AviationAircraft filtration systems, touchless systems and food safety in a post-Covid era may just be the ticket to restore confidence in flying.

How the pandemic brings a breath of fresh air to air travel

Airports are turning to technological solutions to ensure safety and hygiene.
Airports are turning to technological solutions to ensure safety and hygiene. Photo Credit: Gettyimages/Kiwis

Passport? Check. Boarding pass? Check. Digital health certificate? Check.

You’re set to fly in the post-Covid era, but something’s nagging you. Maybe you haven’t checked what grade air filter your carrier uses on their flights.

Something that once never worried airline passengers – the safety of onboard air filtration – will be top-of-mind as preparations begin for post-Covid travel.

The efficiency of aircraft filtration systems will be key to building trust with travellers, according to a Travelport study across 10 countries. Only 46% of respondents believe suppliers have taken steps to improve air filtration and only 50% trust them to enforce social distancing and manage boarding and queuing.

“Besides adopting the latest technology innovations, the key to restoring passenger confidence to fly is communications. The various aviation stakeholders can communicate on the steps and processes which they took in ensuring the safety of the passengers,” says Sumesh Patel, president, SITA APAC.

Patel’s view is supported by Anthony Harcup, senior director of airline experience at Seattle-based design firm, Teague, who is calling for airlines to build trust among fliers with “a process of communication and consideration”.

“This can be imparted through crew engagement with passengers, interactive procedures and, of course, sharing the relevant sanitation levels of the aircraft through existing and new airline-branded communication channels.”

Harcup believes it is near-impossible for an airline to present a guaranteed hygienic environment, but they can create a strong brand preference by creating “emotional connections as benevolent guardians, making passengers feel as safe as possible”.

Harcup says the world is poised to see the airline industry in a new light. “Clean is now a new brand promise – a fundamental pillar of comfort and safety.”

Singapore Airlines is among airlines active in creating strong “emotional connections’ with travellers. It’s #SIACares programme has been posting comforting messages that the airline is taking care of passengers through the pre-boarding and flying experiences.

First steps at the airport: Touchless and mobile

Airport stakeholders — including screening authorities, vendors, lounge operators, terminal operators and concessionaires — are turning to tech to maintain enhanced standards of cleanliness.

At Prague Airport, aviation IT specialist SITA has introduced new generation passenger processing infrastructure offering a frictionless digital passenger journey using mobile, self-service and automated solutions.

Passengers can post their facial biometric and journey details, in advance, via their mobile device or at any touchpoint on arrival at the airport. They can then use their facial tokens to seamlessly pass through multiple checkpoints, including manual check-in, self-service check-in, bag drop, restricted access, security, duty-free, and boarding.

The walk-through experience will relieve some of the delays expected at airports as new technologies are aligned with traditional airport systems.

SITA says, during peak time, average passenger processing and waiting times at airports have doubled from what they were pre-crisis – reaching three hours despite travel volumes hovering at around 30% of pre-COVID-19 levels

Qatar Airways in July became the first airline to trial COVID-19 vaccine authentication through the IATA Travel Pass ‘Digital Passport’ Mobile App, a move which it hopes will speed up passengers processing.

Another time-saver: Etihad Airways has extended its Verified To Fly travel document initiative, enabling travellers to validate their Covid-19 travel documents before arriving at the airport.

Airports will also put a bigger focus on health and wellness. Expect a rise in the number of airport medical clinics where travellers – as a matter of routine – will be offered vaccinations and antibody tests before flying.

Airport lounges will also see changes. Already a number of airline lounges are using Priority Pass parent Collinson’s contactless airport lounge experience by partnering with Grab, the airport e-commerce platform, to launch ‘Ready To Order’ at selected lounges, a digital food and beverage ordering solution.

The service allows travellers to use their smartphone or tablet to place orders, which are then delivered to their table or collected from a dedicated collection point.

Other airport initiatives will include artificial intelligence algorithms being used to scan video feeds of passengers in public areas of airports, such as waiting lounges and hallways, and monitor when they are not socially distancing, allowing airport managers to reassess how they direct traffic through certain areas.

Says Todd Handcock, president, Asia-Pacific, Collinson, the Covid-19 travel testing company, “Implementing effective health and safety measures is crucial in helping to raise traveller confidence, and in turn reboot the travel industry.”

“The combination of a cloud platform, mobile self-service, and automated solutions, both on-site and off-site, really can create the seamless passenger flow that the industry needs. Having the passengers in control of their journey helps to build the confidence for them to fly again,” says Patel.

First steps onboard: Plastic wrapped food

Just as airports will be going touchless, airlines are busy convincing their passengers that they are safe to fly in a spotlessly clean, virus-free aircraft.

Tray tables, seat armrests and headrests, seatbelt buckles as well as communal areas such as the galleys, carpets and lavatories will be cleaned with hospital-grade disinfectant and, in some cases, Honeywell’s ultraviolet (UV) cleaning technology.

Food will still be served but individually plastic wrapped to avoid physical contact and some airlines will offer passengers face shields for extra protection.

Fliers will use their personal devices to control the IFE systems, call the attention of the crew, or activate the reading light – all through their mobile device.

Even more intriguing: Airport tech start-up Elenium Automation is working on virtual touchless screen technology that could allow a person to control a seatback screen just by looking at the area they want to select.

Aircraft seating may change, too. According to a McKinsey report, lower business-class demand may warrant smaller business-class cabins. Products may shift to better cater to premium-leisure passengers, such as growth of premium-economy cabins or development of business-class seats more suitable for travelling as couples or groups.

The flip side of that would be higher fares, says McKinsey. “We see a glut of latent demand of people eager to travel. It will take time for airlines to restore capacity, and bottlenecks such as delays in bringing aircraft back to service and crew retraining could lead to a supply–demand gap, resulting in higher short-term prices.”

Additional reporting from Dawit Habtermariam, Business Travel News

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