Obviously not a great deal of us are traveling for leisure at the moment, but when governments around the world begin to open their borders we’re going to see a surge in demand for holidays, visiting our loved ones abroad and for business travel. When the UK government announced its lock-down exit plan last month, airlines reported a huge jump in bookings and website traffic.
Domestic markets in China and the US are recovering slowly but surely, with CEO of United Scott Kirby making the following point at a JP Morgan industry conference: “I think that there’s going to be more travel going forward, just period. You’ve already bought a new washing machine, you don’t have to buy another one. People already bought a new car, did a home repair. And it’s going to mean a lot more available to spend in ’22, ’23, ’24 for leisure demand.”
To mitigate the risks of catching and spreading COVID-19 there will of course be a greater emphasis on health and personal safety, but what else can we expect in our airports of the future?
I’m going to look at the ways in which the airport landscape might have changed by the time you take your first flight as a passenger. Some of you might already be familiar with a number of them depending on where in the world you are.
Remote Passenger Processing
Most of us already check-in from the comfort of our own homes and have our boarding passes ready before we arrive at the airport, but now there is the added process of health screening to take into account. Manually checking passengers’ testing status has already been leading to large queues at check-in and border control. Add to that vaccination certificates and we have a problem. This is why governments, regulators and airlines have been developing digital health passports, so that passengers can store all of their testing and vaccination data on their phones, and even receive verification that they can fly before leaving their house or hotel. All it will take at the airport is a quick scan of their QR code. It’s good to bear in mind that the data will be stored personally with each passenger and only the status i.e. verified to fly or not, will be shared with the airline.
Remote Baggage Processing
The idea is to move baggage processing off-site, thereby reducing congestion in the airport. Baggage and cargo drop-off does not need to be done at the airport terminal. Drop-off and collection points could be positioned around a city or town or airlines could offer a drop-off or collection service straight to people’s hotels or even homes. Eighteen airlines at seven of China’s Airports already offer a ‘door-to-door’ baggage delivery service, and passengers can even track their luggage status throughout its journey. Electronic baggage tags – RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags – are being used for this of course, and we’ll probably see the phasing out of paper tags as we move away from manual and more into digital checking procedures.
There are certain areas of the airport that create bottle necks, such as waiting in line at check-in, waiting to board, border control etc. If passengers are to socially distance then solutions need to be applied to ease congestion in these places. Remote processing is just one of these, but others like virtual queuing could be offered so that passengers need only approach the desk or member of staff if it’s their turn. This could also be applied to duty free shopping or food and drink, allowing people to relax until they’re ready to pick up their purchases.
The main aim of this is to reduce touch points where cross contamination could occur. Airports around the world have already begun to roll-out touchless kiosks, whereby passengers connect with WiFi and complete the check in process on their mobile phones. The next step is to utilise biometric data for the rest of their journey, so that all passengers will need to do is step up to the camera and have their face/fingerprint/iris scanned and matched to a biometric database in order to pass through security, enter the lounge, or to board. Passengers should not need to touch any airport equipment throughout their entire journey.
Another important focus should be on Inclusivity, meaning airports should be accessible for the elderly and disabled. It’s important that passengers are given the choice in the experience they have, as not all people are ready for digitalisation. One idea which is being used already in airports around the world is the ‘Hidden Disabilities Sunflower’. Passengers can apply for a Sunflower card or lanyard, which discreetly indicates to those around them that they need extra help, support or a little more time. This is improving the passenger experience for countless people with all sorts of hidden disabilities, such as epilepsy, autism and hearing impairments.
Apparently most of these changes were in the pipeline anyway, the pandemic has only sped up their implementation. The general idea is to augment and enhance current technologies, providing passengers with a “seamless” journey, improving their customer experience and thereby their confidence in travel. Many would argue that currently airports don’t have the money to spend on new technologies such as these, but the immediate impacts of such innovations would see a good return on their investment. Airports and airlines would be wise to look at the long-term benefits, rather than short-term fixes.
If you would like to learn more:
- IATA – New Experience Travel Technologies (NEXTT)
- The NEXTT Vision is a post COVID-19 World (Oct 2020)