Heathrow airport has started to deploy robot cleaners

A final call for passengers? How airports will change after the pandemic

Image credit: Heathrow Airport Limited

To make customers feel safe and draw them back, airports are changing how they operate. We explore some high and low-tech solutions being implemented.

The first thing that struck me was how few people there were aboard my train from London to Stansted Airport. In early October, I took a week’s holiday in Italy and had first-hand exposure to the rather eerie experience of air travel during a pandemic. With no hold luggage to check in, I walked through to Stansted’s security, where my bags were scanned in record time. Everyone’s faces were hidden behind masks – which felt surreal in such a security-conscious place – and duty-free was almost empty at midday.

Airline passenger numbers saw their most dramatic decline ever in April – 94 per cent down on the year before – according to Airports Council International (ACI), an industry body. In the wake of the pandemic, footfall dropped dramatically, and airports are facing an enormous black hole in their finances. Even if a vaccine is successfully rolled out next year, the IATA, another industry association, does not forecast a return to 2019 passenger levels before 2024.

Airports are, of course, desperate to encourage passengers to return. What are they doing to entice flyers back and how might the pandemic change how these places are run?  

“Our latest forecasts suggest that we will be looking at three to five years before reaching 2019 passenger volumes again” says Nina Brooks, Vice President of Security, Facilitation and Innovation at ACI. She explains that a return to normal will rely on three factors: “the removal of quarantine and travel restrictions, timing of the availability of a vaccine, and economic conditions – passengers’ ability to travel, and their confidence in doing so”.

There are several problems that airports will face as they try to encourage more passengers back. One is maintaining social distancing measures. Brooks says the ACI’s modelling shows “physical distancing will only be effective up until 25-30 per cent of capacity and then would start to generate crowds elsewhere”. It won’t be possible, for instance, to have socially distanced check-in queues without causing bottlenecks at security.

There are also many hygiene-related questions. Ian Taylor, Global Aviation Business leader at Arup points to issues surrounding airport ventilation. “At the moment we blast lots of air around airports, but we need to know more about how this could affect virus transmission”.

Then there are questions of perception. While improved cleaning and hygiene measures have already reduced the risk of transmission in airports according to Brooks, airports will be facing an uphill battle to convince customers that airports are safe, clean and low risk.

“This pandemic was not caused by air travel,” says Ian Taylor of Arup, “but it was transmitted by it, so airlines and airports have a role to play in learning lessons and looking at how to stop it happening again”.

One way they can minimise the chances of a future pandemic spreading is to use new technologies and techniques that make the spread of disease less likely. Here are just some of the technologies we might see more of in the coming years.

As we all now know, reducing physical touch, including of surfaces, can reduce the spread of disease, and so ‘touchless travel’ is now very much in vogue. SITA is an air industry technology company and provides software that underpins many processes in and around airports. Andrew Burton, a spokesperson for the firm describes a ‘touchless’ project at Beijing’s Capital International Airport in December 2019.

SITA’s project “included the implementation of over 600 biometric checkpoints through the airport, 250 lanes of automatic gates, 80 kiosks, and 30 self-bag drop stations to process passengers from international flights”. While this project was completed in a pre-pandemic world, “an added benefit during the Covid-19 era is that it removes the need to touch any airport equipment, reducing the infection risk”.

Besides touchless passenger processing, we will also likely see an increase in the use of digital identities and biometrics.

Nina Brooks of ACI notes that while this kind of technology is not exactly new, we will see more airports prioritising it in the wake of the pandemic. “We can expect to see an acceleration in the use of digital identity, likely coupled with some health information to provide clearance for passengers to travel. In the short term, this may be proof of test results, and, in the longer-term, vaccination”.

Andrew Burton adds that SITA has developed a “your face is your boarding pass” technology. This integrates biometrics – iris scanners or facial recognition and can feed it into airport information systems. What is more, “SITA is making its biometrics ‘mask aware’”, so facial recognition works even when someone has a mask on. Burton adds that the company can “integrate temperature sensing into the touchpoint workflow” which could help identify passengers who might be contagious.

Touchless bag drop with SITAs SmartPath technology - inline

Image credit: SITA

Handing over health data to airports is of course fraught with issues, but as Arup’s Ian Taylor points out, “it all comes back to the balance between convenience and privacy”. Travellers to many countries are already used to providing extensive personal data to immigration authorities. Health checks may just seem par for the course.

Standing in queues and milling through crowds in duty free was, pre-2020, the norm for airport travel. How will this crowding, and its associated health risks, be minimised after the pandemic? Since airports can’t become physically bigger to provide passengers with more space, they will need to be clever about how they process flows of people.

