From biometric check-ins to security checks by appointment, various ways are under consideration to deal with the coronavirus at airports.
What does the novel coronavirus need to keep spreading? Plenty of people, crammed spaces, proximity and perhaps a bit of oversight. Airports and airlines meet all those requirements.
When thousands of people from different countries or cities are converging at one place, the job of maintaining social distancing becomes a daunting challenge.
The fact that many of the Covid-19 patients don’t show any symptoms make the job of aviation officials to fight the pathogen even more difficult.
Air travel has come to a near halt with jets being grounded and airlines going belly up under the weight of financial difficulties. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) says passenger traffic dropped more than 50 percent in March.
The biggest worry for the aviation industry is to find a way to restore the confidence of the travellers who have a lot to worry about - from someone's sneeze or cough to a maskless traveller sitting nearby. There will be elevator buttons and stair rails that people will hesitate to touch. And toddlers will be toddlers. They'll run around, touching walls and the floor.
To face this new reality, changes are being considered at multiple levels.
Say bye to farewells
At the airports, people can expect to see a major alteration in their travelling experience.
The most apparent change is going to be a restriction on non-fliers from coming to the airports. Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen airport, which is set to reopen for domestic flights from May 28, has already barred relatives from accompanying passengers.
This isn’t unprecedented as civil aviation authorities have adopted similar restrictions in the past in the wake of a terrorist threat. The Jinnah International Airport in Karachi has in the past barred more than one person from accompanying a passenger - much to the annoyance of people who feel it's part of their culture to have a large group of relatives dropping them off at the departure gate.
Visibility is everything
At most of the airports, passengers will be obligated to wear masks and in some cases even gloves. For their part, airport authorities will spend considerable resources on cleaning premises.
Experts say that visibility of sanitisation measures is key to boosting the confidence of travellers in a way similar to how security arrangements were tightened after the 9/11 attacks.
Airports in Pittsburg and Hong Kong are already using robots to sanitise the premises and Istanbul Airport is placing special mats to clean shoes.
While airports are already using thermal scanners to weed out people with high fever, airport staff will likely take the body temperature with hand-held devices to let people know that necessary measures are being taken.
Some issues with privacy
Among the suggestions that are being considered to fasttrack the normalisation process is something called the ‘immunity passport’ which will basically be a doctor’s report saying that a person has recovered from the virus.
"We need a vaccine, an immunity passport or an effective Covid-19 test that can be administered at scale,” IATA Director General and CEO Alexandre de Juniac said recently.
Quick coronavirus tests at the airports are in active consideration. Xpresspa, which sells massage and manicure services at international airports, has hired a haematology and oncology specialist as its chief medical officer to lead its coronavirus testing business.
But compulsory blood tests of arriving passengers as are being done in Hong Kong and Vienna can cause uneasiness among people who are not comfortable with sharing their personal information.
Concerns over privacy are a major hurdle for universal application of face recognition technology that can help reduce time from airport terminal to the aircraft gate.
Speeding it up
For the airlines, a shorter turnaround time of an aircraft is key to success. After a plane lands, airlines try to complete everything - disembark passengers, clean and refuel it and fill it again - as quickly as possible.
The quicker a jet can be put into the air, the more it is used and hence more revenue. But now with increased focus on cleanliness, airline staff will have to spend more time cleaning and sanitising a plane’s interior.
Another big issue involves the usual crowding at security checks. Different ideas are being floated to deal with the situation. Some are suggesting that parking spaces at the airport could be turned into one-stop for everything - check-in and security clearance.
Another suggestion is that passengers take appointments and show up for the security check on the allocated time to avoid overcrowding.
Some experts say that all biometric check-ins will become common and passengers will tag their bags and drop them at the check-in counters themselves without any interaction with airline or airport staff.