Airlines and airports are redefining the air travel experience with touchless and integrated technologies, seen as key to aviation’s revival and enabling a safe return to the skies for travellers.
Imagine walking through airport security gates to the departure hall and boarding your flight without ever using your passport or plane ticket. There is no waiting in line at long, snaking queues at checkpoints. Instead, your identity is verified through facial biometrics as you glide through the terminal.
Such is poised to be the reality in the post-pandemic world, where automation and biometrics will reshape air travel. Airports, airlines and regulatory authorities are working to redefine the air passenger experience by harnessing touchless and automated solutions that will reduce bottlenecks and ensure traveller safety.
As the aviation industry starts to rebuild following the pandemic, SITA has played a key role in supporting governments, airports and airlines in the recovery process by delivering frictionless passenger processing through technology and automation.
SITA earlier this year rolled out Health Protect, an industry-wide solution that allows passengers to safely and securely share Covid-19 test results or vaccination history with airlines, airports and governments.
The technology can seamlessly integrate with multiple travel pass or health passport schemes, bridging the gap between these schemes and aviation and border processes.
By incorporating Advance Passenger Processing, the solution enables authorities to make an informed decision on whether a passenger can travel ahead of check-in, improving the safety of all passengers and avoiding costly return flights.
Since last November, the Australian government has used SITA technology to enable travellers to supply digital contact and journey information, and complete an electronic health declaration in advance of travel.
Biometric boarding takes off
While the deployment of smart solutions like biometric technologies has been well underway at international airports in recent years, its ability to facilitate a more touchless travel experience has fast-tracked its adoption in the pandemic’s wake.
According to SITA’s 2020 Air Transport IT Insights report, while airlines and airports have significantly curtailed their spending, touchless technology remains a high investment priority between now and 2023.
SITA has seen some of its biggest high-technology rollouts in the past two years, as it helps turn touchless passenger journeys into a reality for airports in Asia-Pacific such as Beijing Capital International Airport (BCIA) and Sydney Airport.
In what it calls its “most extensive biometric deployment to date”, SITA has outfitted BCIA with its Smart Path facial recognition solution to create a fully contactless experience for passengers at the world’s second busiest airport.
The technology allows passengers to enrol once during check-in, and then use their biometric ID across multiple touchpoints, with their face as a boarding pass.
BCIA’s deployment included the installation of over 600 biometric checkpoints across the airport, comprising 250 lanes of automatic gates, 80 kiosks, 30 self-bag drop stations to process passengers from international flights, and more.
Smart Path has been activated across multiple checkpoints at BCIA including manual check-in, self-service check-in, bag drop, security and boarding. The technology can significantly speed up passenger flows, processing over 400 passengers boarding an aircraft in under 20 minutes.
Improved efficiency means shorter queues that help maintain social distancing. The process also minimises physical contact, reducing the risk of Covid-19 transmission.
Similarly, Sydney Airport has deployed SITA technology to support its post-Covid recovery. Through a five-year technology deal signed with SITA in March, Sydney Airport will gain 600 common-use touchpoints across its two terminals to enable a smarter passenger experience and operational efficiency for the airport.
SITA Flex, one of the technologies being employed at the airport, is a mobile-enabled, common-use platform that facilitates contactless passenger processing through cloud technology.
The solution also includes SITA Bag Message, doing away with the need for multiple baggage system interfaces between airlines and airports. The hub-and-spoke solution eliminates the cost of implementing multiple airline interfaces to connect to airport baggage system vendors. SITA provides similar services to five of the largest seven airports in the Australia Pacific region.
In July, SITA sealed a partnership with Japanese technology firm NEC Corporation to develop digital identity solutions that enable a walk-through experience at airports, leveraging NEC’s I:Delight identity management platform together with SITA Smart Path and SITA Flex.
The partnership will allow passengers to use their biometric digital identity on their mobile phone at every step of their travel journey by simply scanning their face.
Although technology investments can add agility to an airport’s operations, the significant costs involved in deployment might stand in the way of greater adoption, especially with the pandemic pushing many airports into the red.
In this regard, for airports looking to automate operations, SITA is not looking at “reinventing the wheel” but rather implementing a “hybrid solution” that builds on the current system, SITA president Asia-Pacific, Sumesh Patel, noted during an online media roundtable organised by the company.
For instance, SITA Smart Path can be easily integrated with existing airport and airline infrastructure.
“So, if (the airport) has a check-in counter, we just augment that with an additional facial camera, so (passengers) can have a walk-through experience. And (the airport) doesn’t need to build or…buy hundreds of new kiosks,” said Patel.
He added that even if airports can only automate 50 per cent of their processes, it would still make a difference in terms of improving their operational efficiency and reducing costs in the long run.
Airlines joining the fray
As touchless technology takes off, airlines like Etihad Airways and AirAsia are also boarding the digital bandwagon.
Since September, AirAsia has made self-check-in mandatory for all guests via the AirAsia Super App, an all-in-one app that allows guests to manage their entire travel journey – from flight and hotel bookings, check-in, and health document verification through to boarding and inflight services onboard.
The Malaysian airline has also partnered with analytics company GrayMatter to deploy an AI-based technology solution, dubbed Scan2Fly, that allows passengers to upload their relevant health documentation during online self-check-in for real-time verification of their eligibility to fly before heading to the airport. The system has been deployed on routes from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, Surabaya and Jakarta.
AirAsia has also collaborated with Vision-Box to deploy several enhancements, including automated bag drop services; roving technology for temperature checks; and biometric facial recognition technology FACES (Fast Airport Clearance Experience System).
Japan’s airlines are also using facial recognition technology to streamline passenger processing. Since July, Japan’s two major airlines, All Nippon Airways and Japan Airways, have implemented Face Express, a new boarding procedure using facial recognition technology developed by Narita International Airport Corporation and Tokyo International Airport Terminal.
Upon registering a photo of their face at the airport’s automatic check-in machine, passengers can proceed with boarding procedures without presenting their boarding ticket or passport.
Meanwhile, Qatar Airways is set to become the first global airline to bring the touchless experience to its in-flight entertainment system across its Airbus A350 fleet.
The zero-touch technology, introduced in partnership with the Thales AVANT IFE system, will enable passengers to pair their personal electronic devices with their seatback IFE screen by connecting to Wi-Fi and scanning a QR code on the screen.
They can then use their devices to choose from more than 4,000 options on offer through the airline’s Oryx One in-flight entertainment system, limiting the frequency of onboard surface contact and providing greater peace of mind during the journey.