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Collins Aerospace’s Tony Chapman considers how the mobile phone will help make the touchless airport a reality within the next few years.

The novel coronavirus pandemic brought with it a new set of challenges for commercial aviation that will likely take years to overcome. Worldwide, air passenger volumes are not expected to fully recover to 2019 levels until at least 2024, according to a recent report by IATA. With this downturn, came a spotlight on seamless, touchless technology.

A survey commissioned by Collins Aerospace found that passengers have three primary requests of airports and airlines in the age of COVID – to feel safe, stay informed and minimise interactions.

To meet these expectations, airports and airlines must give passengers more control over their travel experience from the moment they book a flight to the moment they arrive at their destination.

The key to this control is not a new invention – but rather a cell phone. By taking full advantage of mobile phone technology, airports and airlines can literally put the power of tailored travel into the hands of each passenger.

While some airlines already provide apps for booking, flight notifications, check-in and boarding, apps could be expanded to assist with just about every action a passenger might take before, during and after the flight.

How it could work?

Let’s walk through how this process could work in the future. Passenger X decides to travel from New York City to Paris. As she books her flight, she confirms her identity with the airline by uploading a photo of herself along with her passport. Through a biometric identity management system such as Collins’ SelfPass, for example, this imagery is compared to existing images in secure government databases and verified.

Verification enables airlines to know exactly who she is throughout her journey. When Passenger X arrives at the airport, she walks to a SelfPass check-in kiosk where she is immediately identified through a biometric facial scan, something that’s not currently possible.

The kiosk has the option of a touch-screen interface, but Passenger X opts to use her mobile device instead. A simple scan of a bar code on the self-service kiosk with her mobile phone camera gives her a Wi-Fi connection to the device and she is able to complete the check in process without touching anything but her own phone.

Her check in process may include a rapid health screening of her temperature and other key physiological biomarkers, such as respiratory rate, from sensors built into the biometric camera.

She screens as ‘normal’, so she is cleared to proceed. She then moves to the self-service baggage station to drop her bags, again using her biometric identity that allows her to drop her luggage on the belt and move ahead.

With bags checked, she proceeds to security. She receives a text notification indicating the time she will go through the security process. There are no lines, just an area where people are seated – socially distanced – as they wait for their appointments.

When her phone notifies her that her appointment time has arrived, she moves quickly through security. By looping the TSA into future developments, there could be no need to pull out her passport or other documents – her SelfPass ID is the only identification she needs.

Next stop, the duty free shop. Passenger X wants to pick up some gifts for her friends in Paris. After collecting several items, she simply walks up to a SelfPass camera linked to a point-of-sale device and exits the shop. No need to stop at a cashier station or dig through her purse for a credit card or cash. The credit card tied to her biometric ID automatically covers her purchases.

After that, she moves on to the airline lounge. Again, using her biometric single token identification, she gains access and orders a pre-flight snack. As she waits inside the lounge, the app tracks her flight and reminds her through text notifications when it’s time to go
to the gate.

As a SelfPass flyer, Passenger X is able to use the special self-service boarding gate. There is no need to show documents, interact with an attendant or even pull out her phone. A quick facial scan confirms her identity and allows her to pass through the gate.

Once onboard, she uses her phone to connect to the aircraft’s Wi-Fi and chooses from a menu of apps that allow her to control her in-flight experience.

She can select her meal, snacks and beverages, access entertainment, arrange for ground transportation to her hotel, participate in a work-related online meeting, do some onboard shopping, make adjustments to her seat, and control the seat lighting and air vent – all with strong, clear, uninterrupted communications from her phone.

The possibilities are endless. Consider in the future apps that enable even more capabilities like Passenger X receiving a text letting her know her arrival gate and providing a map to baggage claim.

That same app tells her which airport restrooms are immediately available and how busy they are. Thanks to sensors that count the number of people that enter and exit the various restrooms, she can choose one along her route that is the least crowded.

Or, as she heads toward baggage claim, she receives another text alerting her that her bags will be on the carousel in two minutes. She picks up her bags – which have been tracked and tied to her through her SelfPass enrollment – and exits the airport to her waiting car service.

Today and looking forward, Passenger X will be able to manage every touchpoint of her journey through her mobile device and a secure single-token biometric identification, making the entire experience more seamless more personalised and virtually contact-free.

The world is transformed in the wake of the pandemic. For the air travel industry, that transformation is profound and ongoing. The innovations described here, along with many other new ideas spawned by the pandemic, will be refined, developed and incorporated into the commercial aviation ecosystem, bringing huge improvements to the way the world travels.

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