We can soon meet armies of robotic cleaners who patrol the airport concourses, disinfect check-in counters and ticket booths. We can see passengers waving through security and luggage checkpoints without touching anything.
And we might board aircraft where hand gestures and eye movements open superimposed compartments and navigate our inflight entertainment screens.
Everything can be touchless. Out comes the custom-made uniforms, where comes the astronaut-style anti-Covid-1
Most of these concepts are trials but can soon be transformed into realities that are as ubiquitous as the biometric gates and body scanners to which we have already become accustomed at airport terminals.
From the cloud to the clouds
As we switch from the virtual world of Zoom meetings and Houseparty chats back to heaven, what will the touchpoints along that journey look like – and when can things get started?
“I am assuming an assumption and I think many of our customers assume that sometime in 2021, this will to a large extent be behind us,” Alex Dichter, senior partner at McKinsey & Company, told CNN Travel.
Dichter points to stringent measures being implemented in China that require validation that travelers are Covid 19-free, with a system where passengers travel with a QR code that is either green, yellow or red. Green means that they have been tested and are free of the virus, and the authorities know exactly where the passengers have been.
“You have to scan in and scan out of all places, your temperature is checked several times, you sign forms. It’s hard to imagine the type of processes being implemented in the West.”
But data and tracking are key to our return to heaven.
Dichter suspects that some countries will focus on these. Therefore, protocols must be drawn up so that if a passenger tests Covid 19 positive after being on the flight, the airline can contact all other passengers who were on the plane.
“Airlines will take this opportunity to accelerate self-service. It’s a trend that’s been around for a long time, but airlines were probably slower in scaling out this technology than many customers would like,” he says.
Until these new technologies are fully realized, passengers returning to the air may have to settle for what is already out there.
That’s why Dichter says, “There may be a bit more focus on premium products, giving people the opportunity to be alone” – already a long-time ambition from the tired business traveler.
In the longer term, the financial shock to airlines is combined with customers’ sensitivity to price which can lead us back to a world where airlines take things away and become narrower in order to lower prices.
“If we look at the state of the industry in 2022, 2023 and 2024, the big question about how air travel looks like has more to do with economic downturn than with the virus,” says Dichter.
Passport, boarding pass, mask
Qatar Airways has introduced PPE suits for its crews.
Courtesy of Qatar Airways
In the new flight period, we can expect personal protective equipment (PPE) to be part of the passenger experience as airlines begin to demand – rather than request – their use.
The European airlines Lufthansa, Air France and KLM have made compulsory wear and tear for passengers and crew. In the US, Delta, United, American Airlines and JetBlue have introduced similar measures. Air Canada has been commissioned to use them since April 20.
In Asia, Singapore Airlines, Air Asia and Cathay Pacific have also made masks mandatory.
Qatar Airways, in the Middle East, is one of several airlines introducing PPE suits for its cabin crew in the light of the coronavirus pandemic.
“At least throughout 2020, passengers will wear masks,” said Federico Heitz, CEO of Kaelis, a manufacturer of on-board airlines that supplies more than 20 airlines with PPE for crew and passengers.
Heitz tells CNN Travel that there is great demand for his self-protective pocket bags (SP.3), a package containing a mask, gloves, hand sanitizer, alcohol wipes and an information brochure with tips on how to prevent the virus from spreading. The bag can be customized to adapt to the airline’s brand.
“These will be like the new recreation kits for a pretty long time I expect,” says Heitz.
“What will happen within five years depends on whether they find a vaccine and how the virus develops. At the moment we definitely need protection.” But who bears the cost?
“This is public health. My view is that it should be provided to everyone for free,” Heitz says. “Wearing a mask is not just about protecting yourself, it’s about protecting the other passengers.”
A clean state of health
While airport terminals remain mostly deserted, initiatives are underway to verify passenger health and ensure that airports are thoroughly clean.
Various technologies are in the testing phase now.
That includes a contactless voice activated kiosk for monitoring passengers’ temperature, heart and breathing frequency prior to check-in. It is being developed in partnership between Etihad Airways and Australian company Elenium Automation, and is undergoing testing at Abu Dhabi Airport.
Etihad’s Joerg Oppermann says the technology is an early warning indicator that helps identify symptoms that can be assessed by medical experts to prevent further infection.
The system automatically cancels self-service check-in or bagging device if a passenger’s vital signs indicate potential symptoms of illness.
“We believe that it will not only help in the current Covid-19 outbreak but also in the future in assessing passengers’ suitability to travel and thus minimize disruption,” says Oppermann.
In it, passengers and airport staff undergo a temperature check before entering a closed channel for a 40-second cleanup process, using “photocatalyst” and “nano needles” technology.
