Contactless travel has arrived: from pandemic experimentation to long-term innovation

Airlines and airports are adopting touchless tech to keep passengers safe and satisfied

By | 6 minute read | May 18, 2021

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A contactless journey begins with the first swipe.

It’s amazing to consider how suddenly busy airports are again, even if the experience is dramatically different from 15 months ago. Yes, it’s face masks and spread-out lines but also scanners and apps and seamless integration galore. And even more is going on behind the scenes.

“For the last five years we were very focused on construction,” said Lynette DuJohn, vice president for innovation and chief information officer at the Vancouver Airport Authority, speaking on a virtual panel at the World Aviation Festival 2021 in late April. “If we had just taken 5 percent of the investment we had made in construction and put it into IT, we would be much further ahead. We have to make that leap from ‘bricks to clicks’ and make the investment in technology to move forward.”

In the airline industry, “bricks to clicks” translates into seamless travel. Pre-pandemic, part of the push for a low-touch, contactless journey was to create a more enjoyable, hassle-free experience for the passenger. It’s been said that the pandemic has brought about years of innovation in a matter of months.

Now, as they start their steady climb to recovery, many airlines and airport operators are considering how to leverage the at times frantic work of the past year into an even more effective and considered approach to a smooth, digitally powered trip.

Dee Waddell, managing director for the Travel and Transportation industry at IBM, shared the panel with DuJohn and echoed her views on the need to expand the work of the past year.

“Every CEO that I speak to agrees about accelerating digital strategies,” Waddell said. “Many of them see this as a gamechanger during COVID-19, to position themselves to take advantage of new digital technologies coming out during the recovery. Every CIO is getting pressure from their CEO to make that happen.”

Just ask one of the top CEOs in the business, United’s Scott Kirby. At IBM’s Think 2021 conference, during a conversation with IBM president Jim Whitehurst, Kirby made a revealing point about his airlines’ investments over the tumultuous last year.

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In the era of contactless travel, the gate will take on a whole new meaning.

“When revenue’s down 99 percent and you’re worried about survival, we basically stopped every investment at the company—except for technology investments,” Kirby explained. “While we thought the COVID crisis was going to be deep and long, much more than anyone else, we always had supreme confidence in the ultimate recovery. And our view was that technology was going to be the road to restructure the airline and create a better customer experience.”

“The most important investments we made,” he continued, “was just the architecture, the infrastructure and having all the data available in a quick and easy format, so that when we want to try something new, it’s quick and easy to go try something new.”

Learning from a challenging year

Kirby is far from alone on the digital tarmac. The transformations taking place across the industry particularly involve replacing manual control processes with smarter digital ones, like QR scanning, near-field communication involving 5G and IoT, biometric facial recognition and thermal scanning technologies.

Using biometrics to create a trusted global identity system requires a consensus and data sharing among airports, airlines and nations. According to IT firm SITA’s Air Transport IT Insights research, airports are investing heavily in biometric technology, with 64% of airports aiming to roll out self-boarding gates using biometric and ID documentation by 2023, three times as many as in 2020. What’s more, airlines have doubled implementations and plan to double investment for self-boarding using biometric and ID documentation by 2023, with 82 percent working on such projects.

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The pandemic has presented many inconveniences to travel, yet carriers hope to keep the best enhancements.

The main challenges associated with automation and biometrics-driven travel are coordinating multiple layers of data ownership, cross-jurisdictional compliance and ensuring everything works in harmony.

For instance, the physical hardware at a border crossing must synchronize seamlessly with identity management systems to avoid frustrating delays or potential security breaches. An integration system is needed that relies on a centrally-hosted technology that can be accessed anywhere with a mobile device and internet connection. Such cross-functionality allows for flexibility with airline and passenger at any point of service.

This seamless compatibility is where cloud technology comes in.

Travel soars through cloud

As airlines and airports look to shift their IT to the cloud for great efficiency and connection, many are looking at hybrid cloud models. A hybrid cloud approach allows most any technology services and tools, whether hosted on private services or public cloud networks operated by outside technology companies, to more easily communicate and operate together. It can also help reduce a company’s carbon footprint, which many airlines are actively pursuing.

Touchless travel has opened up new horizons for airports and airlines.

Istanbul Airport (iGA), one of the busiest airports in the world with an average of 70 million annual passengers in 2019, was already getting ahead of the digital curve before the pandemic. In order for this mega-hub to open in 2018, many new passenger services were required when it transitioned from the existing Istanbul Ataturk Airport.

That’s why iGA turned too IBM to deploy a Hybrid Cloud Integration, which enabled extensive use of app-based solutions for new operations and services. The hybrid approach was especially important to maintaining operations without interruption, since the cloud can more easily support legacy systems while allowing for modernization over. The pandemic slowdown was actually a benefit to this work.

“COVID triggered the implementation of more touchless solutions, achieving what it had to achieve in months, things that would have taken two to three years,” Ersin Inankul, iGA’s chief digital and commercial officer, said on another panel held at the World Aviation Festival 2021.

Contactless travel goes smoother

While the contactless airport journey looks different depending on the airport, most of the time it begins with facial recognition at check-in and baggage drop points. Here passengers scan their boarding passes using their mobile devices. At iGA, for instance, smart cameras capture passengers’ biometric data at check-in, which is then shared at control points such as security, border control, lounges, retail stores and boarding gates. Identification using QR codes enables travelers to enroll just once.

The touchless experience continues beyond security. Baggage fees and other costs can also be handled by scanning the same mobile app with payment information, as well as for food orders and either virtual or in-store shopping. And when they reach the gate, travelers can be individually called to board instead of waiting in long lines, thus enabling the social distancing essential to safety.

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Looking forward to smoother journeys ahead.

“Through taking advantage of different fields of technology, combined with the vision of SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research), at Istanbul Airport we are able to offer our passengers a unique digital journey experience, a better operational capability, while also reducing airport costs,” Kadri Samsunlu, chief executive officer and general manager at iGA, told Airport Business Magazine.

Despite having faced devastating losses topping $370 billion and not seen since the aftermath of 9/11, the airline and airport industry is poised to embrace this travel surge, where US airport trips are up almost 750 percent in May from a year ago. That’s thanks in large part to the investments companies made over the past year to restore confidence and ease travel. Seamless travel will get travelers safely and confidently back into the air, and also serve as a long-term solution that improves efficiency and drives profits.

“As head-spinning as the pace and change has been, it’s also been an incredible source of inspiration and innovation as well,” Charles McKee, senior vice president for the full-service carrier segment at Sabre, said during the World Aviation Festival.