From Chaos to Opportunity, the Promise of Commercial Air Travel

From Chaos to Opportunity, the Promise of Commercial Air

July 24, 2020

Collins Aerospace Vice President, Airport Systems Chris Forrest shares how commercial air travel might change post-pandemic, as the aviation industry pulls out all stops to restore passenger confidence.

By Chris Forrest

The world has changed. And for a social, tactile species like humans, the change has been immense. As a global community, no doubt we’ll feel safer and more confident when a vaccine for COVID-19 is discovered and distributed worldwide. We’ll feel better about engaging people in conversation (without calculating whether we’re six feet apart), we’ll look forward to joining friends and family in our favorite restaurants, and we won’t blanch at the idea of touching gas pump handles. Life will return to some semblance of normal … but this isn’t likely to happen quickly. There are discoveries yet to be made, and a lot of work yet to be done to make our world safer so that we can once again do all those things that make humans feel … well, human.

Much of this work centers on airports and the commercial air travel industry, where, visually, life has changed more than perhaps any other.

The Day the world changed

By the end of April 2020, commercial flights worldwide had decreased nearly 75 percent compared with the same period the previous year. Some countries saw an even greater decline: Spain, Hong Kong, Germany, Singapore, France, India and the U.K. were all down more than 90 percent, according to industry data specialist OAG Aviation Worldwide Limited.

More than 15 airlines have been forced to restructure or cease operations altogether. The International Civil Aviation Organization—part of the United Nations — says global airlines could see up to 2.9 billion fewer passengers in 2020 compared with 2019. Seat capacity could drop by more than half, resulting in a USD 384 billion loss of gross operating revenues of airlines compared with previous forecasts.

Ironically, this devastation of a proud, global industry is likely to create new opportunities for airports and commercial aircraft alike. The airports and airlines that survive a painful recovery, are, in fact, likely to showcase something marvelous to behold—a ‘visual definition’ of the word contactless. This is important because never has the word been used so often, by so many, with so much riding on its final expression as the result of applying leading-edge, high-technology products and systems.

In short, passengers will likely see a considerable shortening of airport lines and the beginning of uninterrupted, steady, end-to-end airport passenger movement that’s safer, more predictable/dependable, and more enjoyable.

For this reason alone it’s important to the world economy that the airport and commercial air transport industry come back to 2019 levels sooner than the two to three or more years that some experts predict. And it’s just as important that the industry come back in a way that prevents future global health crises from creating the ruin of COVID-19.

Let’s take a look at how the commercial air travel industry’s focus on leading-edge technology will enable a contactless passenger experience that will change the industry, and how this, in turn, will help drive the industry into a better future.

In January 2019 there were few larger gatherings of people in closer contact than in a major airport terminal and its multiple concourses. This was especially true at specific touchpoints such as security screening, border control, and boarding gates.

Today, airport terminals and concourses are a shadow of their former beehive activity. While this is much appreciated by the people who are flying, it’s a reflection of the world’s devastated economy and it must change.

What is clear is that the global airport and commercial air travel industry will continue to struggle until passengers feel safe and confident to travel again—in normal, pre-pandemic numbers. And the key to this change of passenger mindset is keeping airport traffic moving, eliminating airport lines to the barest minimum, and ensuring that the entire end-to-end process is as contactless as possible.

After the constant media drumbeat and celebrity reminders to wash our hands (and wash them again and again), wear face masks, don’t touch our face, and disinfect everything, leading-edge technology is the answer for the airport industry. And, specifically, technology that enables a contactless travel experience.

The illustration above shows major touchpoints in a passenger’s airport journey. These airport touchpoints are crucial engagements in the airport’s overall battle against COVID-19. The challenges that airports face are clear. There are numerous passenger touchpoints and each one is an opportunity for passengers and airport staff to come in contact with each other and the virus.

But new processes and procedures—new technology—that focuses on keeping each touchpoint safe and virus-free, can determine whether passengers move forward confidently to the next touchpoint.

The good news is that leading-edge ‘ready now’ and ‘ready soon’ technology will help passengers move safely and confidently through each touchpoint. It’s all about reducing contact between passengers and airport personnel and eliminating the physical act of touching surfaces where the virus could be viable.

Off-Airport Processing

One of the first steps in the contactless passenger journey is off-airport check in and baggage drop.

Today, air travelers want safer and more convenient options to prepare for their flights. Increasingly, passengers are looking for offsite or off-airport processing opportunities away from other travelers. Technology such as Collins’ ARINC OnVoy enable passengers to check in, check their bags and get flight details from a number of remote locations, including hotels and resorts, rental car agencies, theme parks, convention centers, train stations and other settings.