In another initiative at HKIA, invisible antimicrobial coatings that destroy bacteria, bacteria and viruses are applied to surfaces with high contact in the terminal such as kiosks, counters and carts.
Hong Kong Airport also tests autonomous intelligent sterilization robots equipped with ultraviolet light sterilizers that roam the airport and disinfect passenger facilities.
“Experimentation at a number of airports with UV lamps, cleaning robots and other technologies is part of an effort to minimize the distance needed to maintain passenger throughput at airports,” said Cristiano Ceccato, director of Zaha Hadid Architects, designers of the recently opened Daxing Beijing Airport.
“Otherwise,” he tells CNN Travel, “you will need a larger airport to accommodate people farther apart.”
For a very long-term future, Ceccato is contemplating a possible scenario where passengers have some kind of chip injected into their arms that continuously monitors their health, “Star Trek” style. It starts beeping if it detects that they have been infected by something.
“We’re not there yet. And of course there are ethical questions about people’s integrity and the invasion of civil liberties. We used to joke that today the airport is basically an airport mixed with a shopping center. Now the airport could be mixed with a hospital.”
Closer to term, Ceccato expects airports to have some kind of high-tech arc that passengers go through that searches for metals, liquids and gels, and also controls passengers’ health.
“Those things are on the way, but we don’t know exactly when it’s going to happen. Many ideas for this kind of technology are tied to people profiling,” he says.
Another motivation behind the adoption of safety and health technology at airports is to speed up passenger flow through the terminal’s control points by reducing human contact or contact between passengers and conveyor belts and trays in safety.
“Eventually, at airports, you don’t have to struggle to take your laptop and laundry bag out of your luggage, and you won’t have to deal with the security guy who stumbles through your things,” Ceccato says.
While architects are figuring out how to adapt the airports to fit all the extra new health screening and sanitation techniques, Ceccato says on the upside, “it can be reassuring for passengers to know, after passing all these preflight checks, that their health is in good shape. “
The main focal point for air travel is the interior of the aircraft, and it has traditionally been a long-standing interaction between the passenger and the cabin areas – seating, inflight entertainment systems, toilets and other furniture.
“There’s probably a future for a stowage compartment that will be gesture-based, where passengers don’t have to touch the handle, just wave their hand to raise or lower the door,” said Devin Liddell, chief futurist for Teague, Seattle-based design consultants who created The Dreamliner cabin and interior of all Boeing aircraft since the 1940s.
The second area where Liddell believes the airlines will focus on restoring passenger confidence is the application of antimicrobial surfaces.
“It’s going to be big,” Liddell says. “I think airlines that actually only advocate the cleanliness of their aircraft and the processes they use to clean the aircraft will be something we see both in the short term and in the long term, as well as training in advanced systems that remove viruses from the air” .
When touching things becomes bad etiquette in the cabin, designers of inflight entertainment systems will have to come up with new approaches.
“Eventually, we see eye-movement-based user interfaces in the inflight entertainment system, so we don’t have to touch the IFE system at all,” says Liddell.
The possibilities to improve the onboarding experience in the longer term are to rethink the design of the passenger cabin.
“Airlines will need to be smarter in the entry Covid-19 world with zoning of the cabin, and various airlines have lost with child-free zones and so on,” says Liddell.
But one of the biggest challenges in the cabin is inflight catering. During the first days of the virus, the carriers stopped serving food to minimize the crew having to go up and down the aisles. Liddell sees opportunities for robotics and automation in the cabin to take on many of the catering tasks.
“The Galey basket in particular is such a strange piece of technology in the sense that it blocks the passage and makes part of the aircraft inaccessible during meal service.”
“There is an opportunity for street-based robots that would give you food, maybe when you want it, compared to when the airline decides it will give you it,” he says.
The people have spoken
Ultimately, whether passengers will feel confident enough to take to the skies of consumer confidence and passengers’ sense of whether airlines are adequately addressing their concerns about Covid-19 and its impact on air travel.
To assess this, the Airline Passenger Experience Association and the International Flight Services Association commissioned data consultant Fethr, the flight wing for Black Swan Data, to assess passengers’ sentiment.
Using data analytics and predictive analytics, Fethr analyzed more than 900 million naturally occurring conversations on Twitter, news, blogs and reviews related to Covid-19 and air travel.
“Over a third of the calls currently related to safety and sanitation on board the aircraft are very negatively charged,” Will Cooper, Insight Director at Fethr, told CNN Travel.
“Passengers express their concern and frustration about not knowing if it is safe to travel or how to protect themselves and are unclear about what the airlines are doing.”
Perhaps one of the longest journeys the airlines are facing today is to restore passenger confidence.
Paul Sillers is an aviation journalist who specializes in passenger experience and future aviation techniques. Follow him on @paulsillers