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ACI World director general, Luis Felipe de Oliveira, reflects on new technologies and revolutionising the airport experience after COVID-19.

Despite the current challenges, airports are examining all aspects of their operations as they seek to recover from the impact of the current crisis, foster confidence in air travel, and reassure passengers that health and safety is their number one priority.

The crisis and its impacts on the aviation activity have brought into sharp focus the need for systems and processes that are ready to cope with the challenges in the facilitation of passengers and baggage.

In turn, this brings an urgency to put available technology to use, to provide this flexibility and unlock the full benefits which are achieved with global co-ordination rather than isolated approaches.

A tech revolution in the aviation industry was already in motion before the pandemic. But the medical and material demands of COVID-19 have brought urgency and velocity to the race to make passenger air travel safer.

The industry is already taking a lead in many areas that can assist in addressing public health-related issues, managing queues and crowds, and optimising use of resources by adopting automation, advanced technologies, facilitating data exchange, and embracing digital solutions such as biometric recognition technology.

Many airports have already turned to touchless kiosks or virtual or mobile processing to replace traditional check-in and bag drop functions. With the advancement of ICAO’s Digital Travel Credential work, we expect to see rapid growth in digital identity over the coming years, 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. This is a key element of “going touchless” and will also improve airport efficiency and customer experience.

Behind the scenes, artificial intelligence (AI) is being used more and more to ensure that crowding of spaces is avoided. Examples of this are new approaches to boarding, load balancing between security checkpoints, and airport management information to give early warning of potential peaks and issues.

Although investment in autonomous systems and robotics may be on the back-burner for now, we also anticipate more automation to enhance the safety of staff.

ACI’s own Smart Security Programme promotes concepts and solutions that take a risk-based approach, increase efficiency, and enhance the passenger experience, while also ensuring secure airport operations.

The vision includes innovations such as artificial intelligence and the increasing use of big data and stand-off detection.

These innovations that promote a more touchless, seamless approach to airport security screening – which has become an even more important objective during the current pandemic – have the potential to radically transform the way that passengers and baggage are screened.

While Smart Security’s Vision 2040 explores several long-term trends affecting aviation and airports, it also takes full account of the present context of the economic and operational recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, and the industry’s increased focus on health and cleanliness.

New Experience Travel Technologies (NEXTT) – ACI’s joint initiative IATA – is all about creating a shared vision for the future of travel, using technology to increase airport efficiency and provide another level of personalisation to the passenger experience.

Advancement of off-airport processing activities, improving customer experience and efficiency with advanced processing, and increasing touchless interactions between passengers, airlines, and airports with access to trusted real-time data remain the emerging concepts of NEXTT.

These concepts, which improve customer convenience and reduce time spent on processes, are also playing a critical role in supporting the restart of the industry when new health risk mitigations must be accommodated.

There are numbers of areas where significant opportunities exist within the control of national authorities to encourage innovation, such as enabling faster clearance of the majority of passengers, promoting adoption of automated and electronic processing for customs and border control processes and simplifying inspection points throughout the passenger journey reducing physical contact along the way.

The coronavirus crisis may actually offer a catalyst for change, to foster greater innovation and the regulatory change needed to support it.

More than ever, governments, airports, airlines and suppliers will need to work together to speed the necessary changes to accommodate passengers’ needs, restoring public confidence and providing secure measures to countries and their citizens.

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