Post-Covid19 Airports: Contactless travel to become permanent norm, says Vivek Mehrotra, Expert Volunteer, IET India

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Updated: August 24, 2020 12:14 PM

Vivek Mehrotra, Expert Volunteer, IET India, interacts with Huma Siddiqui and highlights the current innovation in airport screening technologies and airport automation due to the pandemic.

AI and Machine Learning assisted dangerous goods screening technology is also in use.AI and Machine Learning assisted dangerous goods screening technology is also in use.

Airports are undergoing a significant digital transformation and with the onset of the pandemic the security checkpoint presented unique challenges due to the typically high contact nature of the screening process and the tendency for bottlenecks at this point in the passenger journey. Contactless operations have only further incentivised technological innovation in this space.

Vivek Mehrotra, Expert Volunteer, IET India, interacts with Huma Siddiqui and highlights the current innovation in airport screening technologies and airport automation due to the pandemic.

Following are excerpts:-

What has been the impact of Covid-19 on aviation at large?

The airlines and aviation business at large is impacted heavily as more countries close their borders to foreign visitors and discourage their residents from flying during the Covid-19 pandemic. Carriers worldwide are being forced to make sharp cuts; most of them have cancelled and refunded future bookings. Job cuts in the aviation sectors are hard to avoid. The world’s biggest international carriers have announced drastic measures as passenger demand nosedives and travels are limited. According to IATA, 7.5 million flights were cancelled between Jan to July this year resulting in a $419 billion revenue loss worldwide.

We had a pre-COVID situation where people were consistently working on extending and handling increased capacity trying to use various methods and technologies in that, now we are dealing with the opposite. This has given a ‘pause’ and forced us to prioritize and implement some of the basic fundamental operational, health and safety hygiene which otherwise would not have come to the way given the speed industry was racing.

While the impact is significant but is not permanent. A collective restart is required with some fundamental shift in all walks of life including the aviation industry and it will see the upward trend in due course.

How adaptable and ready were airports in terms of adopting novel screening Technologies?

Some of the advanced airports already had infrastructure and systems in places that could easily be scaled to adopt novel screening technologies, those airports are now leading from the front and beginning to scale their systems to get through and restart as we begin to unlock the operations slowly. Covid-19 pandemic did allow some airports to speed those technologies which were being otherwise piloted at its own pace and rapidly deploy and put in the daily usage at the airports.

Some of the major airports in India are greatly advanced and smart when it comes to automation, security screening and baggage handling technologies. And major airports in the country are already practising smart security solutions, automated passenger screening systems, automated tray retrieval system and RFID tagged trays at the checkpoint screening to reduce wait time for people and increased passenger experience at security checkpoints.

AI and Machine Learning assisted dangerous goods screening technology is also in use. To provide connected and enhanced digital experience to air travellers, India has also been making steady progress with new initiatives by the government such as DigiYatra Platform. The ‘DigiYatra’ is an industry-led initiative coordinated by the Ministry of Civil Aviation and is in line with the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Digital India’s vision.

What kind of innovations have been conceptualized through the pandemic? Has there been an increased use of AI and IoT’s?

Some of the earlier conceptual thoughts that existed pre-COVID are now being accelerated, scaled and put to daily usage. Air transport across the world is looking to reinvent, re-imagine and accelerate technological innovation to drive continued recovery.

Reducing human and surface contact is the key in the short term as airports across the world slowly begin to unlock. Several innovations have been done in these aspects at various airports such as installing proximity enabled kiosks rather than touch screen, promoting online check-in to minimize close interactions with staff, moving away from fingerprint technology to facial recognition, ensuring passengers health using thermal cameras for temperature screening, GPS enabled contract tracing wearables for quarantined passengers as they arrive in the country to ensure their movement is monitored for a quarantined period.

Keeping most touched surfaces disinfected is another area some of the innovations being done such as ‘Ultraviolet light tray disinfection for checkpoint trays’. Security procedures at the passenger checkpoint often require close interaction between passengers and operators, plus physical contact with surfaces – particularly trays. UV light is well proven as a disinfectant in various industries with high hygiene requirements and has now been leveraged to automatically sanitize checkpoint trays.

How have contactless operations been implemented across airports?

Airports are very often the first touchpoints of travellers. The aim is to reduce and limit the touchpoints and surfaces which a passenger would otherwise have to go through right from the time they enter at the airports yet not compromising on safety and security.

Airports across the world have not only improved the technology aspect of contactless operations rather certain changes in the physical infrastructure are also being done to make the whole experience successful, for example, slight modifications in check-in counters, use of transparent glass etc.

Web check-ins are encouraged and being made compulsory by the airports. Touch screen kiosks have been made non-touch with the help of barcodes/QR codes that can be scanned by passengers themselves using their mobile phones to print the boarding passes or baggage tags. Self-printing of baggage tags and self-baggage drops are now being practised at various airports to limit the need for contact between passengers and airport staff.

IATA One ID platform, where One ID seeks to streamline the passenger journey with a document-free process based on identity management and biometric recognition for an end to end travel, is being fast-tracked to be implemented at most of the airports.

How has airport security evolved with the pandemic?

With the increased use of biometrics at the passenger enrollment points, the security would evolve to a new level by bringing together biometrics, integrated security screening technologies and artificial intelligence combined to deliver ‘Risk-Based Screening’ (RBS) – a machine learning-based data-led assessment that will allow enhanced screening for those who represent a higher risk and a more seamless journey for those passengers that represent a low risk.

Even after it has been declared safe to travel many travellers will still be concerned about going through crowded security checkpoints. ‘Remote screening’ technologies will also be key to restore passenger confidence by minimizing contact between people and surfaces.

Deploying image analysts in a central location away from the checkpoint has been proven to offer many benefits and in this case, would allow for fewer points of human contact, making the process safer for both staff and passengers.

Depending on what is found on the scanned images, each tray is either sent straight through to the passenger or automatically diverted to a recheck point. Any suspicious areas are marked and classified on the images so operators back at the checkpoint know exactly where to target secondary examinations – making rechecks quicker and less intrusive.

Does the post-COVID era promise catalyzed digital transformation of Airports?

Post-COVID, there is a need to ensure that there is trust in the people who used to use airports before, people feel comfortable using the infrastructure as a healthy and safe place, there is a standard level of health and hygiene is followed across the airports in the world.

COVID has accelerated the digital transformation not only at the airports but also various other aspects of life. At the airports, it is not only focused on passenger and terminal but also helps on cargo, ground handling etc. It is about holistically updating digital infrastructure at the airports, use of data analytics, mobile and apps etc.

Another aspect of digital transformation is increasing and optimizing operational efficiency, capacity planning using machine learning algorithms and data analytics, video analytics for crowd management, keeping to passengers at various section of airports (with the help of apps, large screens) informed and distribute the traffic to maintain some level of distancing and balanced usage of infrastructure will be the key focus on digitalization of the airports.

However, Digital Transformation is not only about technology is it about change management and culture shift. It’s an ability for the whole organization to think differently and quickly adapt to change the way organizations use technology and data-driven insights.

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