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Using technology to help reboot aviation in a COVID-19 world


COVID-19 is massively affecting airfields around the world and of every size, from the mega-hub airports to tiny airfields on Scottish islands and (potentially even) urban air mobility terminals.

Demand for passenger aviation had been growing consistently year-on-year, but passenger numbers are currently reduced by over 90%. This year the situation is likely to remain exceptional, with extremely low capacity, and adopting a “one size fits all” approach that assumes everyone has a high risk of catching or transmitting  COVID-19.

This affects passengers and staff alike; it applies from the moment they exit their front door to sitting in their aircraft seat, and back again.

How can technology – but not technology alone – help aviation recover, by rebuilding confidence and capacity, and reducing COVID-19 transmission risk?

Understand the passenger, personalise the journey
Let’s assume airlines and airports survive the economic implications of the current lockdown so aircraft are actually flying, and people have an acceptable reason to fly. We’re going to need much better information about who passengers are, where they are (individually and collectively), how healthy they are, where they’re headed and when; all sensitive personal data that needs handling accordingly.

Journeys will need to be “smoothed out” in terms of both location and time, reducing bottlenecks in areas such as security, boarding and immigration. This will make best use of the limited available terminal capacity, determined by modelling the terminal and surrounding areas.

Specific practical implications include the need for individuals to be able to demonstrate their COVID-19 risk status, to practise social distancing, and to minimise the need to touch shared infrastructure.

Who are you and how are you feeling?
Potential sources of COVID-19 health data could include a vaccination certificate, a health service test result, an in-terminal Elevated Body Temperature camera, a home testing kit and questions answered using a smartphone app.

Most of these aren’t yet widely available but will become so as medical understanding advances. Each one can contribute to an overall, combined single risk level, accessible via a standardised interface, and applicable to an individual journey.

As a traveller, how do I assert my identity to show that this aggregated health data relates to me personally? The majority of such comparisons – passport checks, for example – are still performed manually by in-terminal staff. Humans are excellent at comparing some of these characteristics (faces and voices), for people we know, occasionally.

Using biometric algorithms to compare inherent physical characteristics of individual human beings is now common in daily life and starting to increase in aviation; many of these transactions could be performed on smartphones.

Machines perform consistently over large numbers of these comparisons and don’t get bored, tired or distracted – and can automate the process, leaving humans to deal with exception cases.

Beyond arm’s length?
Strict implementation of the “two-metre rule” on an aircraft has to be relaxed; it’s virtually impossible and economically impractical (requiring below 10% seat occupancy).

In an interview with the Press Association news agency, John Holland-Kaye, CEO of Heathrow Airport, recently said: “The constraint is not about how many people you can fit on a plane, it will be how many people you can get through an airport safely. It’s just physically impossible to socially distance with any volume of passengers in an airport.”

In the terminal, technology solutions supporting social distancing may range from the manual (staff counting passengers with a “clicker” and halting widely-spaced queues when a given area is “full”), through automated versions of queue counting and accurate geolocation of individual passenger locations, up to biometric identification of individuals.

A typical passenger walking through an airport terminal would normally touch hundreds of objects. Exchanging documents, using a payment card, pressing buttons and touchscreens, as well as touching handrails, furniture, taps and suchlike.

A recent Atkins study suggests this number of touches can be reduced by at least 60%, by allowing passengers to interact with existing fixed infrastructure (such as kiosks) using a smartphone, reducing the short-term need for gloves, styluses and screen protectors.

Technology: necessary but not sufficient
Many existing technology “building blocks” can be used to help the aviation industry recover without taking undue health risks.

These components can be combined in innovative new ways to not only rebuild airport terminal capacity, but also to accelerate pre-COVID-19 initiatives such as linking the off-airport, in-terminal and on-aircraft aspects of passenger journeys more seamlessly.

New opportunities for further automation, personalisation, collaboration and standardisation of these journeys can be delivered. Smartphones can underpin many of the required aspects, gathering data and sharing information during a personalised, contactless and low-risk journey.

Since the roadmap for dealing with COVID-19 is not entirely clear at this relatively early stage, systems need to be flexible, scalable and easily configurable.

Processes must evolve along with the technology, and appropriate levels of data security and data protection must be baked in. And there’s a key dependency on continued advances in the underlying medical science eventually “defeating” COVID-19.

• Author, Andy McCue-Brown is a principal consultant with Atkins, a global professional services and project management company with over 50 years’ experience in the aviation industry.

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