company providing services to the air transport industry. 

For example, physical check-in desks could entirely be replaced by online or mobile check-in services as airports and airlines look to restore confidence in travel. 

“Your mobile will become your boarding pass, and you will be more comfortable with trusting your own device at the airport, then touching other devices at airports,” said Patel.  

Although boarding passes have been available on our phones for quite some time now, the pandemic could make the use of electronic passes more pervasive across airports, he added. 

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 passenger’s biometric details to verify their identity. Once checked against the passenger’s travel documents, a secure digital travel ID is created, which can be used all the way from the self-service check-in to boarding. 

SITA Smart Path

“Then you walk through the airport 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 the bag drop and it recognises you. You don’t need to produce any documents, your face is good enough,” said Patel.  

Patel says SITA’s product that relies on biometrics, Smart Path, is currently operating at airports including Beijing Capital International Airport, Hamad International Airport in Qatar and Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

In July, Singapore’s Changi Airport said it had upgraded its auto-clearance immigration lanes to a touch-less option. The airport’s new biometric system uses face and iris recognition technology to match passengers with their travel documents. This replaces the need for traditional fingerprint-scanning.

Iris and facial recognition for immigration clearance at Changi Airport

Health screening measures like temperature checks and even Covid-19 tests

We’ve seen airports around the world adopt a series of health screening measures like coronavirus testing in the wake of the pandemic. 

While some airports like Hong Kong International Airport have been conducting temperature checks well before the pandemic, many airports have now begun adopting this measure by screening passengers for high temperatures before they board flights.

Canada announced last week that it is now requiring temperature screenings at all airports. Passengers travelling by plane to, from or within Canada are required to undergo a temperature check before boarding starting from the end of July, according to a report from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

At Doha International Airport, staff are donning thermal screening helmets to assess travellers’ temperature. According to the airport, this helmet uses multiple advanced technologies such as infrared thermal imaging, artificial intelligence and AR (augmented reality) display.

Corvid-19 Hamad-International-2

Thermal scanners have also been adopted at Dubai International Airport and Vietnam Airport as well, while Heathrow Airport in London is trialling camera systems capable of monitoring the temperatures of multiple people moving through the airport. 

Heathrow Temperature screening 2

Temperature checks could become standard as a tool to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. However, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the screenings are not the most effective because people can have the coronavirus and show no symptoms.

Covid-19 tests

The International Air Transport Association (IATA)  has recognised that Covid-19 testing could become the new normal as global travel resumes. The aviation body recently called on governments looking to introduce Covid-19 testing for travellers to deliver test results quickly and accurately. IATA said testing must also be cost-effective and not create an economic or logistical barrier to travel

Hong Kong International Airport was one of the first airports in the world to introduce Covid-19 testing. All inbound travellers are sent directly from the airport to a make-shift off-site testing centre at the Asia World-Expo where deep throat saliva samples are collected. 

The Korean government introduced  “walk-through” coronavirus testing stations at Incheon International Airport in March, according to local newspaper Business Korea. Travellers enter the booth, which is the size of a public phone booth, where a medical staff member collects samples. It takes about three minutes to collect samples and 10 minutes to disinfect the station to prevent the next person from getting infected. 

Photo Credit: Incheon International Airport's facebook page

In April, Emirates became the first airline to conduct on-site rapid Covid-19 tests for passengers. Passengers on a flight to Tunisia were all tested for Covid-19 before departing from Dubai International Airport Terminal. The blood test was conducted by the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) and results were available within ten minutes, according to the carrier.


Cleaning robots and booths that spray sanitiser onto travellers

Travellers will also notice more cleaning measures across different airports.

Hong Kong International Airport has deployed self-driving robots to clean public areas as part of its measures to protect against the spread of the coronavirus.

This includes its Intelligent Sterilization Robots (ISR) which are tall, self-moving robots equipped with both a UV light sterilizer and an air sterilizer to kill germs. Each ISR has a head that can spin 360 degrees to spray disinfectant and a body that is lined with bulbs that emit ultra-violet lights to zap germs. 

Hong Kong Airport is using virus-killing robots to disinfect public areas

The airport  is also testing a full-body disinfecting machine that could be used to spray sanitiser on to passengers.

The airport said the surface of these booths are equipped with antimicrobial coating which can kill virus and bacteria on human bodies and clothing. Air movement inside these machines brings bacteria and viruses that may be on the passenger to the surface and these germs are then killed by the interior coating of the booth, according to a spokesperson from Airport Authority Hong Kong.

Singapore’s Changi Airport said it has “at least doubled” the frequency of all its cleaning efforts in the four terminals and at Jewel. It is now using disinfectants, a chemical liquid that destroys bacteria, instead of “general purpose cleaning solutions”.

Disinfection booths and HK Airport

Physical barriers and social distancing markers

Passengers can expect to see more physical barriers like plexiglas in place at service counters.

The US carrier Delta said it will install safety barriers made from plexiglass for airport check-in lobbies, departure gates and at the Delta’s lounges in an effort to reduce contact between passengers and staff at the airport.


Passengers will also be expected to practise social distancing at airports when they have to queue up.

Emirates says it has implemented social distancing protocols at airports. This includes physical indicators being placed on the ground and at waiting areas in the airport to ensure travellers maintain a safe distance.

Loading comments...

Search Flight

See a whole year of Reward Seat Availability on one page at SeatSpy.com

Business Traveller February 2024 edition
Business Traveller February 2024 edition
Be up-to-date
Magazine Subscription
To see our latest subscription offers for Business Traveller editions worldwide, click on the Subscribe & Save link below