Melissa Moody discovers how regional airports are expected to lead the charge as vaccines are rolled out across the globe and passengers prepare for their first taste of freedom in over a year.

    [This feature first appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Low Cost & Regional Airline Business, which you can read in full here.]

    A year on from country-wide lockdowns imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the rollout of the vaccines means that passengers can start to plan ahead for holidays they were unable to take in 2020. However, the challenges don’t end now.

    “I hope I don’t sound flippant but clearly Covid-19 has been one of the biggest challenges we have ever faced, never mind in the past year, and it is a challenge we are still facing and will continue to face for a few years to come,” says Edinburgh Airport chief executive, Gordon Dewar.

    As international borders remain closed, regional airports and low-cost airlines are expected to be the first to open up as people take to the skies again. To prepare for this, Edinburgh Airport has taken steps to get ready. “There are some things that everybody already knows about, such as the importance of clean hands, the need for social distancing, and the use of face coverings,” Dewar explains. “We have installed sanitising stations, PPE vending machines, distance markers and reminders throughout the airport, on our website and on social media – even on emails to customers.” 

    “We’ve also installed one-way colour-coded walking routes. Passengers arriving at all points of the airport will have to follow a sky-blue line to take them into the check-in hall, while exiting/arriving passengers will follow a maroon line out of the terminal and will be separated from those looking to head out of Edinburgh. 

    “People may think it’s an unnecessary step, but we don’t. It reduces cross over and any potential transmission of the virus, it keeps an orderly flow to things and is very easy for passengers to follow, even if English isn’t their first language. It might be something we keep in place.”

    Touchless technologies 

    Some airports are choosing to take a more technology-based return. According to SITA, the Covid-19 pandemic has refocused IT spending priorities for both airlines and airports. Findings found that there was accelerated investment in automated passenger processing focusing on touchless and mobile services.

    “The industry has turned to technology and, in many cases, reprioritised where they invested in 2020,” explains SITA at Airports and Borders CEO, David Lavorel. “The good news is that airlines and airports were able to capitalise on existing trends to automation and have made significant strides in implementing new solutions that will bring new improvements for the passenger now and into the future.”    

    The report found that biometric technology is a significant focus for investment, with 64 per cent of airports aiming to roll out self-boarding gates using biometric ID documentation by 2023, three times as many as in 2020. 

    Biometrics and technology company IDEMIA believes that regional airports will be more interested in contactless biometric technologies that can be easily and rapidly integrated at check-in and boarding areas. 

    “These devices will play a key role in mitigating hygiene concerns and regaining the confidence of travellers. But these are not just ‘simple touchless technologies’ – they are touchless devices that identify travellers with their biometrics on the move, enabling greater efficiency and a better user experience while respecting their privacy,” an IDEMIA spokesperson explains. 

    The company cites its own experience with Lyon-Saint Exupéry Airport as an example where its programme MONA has been launched, the first travel assistant that uses facial recognition technology. Passengers were able to trial a biometric journey from their home to the plane via an app downloaded onto their smartphone. 

    Once at the airport, passengers use the facial recognition technology to go through the various check points – from luggage drop to boarding (with the exception of border control) – without making any physical contact, simply by showing their face.

    Amongst some of the vast touchless solutions currently being offered, the use of smartphones is considered a keystone by the industry. At the kiosk, by creating a mirror image of information presented on the screen, travellers can use their smartphone to interact at distance with the airport/airline’s touchpoint. There is no need to touch the actual screens. 

    Even passports could be digitalised so that they can be securely stored and used through the traveller’s smartphone with at least the same level of security and interoperability as the physical document. This is called Digital Travel Credentials (DTC).

    Be prepared 

    Although technologies are advancing, one of the biggest challenges going forward, says Dewar, is the lack of agreed travel protocols globally. 

    “There is not yet an agreed position on what travel protocols should be adopted to make it easier for people to follow,” he explains. “The best example I can give is the security process that every airport in the world follows – we all know about the 100ml limit on liquids, and we follow that limit no matter if we are in Edinburgh Airport, Dubai, San Francisco or Shetland. We need something similar for Covid protocols.”

    An IDEMIA spokesperson adds that additional health checks coupled with an ultra-contactless biometric experience is key to enabling the air transportation industry to regain the confidence of travellers.

    Getting back into the skies seems a priority for many. Dewar emphasises that it’s not just about people going on holiday; instead, travel helps with business, bringing investors into areas like Scotland and connecting families. 

    “To minimise travel to just holidays fails to convey the services and international connections that we bring to Scotland’s economy and the thousands of jobs that depend upon it, and ultimately downplays its importance to the country’s recovery.

    “We don’t want any work to detract from the crucial job of fighting the virus and we think a recovery strategy should be planned separately so that work can carry on unhindered. But we have to get started or we will face more issues going forward,” he concludes.