The OnVoy platform enables hotel or any other ground staff to use a single interface to process passengers from multiple airlines, which is unique in the industry. Paired with a baggage company certified with safely and securely transferring the baggage from the off-site location to the airport, this solution brings a secure and cost effective way to move processing and queues away from the airport. This technology eases the pressure on airport terminals and helps de-stress the traveler’s airport arrival process in the age of COVID-19.

Another key technology that enables a contactless passenger journey is biometrics. In many ways, biometrics stands alone as the key enabler of curb-to-curb passenger confidence.

Contactless Travel Experience

Biometrics has been around for a while. It’s not a new technology. In fact, it’s already in use in a number of airports around the world, primarily for immigration and border control. But this game-changing technology is not commonly in use for the outbound journey even in the larger global airports … and it should be. As quickly as possible. And not in an ad hoc way.

When leading-edge biometric technology overlays each airport touchpoint so that a passenger’s face becomes that passenger’s identification—instead of constantly pulling out a driver’s license, passport or boarding pass—all airport touchpoints become part of a single end-to-end biometric journey that is contactless, seamless and faster. And this is new. It is perhaps the most powerful weapon in the airport and commercial air travel industry to enable passenger safety and confidence in the airport.

In short, biometrics technology that enables a safer end-to-end passenger journey should become routine in airports throughout the world. The ideal airport encompasses a fully-connected biometrics journey made possible through a cloud environment with ironclad data security and robust identity management.

Consider this. In one recent test of biometrics technology used for boarding, the time it took for an international traveler to walk up to an automated boarding gate … allow it to capture the individual’s biometrics … send the biometrics to a matching database at the CBP Traveler Verification Service … confirm the match … send that notification back to the airline departure control system … that allowed the gate to open and register the passenger as boarding … was shorter than the time it took to read this paragraph. Just four seconds.

Even more remarkable, in other recent tests of people wearing face masks, the 120-point biometric facial scans routinely picked out passenger identity from just the passenger’s face showing above the mask.

This is the definition of ‘ready now’ technology that doesn’t require years of testing. Currently, Collins Aerospace has leading-edge biometric technology working at McCarran airport in Las Vegas and for JetBlue at JFK airport in New York.

Health Measurements Show Promise

As one crucial example of ‘ready soon’ technology, airports are also looking for more effective ways to screen for potentially sick travelers. One way is to add contactless health measurements, such as temperature, respiratory, heart rate and blood oxygenation monitoring to an airport’s biometrics overlay. To be clear, this health measurement screening will be automatic. It won’t lead to more lines, longer lines, or boarding delays. This can also be used to monitor the biometric markers of badged airport and concession staff for airside and landside access.

Not every airport touchpoint will require this more robust health measurement technology, but one could see the advantage of having it at Airport Arrival, before any significant interaction with other passengers, and, again, at Security Screening, before passengers mix on concourses and before they board their aircraft.

Collins Aerospace is currently testing multiple health bio marker scanning Beta technology in its labs.

One point to emphasize clearly and unambiguously is the need for thoughtful consideration of data privacy issues. While the greater good and global health considerations suggest that passengers should be screened and checked for obvious markers of the virus, all passengers have rights and expectations of data privacy. How will governments regulate this technology? It’s safe to assume that what governments allow will vary country by country for the foreseeable future.

Self-Service Tech 

Today, with the latest mobile phone technology integrating with high-tech airports, passengers have a taste of what it’s like to proceed through each of the touchpoints in their airport journey with only minimal human interaction until they board their aircraft.

Self-service is a growing passenger expectation. Especially now. At London, Las Vegas, Houston, Hong Kong, and other global airports, passengers can automatically check in at remote kiosks, process their own baggage, and pass through self-boarding gates. Lines and close contact is a fraction of what it used to be.

Another example of Collins Aerospace’s ‘ready soon’ self-service technology is a mobile device app. Once passengers are on board an aircraft, they will have significantly less need to interact with flight attendants. They’ll be able to order food and drinks, control inflight entertainment systems and download movies from their own mobile devices.

There are also applications for this technology to be leveraged in airports for wayfinding. Passengers will be warned of airport congestion points as the congestion is building and with enough advanced notice to adjust their schedules.

Yes, the world has changed. And, yes, for a social, tactile species like humans, the change has been immense. But discoveries are being made and work is being done to bring back the world we knew. Leading-edge technologies like Collins’ ARINC OnVoy and SelfPass are showing us the flight path to contactless commercial air travel and a brighter future.

(Ed. Featured image by Photographer Guilherme Rossi.)

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