One way to tackle the issue of social distancing is to do more passenger processing even before people arrive at the airport itself. Andrew Burton of SITA says: “there is an opportunity to extend the boundaries of the airport, where key steps such as check-in and bag drop are managed before arriving at the terminal through a passenger’s mobile”. Again, some of this technology is already familiar, but we can expect it to become near universal.

Airports will also want to manage the flow of people through their premises more effectively. Taylor explains how Arup has been working with airports to model passenger flows in light of the pandemic. “We use powerful planning tools that can model passenger flows and explore scenarios and see how this will impact on infrastructure” he says. This lets airports ask questions about, for instance, what increased social distancing at check-in will mean for bottlenecks elsewhere.

Even as airports see a gradual return to footfall, it will likely be a few years before they are operating at peak capacity, says Taylor. This is a problem in terms of money and staffing. “While we will start to see peak hours coming back, we may also have overall lower passenger numbers outside of those peak hours”. Without full capacity in place, airports may be unable to pay the salaries of so many staff. And this is where investment in automation and robotics comes in.

The most striking change will be tech like automated customer service agents or robot cleaners (which were deployed at Heathrow this summer). However, a lot of the automation will be behind the scenes. Nina Brooks says ACI anticipates “more automaton to enhance the safety of staff. This might apply in security, baggage handling, cleaning, cargo loading, among others”.

Future travellers will notice plenty of other small changes between check-in and arrival at their destination. Hin Tan, airport architect at HinTan Associates, suggests that the layout of duty-free zones may change. As opposed to today’s arrangement, which funnels all passengers past perfume, watches and humungous Toblerone bars, airports will “provide alternative ways through, not just a single route”. Tan says we are likely to see “more signage and rules of engagement” around airports, as well as quarantine or medical centres which will give “a big boost to passenger confidence”.

There will be other low-tech solutions. One pinch point in airports is the actual boarding process to get into aircraft. Crowds almost always gather in these spaces as “passengers are in a hurry to get on board” says Tan. “Quite simply there is no tech needed here, but a logical passenger boarding based on seat numbers starting with the last seat”.  

The good news for airports is that most are designed to be highly flexible. Ian Taylor points out that “we build flexibility in airports to accommodate change. We design for 30 to 50 years in the future, not necessarily knowing what will change”. This in-built flexibility means that many airports can shift around their floorplans if needed.

With a cashflow crunch and freefalling passenger numbers, are all these technological innovations really going to be in reach for most airports? After all, many are “entirely focused on reducing costs” now according to Ian Taylor. And Nina Brooks confirms that “cashflow will indeed be an issue”.  

Nonetheless, “solutions implemented now will bring significant return on investment in the long term” Brooks says. “Innovation also doesn’t have to mean expensive technology” she adds, pointing to better data management as an example of low-cost tools with a big impact. AIC recently conducted a survey of passenger flying intention, which showed 48 per cent of people want to fly again soon – so those investments could pay off.  

Covid-19 is not the first event which has changed how passengers travel through airports. Take security – after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, airport security became stricter and passengers now undergo more thorough checks. Removing one’s boots and getting them scanned seems perfectly normal today.

In time, the changes wrought by Covid-19 may eventually feel routine. Indeed, it may even seem odd that in the past we never conducted health checks at gates, that we made people stand in queues or we asked them to check-in at physical desks.  

Our attitudes to hygiene and airport behaviour may change, too. As architect Hin Tan points out, in future, “passengers with masks on will no longer be mocked either”.


Have your biometrics ready: what might travel look like tomorrow?

It is August 2021 and you are on your way to the airport for your first foreign holiday in a couple of years. With widespread vaccine rollouts in the UK, you feel confident about travel and have booked a week in the sun.

The first difference compared to previous years is that you were prompted by your booking agent to download an ID app which you install on your mobile. The app collates passport and biometric data on you, including of both your iris and face. It also asks permission to turn on your Bluetooth for contact tracing purposes and asks you to complete check in before you get to the airport.

Once you’ve parked up in the long stay, you enter the departure floor and notice the now-ubiquitous hand-sanitation stations. You find your airline’s bag drop desk and are surprised to find that there are no stewards manning the station. Instead, you scan a QR code with your phone and weigh your suitcase on your own. A robotic voice wishes you a pleasant journey.

Things get even stranger as you pass through security. There are just a couple of people manning the x-ray machines and a socially distanced queuing system keeps you and other passengers moving swiftly through. By the time you get to board the plane, you realise you have barely touched a surface or spoken to an airport employee.


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